“I worked 15-hour days, 7 days a week” – Why caring about domestic and care workers is vital for us all

Photo ©Mercedes Miletti. Filipino migrant domestic worker vacuum cleaning her employer’s house in Brussels.

Domestic and care work are key sectors of labour markets across Europe but among the least recognised, whether childcare, cleaning or caring for the elderly. Domestic workers, particularly those who are undocumented migrants, often carry out these vital jobs without proper pay, holidays or any possibility to report exploitation and abuse. Their status leaves them unable to access the same rights as other workers and leaves them at greater risk of exploitation, violence and abuse.

Figures from across Europe show the prevalence of migrants, largely women, in the domestic work and care work sectors, and their particular vulnerability to exploitation. In Ireland, for example, a survey of 500 undocumented migrant workers revealed that 30% of them were employed in private homes as domestic workers, the majority caring for elderly people*. In a survey of 400 female migrants carrying out domestic work in the Czech Republic, 53% said they did not have any employment contract**.

Describing her experience as a domestic worker in the Czech Republic, Natalia said: “My ex-employers thought hiring a Ukrainian woman means that I would sweat my guts out. I wasn’t allowed to take any time off, they did not comply with the employment agreement. When I wanted to complain they answered that I as a Ukrainian should be happy to live in ‘civilisation’. If I lost the job I would be in big trouble. I would at least have to find another one quickly. If I didn’t find it I would lose my residence permit.”

With an ageing population and ever busier lives, Europeans are set to rely more on domestic and care workers in the years to come. Meeting the current and increasing demand will create an estimated 2.8 million jobs for personal care workers by 2025***. It is therefore high time the EU and member states agreed some rules and regulations to ensure that we do not meet our care needs through the exploitation of migrant workers.

These problems – and their solutions – were discussed by policymakers and other actors from across the domestic and care work sector at a roundtable in the European Parliament in Brussels on 17 October.

Michele LeVoy, Director of PICUM, explained: “As people across Europe increasingly turn to migrants or undocumented workers to look after their children, clean their houses or care for their elderly, it is time for some rules to promote services that meet everyone’s needs. This means enforcing labour standards for all workers, and making it easier for migrants to arrive in Europe through regular channels and for those already working to regularise their situation.”

A recent court ruling in Ireland suggests that there is hope. Sultana worked as a domestic worker for two and a half years in Ireland, looking after three children, cooking, cleaning and ironing. She worked 15 hour days, seven days a week, and was only paid €150 a month. The only time off she got was when she was eating – she never had a day off, she did not have permission to leave the house and had no access to a phone. Her employers never secured a work permit and she remained undocumented. Sultana said that if she complained, the couple threatened the police would come and get her. With the help of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, she took a complaint against her employer to the labour tribunal. In June, she was awarded €67,794.

The roundtable was organised by PICUM, together with COFACE Families Europe, EASPD (the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities), Eurocarers and UNI Europa gathering policymakers, representatives of employers, trade unions and other civil society experts to discuss how the EU and member states can better regulate the sector to ensure better conditions for all workers. There was a broad spectrum of support for the policy recommendations discussed, as necessary to achieve both decent work for workers, and quality and affordable services for individuals and families.


Policy recommendations

  • Implement legislation that allows people to come to Europe to work to provide personal household services, including as cleaners or care givers for children, elderly people or people with disabilities. Delink work permits from one particular job or employer and offer the possibility to change the type of permit and status in a particular country.
  • Implement mechanisms for those currently working in the sector to regularise their status.
  • Invest in the domestic and care work sector to support individuals and families to have access to affordable domestic and care services, while meeting the real costs of the services.
  • Ensure that labour standards, including health and safety and social protection, as well as the right to non-discrimination and equal treatment, apply to the domestic and care sector, and that human rights and labour standards apply to all workers, regardless of migration/residence or employment status. This must include a ‘firewall’, a clear separation, between labour authorities and immigration enforcement to ensure that complaints and redress mechanisms are accessible and effective.
  • At EU level, the European Commission is evaluating the EU regular migration framework. The domestic/care sector is a gap that should be highlighted in the evaluation report.





*See Migrant Rights Centre Ireland’s survey data from 2020: “Live here, work here, belong here. A survey of over 1,000 undocumented people in Ireland

**SIMI (Sdružení pro integraci a migraci/Association for Integration and Migration): “The situation of migrant women on the Czech market of domestic work ”.

***Skills Panorama: “Personal care workers: skills, opportunities and challenges

What migrant domestic workers say:

Migrant domestic worker in Ireland, who takes part in the Migrant Right Centre Ireland’s (MRCI) Domestic Workers Action Group:

I’m minding other children, I cannot mind my own child and this is the hardest part of my life.”

Maria came to Germany several years ago trying to provide for her two children and husband in the Philippines. She was employed as domestic worker by a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates who repeatedly raped her while she worked in his household. He is also the father of her daughter Hanna, who was born in Germany, but he never recognised paternity and has not been held accountable for rape as his diplomatic immunity protected him from being prosecuted while in Germany. Maria was left undocumented when she fell pregnant and could no longer work, so Hanna was born undocumented. Hanna’s father meanwhile returned to the United Arab Emirates.

Francia and Jacqueline have been working for over a decade in private households while raising their children in the Netherlands without being able to regularise their status. Most recently, they received notifications to be deported.

Francia said:

Criminalising domestic work is the biggest injustice that you can imagine. Saying, if you work you get punished and if you dont work, you are useless for society.”

Jacqueline stated:

All the support we receive in our situation touches us. We thank all who are with us in these moments. It helps us not to give up but to continue fighting. We don’t just see the situation of one person but say to ourselves: it is better to do this jointly. The more people fight for the same thing, the bigger the support, the more power we have.”

What stakeholders say:

Luk Zelderloo, Secretary General, EASPD:

Good working conditions for care workers are a cornerstone of high-quality support services. It is, therefore, essential that we guarantee equal rights and good working conditions to migrant workers working in the social care sector.”

Natalie Swan, Policy Officer, UNI europa:

Migrant and domestic care workers can be hard to reach and the often hidden; the highly valuable job they do goes unrecognised. We, as trade unions, want to work more closely with community organisations to identify migrant and domestic workers and to help empower them to call for decent work.”

Annemie Drieskens, President COFACE Families Europe:

Economic migration is not a new phenomenon but little attention is paid to the impact that the migration process of women has on the whole family. Migration, including economic migration of women who leave their family behind and move to become carers in a new country, has huge impact on their family and especially on children left behind. This can lead to a care drain in the countries of origin. Under the economic pressure, more and more women move to become care workers abroad and become the family breadwinners. We need to think how to support those migrant workers in the EU and consider the consequences of this phenomenon on families.”

Claire Champeix, Policy Officer, Eurocarers:

Developing qualitative and affordable community-based health and care services are essential elements of a people-centred approach to care, but they will not deliver quality unless they offer workers a good work environment, including proper work contracts, adequate pay, training and support. Today in our societies, caring is poorly valued. Acknowledging the value of care, recognising that it is an essential part of the implementation of the integrated care approach promoted by the WHO, is the first step on which to build sustainable care systems, based on the social rights of informal carers, migrants care workers and dependent persons.”

Related Posts