The original article has been published on LeMonde.fr in French and translated into English by Jordyn Pfalzgraf.
On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the adoption of Convention 189 by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for decent work for domestic workers and Recommendation 201 that supplements it, we, members of organizations, labor unions, researchers, feminists, (former) domestic workers, unite to remind France that the protection of domestic workers is an ineluctable step for the advancement of women at work.
80% are women
Domestic work is a direct result of liberal politics that cause poverty, in an absence of public services—notably linked to child care and assistance to individuals—as well as a lack of access to work—that is formal, stable, and non-precarious—for women. It corresponds to work completed for private accounts. As a result of the sexual division of labor that exists in our societies, this work disproportionately falls on women, as if they were “naturally” more inclined towards household tasks—which goes against what we wish to uphold of course! Among at least 67 million domestic workers in the world, that is to say those who perform such tasks outside of their own homes or for an employer, 80% are women. Domestic labor impacts children as well, as 11.5 million girls 5-17 years of age work in this domain.
Despite the fact that these many millions of workers play a major role in increasing the participation of women in the workforce—for lack of policies that would reduce unpaid labor imposed upon women—and that enable many to receive care, these women workers remain relatively unprotected, marginalized and suffer discrimination, violence, or are even exploited or sequestered. Few consider their plight, and their invisibility—inexorably tied to the private sphere in which they exercise their functions—does not work in their favor. The persistent lack of respect on the part of the representatives of public administration these workers depend on for information and orientation concerning their rights is particularly revolting. “Au pairing is not work,” we are told, for example, which only adds to the denigrating posture of forced submission that serves to reinforce the uneasiness and isolation these workers often feel. Thus, overwork, lack of rest, violence of all kinds, harassment, a lack of a base pay, isolation, discrimination, both in their workplace and within society as a whole comprise their daily struggle.
Around the world, 90% of these female workers are excluded from health care coverage, 30% in France, where they often earn less than minimum wage. One of us received 100 euros of “pocket money” per week, based on a contract of 30 hours of work a week, or 3.33 euros for every hour worked. This pay base was justified by “compensations” in the form of room and board, but in reality, the conditions or actuality of such compensations are not subject to any sort of verification.
Working hours can easily reach 45 hours a week, without any pay for the hours worked over the legal limits. These illegal and deplorable situations are explained by the fact that the working conditions escape regulations and the applicable laws relative to the Labor Code. The concerned households—most often financially well-off—that recruit these workers enjoy systemic “laxism” of authorities, which enables them to break the law consistently without any fear of repercussions whatsoever.
A large number of domestic workers are migrants, who also suffer the structural racism of our societies. Taking advantage of the manifold vulnerability these workers must confront daily—based on gender, skin color, origin, and class among others—trafficking networks exploit them, through recruitment agencies of migrant domestic workers or diplomatic services that benefit from legal immunity.
The domestic work sector is thus one of the most deeply implicated in forced labor. In certain countries, notably Lebanon or the monarchies of the Gulf Province, the captivity of domestic workers is reinforced by the system of Kafala, which puts the worker in a situation of illegality if she leaves her employer, thereby increasing her vulnerability at work and in her personal life. This system also allows employers to limit the freedom of movement of workers, by means of confiscation of passport, important documents, and forced isolation.
We can no longer tolerate the indifference of public offices, administrative bodies, and of French civil society with respect to this situation. Multitudes of us benefit from the work of domestic laborers, notably in order to reconcile our professional and private lives, faced with an inegalitarian system that invisibilizes and perpetuates an unpaid form of additional work for women. But we who support domestic workers are still so few in number to join their fight for decent work—with essential liberties and rights to worker's unions, association and collective bargaining—and against violence. At the moment when social movements mobilize again for both worker's rights and women's rights in unity, we can no longer ignore the obstacles specific to domestic workers.
Only when migrants are integrated, workers protected and violence against women and girls eliminated, will the entire world, without gender discrimination, be granted full exercise of their working rights and will all women, without social, economic, or ethnic discrimination, have full access to their rights. These principles are not new and were expressed in Convention 189 and its Recommendation 201 five years ago today. What are we waiting for to put them into practice? What are we waiting for in order to take into account the revindications that allow for the advancement of the rights of all women at work? And most of all, what is keepingFrance from joining the 22 other countries that have ratified Convention 189? We will stay mobilized until all domestic workers, in France and beyond, are respected!
Tribune signed by the following, among others: Zita Cabais-Obra, Secretary General of CFDT Child Care and Assistance of Individuals Workers Union Ile de France, Sylvie Fofana, Secretary General of National Union of Child Care Providers / UNSA-SNAP/SPE, Mégane Ghorbani, Women's Rights Project Manager at Peuples Solidaires– ActionAid France, Jeanine Kingue Awono, President of Friends of Humanitarian Child Care Providers, Jordyn Pfalzgraf, Militant, feminist, language teacher and former domestic worker, Serge Weber, Geography Professor at Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée.