Domesticated wages

HRW2For over 60 years, the International Labour Organization has been trying to set an international standard for domestic workers. Overwhelmingly female, often migratory, and typically racialised, these are the workers who raise the children of wealthy families, look after the disabled and the elderly in their homes, work as drivers, gardeners and live-in cleaners. And at the moment, there is no international standard setting minimum conditions for these vulnerable and hardworking people.

Those in the ‘caring’ occupations make up the majority, and this in itself makes the setting of international standards problematic.

Firstly, there are issues around time. For most employee/employer relationships, there is a time in the day when you clock on and a point at the other end when you clock off. There is a distinction between what is the employee’s time, and what is the employer’s. But for domestic workers, if a baby cries in the middle of the night, it’s the employee who gets out of bed.

One of the employer responses heard by the ILO when researching the issues was, ‘If I was looking after my child, I would have to get up in the night; and so, the worker is employed to look after my child, they should do it’. The concern with this is the ideological gap between domestic work and domestic life. An employee should have regulated hours, and a guarantee of free time, and that this is a key difference between being, say, a nanny and a mother. A mother is a mother for 24 hours a day; a nanny should only be a nanny when they are clocked on. It’s this control over time that separates domestic work from domestic slavery.

The ILO is proposing certain standards that nations who ratify the standard would need to abide by, including such basic things as a private bedroom for the worker that has adequate ventilation and furnishings. Bread and butter stuff. But in the halls of the ILO, there is a worry that even such basics would be considered too much for less industrialised nations to sign up to. Domestic workers globally, particularly those who migrate to work, often suffer ill-treatment from their employers. We’ve all seen the photos of workers who have been beaten, have heard of their passports being confiscated, and of them being imprisoned in the home. It is because these workers suffer from such a lack of regulation that the ILO is striving for a standard. But a standard is not the whole answer of course; ultimately, the shift needs to be cultural. Not only does there need to be a shift in how domestic work is valued, there needs to be a shift in how domestic workers themselves organise. There is some organisation within the domestic worker community, but it’s a small pocket of collectivity. They’re been asking for such a cultural shift for years.

Last week I heard Professor Adelle Blackett speak on the ILO’s attempt to set decent work standards for domestic workers. An expert in the field, and someone who has been directly involved in the drafting of the standard, she asked the audience why Australia was not a signatory to the standard. She wondered if it might be that we think it’s not an issue here; there’s such a mass of regulation for workers and employers in Australia that there is a perception that no one slips through the cracks.

An audience member rose concerns about disability workers in Australia: constantly on call, constantly dipping between work hours and their own hours. She noted that the minimum shift provision in the modern community services award was one hour. A disabled person living in their own home may only require help here and there; an hour in the morning to dress and shower, an hour mid-morning to prepare some food, an hour in the afternoon to prepare for taxi ride, an hour in the evening to eat and get into bed. A worker in this industry could spend a whole day popping in and out of their workplace, travelling to and fro, but only be paid for a handful of those hours. Her concern was that we are now at a point where our concern is almost solely for the dignity of the disabled or elderly client, and there is little concern for the dignity of the worker.

Professor Blackett told a story about research conducted in the US into a generation of African American domestic workers and their caring duties. Researchers expected to hear that these workers thought their work dirty or degraded, but were surprised to find ambivalence. If we are putting our family members in the hands of others, are we not concerned about such ambivalence?

The ILO convenes later this year to vote on the implementation of the standard. The world’s domestic workers will watch and wait, as they’ve been doing for years, and we should all watch and wait with them. Because, aside from the economic reality that domestic workers are market enabling, it is not rational that work in a domestic environment should be valued less than work outside the home, or that these people should be considered lesser because of it.

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  1. Thanks Isy, definitely something we don’t talk about enough in Australia – clearly, if we’re not even a signatory to the standard.

    Though I thought the organisation of domestic labour workers in the States was growing, especially through the work of orgs like Domestic Workers United. Anyway, embedding this clip because Christine Yvette Lewis is awesome:

    • Jack, thanks for the clip. It’s definitely exciting news that there are people in the US working towards collective action for these workers. I had assumed that, in an economy so dependent on migrant workers without visas, there may be a higher incidence of domestic workers who would like to organise but might be afraid of the consequences if they identified themselves.

  2. Isy, thanks for writing so thoughtfully on a really important issue. My comment is slightly off topic but I’ll make it anyway.

    Last year when attending a conference I was put up at a pretty nice hotel – one I wouldn’t have been able to afford if paying myself. There were a couple of reminders in my room that if I cared about the environment I wouldn’t get linen and towels etc. laundered daily.

    Next morning I checked with the lady cleaning my room who spoke little English about what it would mean if I didn’t want daily room service and she told me it meant she wouldn’t get paid her tiny pittance per room.

    So, a hotel with international reputation and making enormous profits, made the staff pay for their client’s green credentials.

    Not nearly as terrible as the story you tell but in Australia we have reason to hang our heads, too. And that’s before we talk about women enslaved in brothels in cool places like Collingwood and Fitzroy. And then there’s the poor buggers working in hospitality (my son one of them) working as casuals with no access to all most of us take for granted.

    It’s a while ago but I’ve worked in aged care and disability – the work is killing, the hours long and the wages appalling. But you can’t help caring terribly for the people you tend to because if you don’t no-one else (read govt.) will.

    • Thanks Trish – your story is an important reminder of the impact of our choices as consumers, from the ladies in the hotel you speak of, to the staff at the checkout at Coles who have lost their shifts to the self-service checkouts…

  3. Thanks for the post Isy. I was in Singapore, probably 8 years ago now and visiting domestic violence shelters. To my surprise they were full of domestic workers, mostly from Indonesia, who had been abused in catastrophic ways including having been burnt, thrown from balconies, starved and raped to mention some. The nuns that took these young women in reported of lesser abuses such as lack of food, inadequate facilities and no on/off hours as you have mentioned in your post, as being almost routine. They were also trying to lobby the authorities in Singapore to crack down on regulations in regard to the hiring of these workers and on the follow-up of crimes that had been perpetrated against the woman. It was a dismally difficult topic to take up with the government and so, as you have suggested, it is vital that countries like Australia get on board with basic regulatory bodies.

  4. A timely post Isy. I’ve just seen this Amnesty International campaign to protect domestic wokers in Indonesia from exploitation.


    They say that “More than 2.6 million workers are employed in private homes in Indonesia – some as young as 12 years of age. But there is no legislation protecting their rights at work. As such, they have little or no annual leave, sick leave or maternity leave.”

  5. Pingback: Women, what’s your labour worth? « Overland literary journal

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