By Maya Stern Plaza, International Labour Organization (ILO)
The overwhelming majority (94 per cent) of domestic workers do not enjoy social protection. This means that 71 million of the world’s 75.6 million domestic workers are unprotected, despite their vital contribution to society, supporting households with their most personal human care needs. Domestic workers face multiple barriers to enjoying legal coverage and effective access to the full range of social protection . Given that more than three quarters of domestic workers are women, such social protection gaps leave women particularly vulnerable.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made glaringly apparent the social protection coverage gaps experienced by domestic workers (ILO, 2021a). They were among the worst-hit during the pandemic, with many losing their jobs and livelihoods. Many of those who kept their jobs were often exposed to the disease with insufficient protective equipment. However, domestic workers could rarely rely on adequate health protection, sickness or unemployment benefits, further exposing their vulnerability and income insecurity.
The new ILO report Making the right to social security a reality for domestic workers: A global review of policy trends, statistics and extension strategies indicates that while the challenges of ensuring social protection coverage of domestic workers are substantial, they are not insurmountable. This requires the right political will and the adaption of social protection systems and schemes in ways that are perfectly attainable now.
This new report seeks to give a systematic overview of the state of social protection in the domestic work sector globally and to compile and disseminate international best practice for extending social protection to domestic workers based on country-level experience. It also sets out the international normative framework that provides a highly relevant policy framework for ensuring the decent work of domestic workers. This includes the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and Recommendation, 2011 (No. 201), as well as the Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202) and Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102).
Seven key messages capture the overall policy observations and recommendations of the report.
1. Domestic workers experience significant social security deficits
About half of domestic workers have no legal coverage at all, while the remaining half are legally covered for at least one benefit. Legal coverage is not consistent across all life-cycle risks. If they are covered at all, domestic workers tend to be covered for old-age, disability and survivors’ benefits and medical care, and to a slightly lesser degree for maternity benefits and sickness benefits. Most of them do not have access to benefits under social insurance schemes in relation to unemployment or employment injury. As a result, only 6 per cent of domestic workers worldwide are legally covered in the event of all nine life cycle risks set out in Convention No. 102.
The report also highlights major differences between regions. In Europe and Central Asia, 57.3 per cent of domestic workers are legally covered for all benefits. A little more than 10 per cent have such a right in the Americas; almost none are fully covered in the Arab States, Asia and the Pacific and Africa; this is of acute concern as these are regions hosting some of the largest employing countries of domestic workers and where the deficits are most profoundly concentrated.
The extension of effective coverage has lagged significantly behind that of legal coverage. Only one in five domestic workers is covered in practice with most of them being employed informally. In other words, 82 per cent of all domestic workers are not registered with social insurance institutions and their employers are not paying contributions on their behalf. The report emphasises that in comparison to other employees, domestic workers are nearly two times less likely to be covered under social insurance mechanisms in practice.
2. Domestic workers face multiple barriers to enjoying legal coverage and effective access to social security
Societies continue to place a low social and economic value on domestic work, not least because it is considered unskilled and an extension of women's unpaid care work. The undervaluation and under-recognition of domestic workers must change to reflect their invaluable role in supporting households, economies and societies. In particular, the multiple barriers standing in the way of domestic workers access to social protection’, including their legal exclusion, will need to be overcome: administrative barriers; limited contributory capacities; lack of enforcement of, and low compliance with, labour and social security laws; lack of information and awareness; and their limited voice representation (ILO, 2021b). The additional barriers experienced by certain categories of domestic workers, notably migrant domestic workers, will also need to be tackled.
3. Ensuring that domestic workers enjoy treatment at least as favourable as other workers should be the beacon of national policy and legal reforms
Policies and legal frameworks should ensure that all domestic workers, in all types of employment, enjoy access to social security in a manner not less favourable than those applicable to workers generally, in line with ILO Convention No. 189. Legal reforms should address legal exclusion in labour and social security laws alike, including by recognizing the existence of the employment relationship and removing excessively exclusionary thresholds, and account for the particularities of employment situations. This also means that inclusive approaches that extend existing schemes to domestic workers should be favoured over solutions that isolate them under special schemes.
