On 16 June, International Domestic Workers’ Day, a delegation of undocumented domestic workers led their first-ever strike in Brussels, Belgium, to protest the exploitation they endure daily, and demand decent working conditions and regularisation.
Domestic workers, mostly women, work for families that are not their own, they look after children, grandparents and others in need of care, and make homes clean. They sometimes ensure food is in the fridge, and even ready to eat. Their jobs, despite being essential to many households and the care sector overall, are difficult, devalued, and underpaid. Domestic and care work is also structured around stereotypes of who is supposed to carry out such devalued work: this results in women, migrant women and women of colour bearing the brunt of the failures to properly regulate and ensure decent work in the sector.
In Belgium, it is estimated that around 80.000 domestic workers live and work in an irregular situation. Without a declared contract and with almost no possibility to regularise their status, they are particularly exposed to abuse and exploitation from their employers. Many have to be available 24 hours a day and are paid between 3 and 10 euros an hour. Their employers don’t pay their due social contributions, so undocumented domestic workers have no access to social protection.
Determined to defend their rights, several dozen undocumented domestic workers have been organising for the past four years within the League of Domestic Workers of the Belgian trade union Confédération des Syndicats chrétiens (CSC), with the support of the Mouvement Ouvrier Chrétien. As part of this self-organising, they have organised exhibitions, produced a documentary, mobilised other care workers, and met with politicians.
Through this strike, undocumented domestic workers demand the recognition of their work, and the right to live and work in dignity, both for them and their documented colleagues. For themselves and other people in precarious situations, in particular, they demand a decent work permit and the regularisation of their status, so they can access a salary, stable working hours and social protection like any other worker. In addition, they ask that they be protected in case they wish to report abuse at work to the authorities, and have access to training.
One of the coordinators of the strike, Eva Maria Jimenez Lamas of trade union CSC, also highlighted that in many cases undocumented domestic workers have spearheaded the fight for the regularisation – and clear and inclusive regularisation criteria – for all undocumented people.
Messages of solidarity came in during the strike from various groups and movements from countries as diverse as France, India, Spain and Switzerland. Despite the different contexts and experiences, all groups underlined how it is necessary to join forces to fight exploitation across sectors and countries.
This point was very much highlighted by the strikers too: despite them working in the domestic work and care sectors, they recognise that other workers – for instance in cleaning, hospitality (hotels, restaurants and cafes, and catering), documented or not – face very similar struggles for decent working conditions and that only by building coalitions can change be achieved.