The fine line between unpaid care work and domestic servitude

“There is a fine line between unpaid care work, domestic work and domestic servitude. Depending on the circumstances, an individual in a legitimate employment relationship to do domestic work may in fact be in domestic servitude, and in many situations unpaid care work is domestic servitude, which is a form of modern slavery'.” 

The UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of slavery, Urmila Bhoola, made this statement when she spoke to us about her mandate at the Global Care Advocacy workshop in January.  The workshop was organised by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development, the Institute of Development Studies and ActionAid. In many ways this single sentence captures the essence of our discussions over those two days in Bangkok.

Too often society romanticises care work – billboards and TV ads show happy women who love to cook for their happy families in their modern kitchens.  Sadly, this is the reality for only a privileged few.  All those activities that go towards caring for someone else like cooking and cleaning or changing a baby’s diapers and looking after an elderly person is care work. It can be paid work, as in the case of domestic workers, or unpaid care work when it is done in our own homes.  It is the conditions under which care work is done, be it paid or unpaid, that can make it comparable to domestic servitude.

At the workshop we heard from migrant domestic workers’ organisations that organise to help domestic workers escape abusive working conditions.  Migrant domestic workers’ passports are often confiscated by their employers and they are indebted to the recruitment agencies who found positions for them overseas – they are literally trapped in their employers’ homes.  Even though they earn a salary, surely this is domestic servitude.

And what of the many young women who are forced to marry and now must take care of their children, husband and parents-in-law.  They walk two hours every day to collect water, work in their family’s fields and have no money of their own.  If they break their marriage contract they are destitute and outcasts. If they respect their marriage contract, then they accept domestic servitude.

Women make up 83 per cent of domestic workers around the world. Across all countries women do more unpaid care work than men. In India, women on average spend over five hours a day on housework, while men spend 24 minutes. Not surprisingly then, women are amongst the poorest and most marginalised – women in paid work on average earn between 10 and 46 percent less than men. 

Our economies depend on the exploitation of women’s care work – paid and unpaid. Care work is not valued for two key reasons – first, it is seen as unskilled work done by women as an extension of their natural roles as mothers, wives and daughters. Second, women’s earnings are considered secondary to men’s earnings, based on the stereotype that women are always supported by a man, whether he is their husband or father – it is men, not women, who are the primary breadwinners so women can afford to earn less.   Our governments allow employers to pay domestic workers next to nothing for their labour. Today, only 17 countries have ratified the ILO Convention 189 on Domestic Work – across the world domestic work is rarely recognised in national labour codes.  

Governments actively and consciously de-value care work when they choose to privatise basic services, deregulate labour and liberalise their economies.  The poorest and most marginalised women who cannot afford to pay healthcare fees will take care of the sick at home. While wealthier women and men will pay low wages for migrant domestic workers  to meet their families’ care needs.  In the end it is the women at the bottom who continue to meet the care needs of those at the top, while their rights to healthcare, social protection and decent work are systematically denied.  Governments cannot profess to support gender equality on the one hand, and continue to adopt these policies that enslave the poorest and most marginalised women in care work – paid or unpaid.

As the organisations gathered at this workshop we discussed the opportunity that this year – 2015 – brings us to challenge and reform this broken and unjust system. We talked of how care is part of a broader development justice agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals offer the possibility to demand that governments recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work through greater provision of quality public services.  The Secretary General’s report talked of a living wage which would make a tremendous difference to domestic workers’ earnings, alongside the realisation of the full decent work agenda.  Finally, these negotiations in 2015 must bring governments closer to adopting and financing universal social protection.  

Today the world is buzzing about inequality – but few are talking about the unequal way in which care work is distributed in our societies and the far too many women who tread the fine line between unpaid care work, domestic work and domestic servitude.

Date published: 
04/02/2015