For 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.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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