4. Improved governance and adapted administrative procedures will be essential
For legal coverage to translate into effective social security coverage, it is crucial that legal reforms are accompanied by customized and simplified administrative procedures. Simplified, innovative and digital solutions for registration and contribution payments that address limited contributory and administrative capacities will be essential. Well governed and empowered institutions that build trust, awareness and ownership, while ensuring transparency and accountability, will be central to the effective and sustained extension of social protection systems to domestic workers. Inspection and complaint and appeal mechanisms will need to be strengthened; sound institutional capacities will need to be built; and awareness and capacity-building of domestic workers, their employers, their representatives’ organizations and other stakeholders will need to increase (ILO, 2021b).
5. Social protection extension in practice will require solidarity in financing
It is no secret that social protection gaps in general are associated with significant under-investment in social protection systems. To close protection gaps for all and especially vulnerable groups, efforts to close the financing gap should progressively secure domestic resources, and if and when necessary, supplement this with international support. Solidarity in financing can be achieved through collective financing, broad risk-pooling and subsidization from the government budget as a means to ensure that all domestic workers can access social protection when they need it. Financing modalities will also have to be adapted to the contributory and administrative capacities of domestic workers and their employers.
6. A participatory and integrated policy approach is needed
The representatives of domestic workers and their employers, as well as other relevant stakeholders, should participate in the formulation and implementation of extension strategies to ensure that reforms are attenuated to the realities of all domestic workers. Extension strategies that successfully realize domestic workers’ human right to social security will require coordination with other social, employment and economic interventions. These include formalization strategies; legislation and policies on wages, working hours and occupational health and safety; active labour market policies; and the promotion of social dialogue, notably through improved organization and representation, as well as care policies, among others.
7. Social protection has great potential for improving decent work deficits and achieving global commitments
Given the important gaps in coverage, realizing domestic workers’ labour and social security rights is essential for improving their situation and enabling their transition from the informal to the formal economy (ILO, 2021c). This requires political will, legal reforms and strengthened institutions. Governments will need to escalate their efforts and deploy a whole-of-government approach by addressing decent work deficits through comprehensive and coordinated national policies and strategies that combine the insights of all relevant stakeholders. Extension strategies should be conceived within the overall aim of establishing universal, comprehensive and sustainable national social protection systems for all persons and in response to all contingencies in line with international social security standards and principles (ILO, 2021d). The coverage of domestic workers will be necessary for ensuring universal social protection; a commitment agreed by governments, workers and employers at the International Labour Conference in 2021, in the Global Call to Action for a Human-centred Recovery from the COVID-19 Crisis, and which is also reflected in the UN Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection for Just Transitions. In advancing such policies and reforms, Governments will also be on track to realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Domestic work is among the oldest of occupations and has been described as the fastest-growing area of employment. It is therefore high time for societies to recognize domestic workers’ contribution to society, the care economy and the wider economy – without which these would all cease to function – and enable them to enjoy their human right to social security. With this new report, the ILO hopes that policymakers, representatives of domestic workers and their employers, as well as other relevant stakeholders, will have the guidance needed to redress the striking social protection deficits experienced by domestic workers worldwide and transform work that is of such tremendous intrinsic value finally into decent work.
- ILO. 2022. Impact of the COVID-19 crisis on loss of jobs and hours among domestic workers. Accessible at: https://socialprotection.org/discover/publications/impact-covid-19-crisis-loss-jobs-and-hours-among-domestic-workers
- ILO. 2021a. Making Decent Work a Reality for Domestic Workers: Progress and Prospects Ten Years after the Adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189). Accessible at: https://socialprotection.org/discover/publications/making-decent-work-reality-domestic-workers-progress-and-prospects-ten-years
- ILO. 2021b. Extending Social Security to Domestic Workers: Lessons from International Experience. Social Protection Spotlight. Accessible at: https://socialprotection.org/discover/publications/extending-social-security-domestic-workers-lessons-international-experience
- ILO. 2021c. Extending Social Security Coverage to Workers in the Informal Economy: Lessons from International Experience. Accessible at: https://www.social-protection.org/gimi/RessourcePDF.action?id=55728
- ILO. 2021d. World Social Protection Report 2020–22: Social Protection at the Crossroads – in Pursuit of a Better Future. Accessible at: https://socialprotection.org/discover/publications/world-social-protection-report-2020-22-social-protection-crossroads-%E2%80%93-pursuit
- WIEGO and IDWF. 2018. Your Toolkit on ILO Convention C189 — The Domestic Workers' Convention. WIEGO. Accessible at : https://www.wiego.org/resources/DWToolkit
 covering medical care, sickness, unemployment, old age, employment injury, family, maternity, invalidity and survivors’ benefits