Beyond regulation: Reducing domestic workers’ vulnerability through economic empowerment

Source: Economic Policy Institute 

Efforts to promote decent work for domestic workers have traditionally focused on expanding legal protections and formalization. A complementary approach to reduce their vulnerability consists in fostering the economic empowerment of domestic workers, by strengthening their bargaining power with current employers, promoting better mobility within the industry, and expanding their options to work in adjacent industries outside of private homes. Hence, more efforts are needed to provide active employment support that tackles domestic workers’ barriers to upward mobility, such as economic dependency, limited skills and networks, and informal hiring practicess.

By Chloë Haynes and Kevin Hempel | September 2023

The authors would like to thank Claire Hobden (ILO) and Raquel Rojas Scheffer (Free University of Berlin) for providing valuable insights on this topic.

76 million people globally are involved in the domestic work sector. Domestic workers provide vital services such as childcare, elder care, housecleaning, cooking, gardening and much more. Despite domestic workers’ importance to the global economy, 81 percent of domestic work is informal. This means that it is largely unregulated by the state or other entities, and since most domestic work takes place inside the home and away from the public eye, domestic workers are rendered particularly vulnerable. Indeed, the exploitation of domestic workers is a common concern, with many workers being subjected to low wages and even wage theft, long hours, abuse and/or assault, and, in the case of migrant domestic workers, passport withholding.

In response, research and policy dialogue across the world has focused on regulatory changes that could be implemented to address these issues. For instance, efforts have been made to grant workers better rights within social security laws (e.g., regarding minimum wage, work hours, paid annual leave) and formalize domestic work (e.g., by simplifying procedures, providing incentives to employers, and fostering compliance through stronger labor inspectorates). This emphasis on regulatory improvements is also reflected in the ILO’s latest strategy to achieve decent work for domestic workers.

While these regulatory efforts are undoubtedly needed, they are not enough. Despite some progress made over the past decade in closing legal and implementation gaps, the majority of domestic workers will continue to remain informal in the foreseeable future. Even as regulatory improvements take effect, the enforcement of protections for domestic workers will continue to be a challenge in practice due to the “private sphere” nature of the work. It simply is very difficult to enforce regulations for work that takes place inside a household.

Therefore, it is important to shed light on what can be done outside of the regulatory space to reduce vulnerabilities for domestic workers. In this article, we focus on fostering the economic empowerment of domestic workers as a complementary avenue to promote decent work.

The Labor Market for Domestic Work

Domestic workers include housecleaners, nannies, home health aides, gardeners, cooks, and other roles. Existing research on domestic work recognizes this labor, but data breaking down the different roles of workers around the world is scarce, and domestic workers are often referred to as a singular category. This makes adequately assessing the labor market for each role a difficult task.

Demand for domestic workers

Domestic work is unique in that the employers are not businesses or governments, but private households. Whether or not a household chooses to hire a domestic worker largely depends on cultural traditions, the socioeconomic status of the employer, and the cost of domestic labor in a particular country or region. High levels of inequality increase the prevalence of domestic work. Wealthier households employ a disproportionally higher share of domestic workers than non-wealthy households. 

Regionally, overall demand for domestic workers is lowest in countries that invest heavily in care policies, such as the Nordic states and many other countries in Europe. Demand is highest in the Arab States and Latin America, with domestic work accounting for 12.3 percent of total employment in the Arab States and 5.1 percent of total employment in Latin America. Essentially, domestic workers fill the gaps in private households that governments are not providing publicly. Demand for domestic workers will likely continue to grow in light of aging populations, growing care needs, and continuous workforce supply.

Assessing which type of domestic worker households look for is difficult to generalize, and varies based on the country and household income levels. For example, in the United States, care workers (childcare and home health aides) outnumber house cleaners, while on a global scale most domestic workers are cleaners and helpers. Depending on relative income, some households employ just one domestic worker to perform tasks across multiple areas (cleaning, childcare etc.), while others employ a different person for each role. The skills that employers look for also vary by country. Essentially, demand for domestic work is very heterogeneous and should not be generalized.

Supply of domestic workers

Domestic work remains a largely female-dominated profession, with over 76 percent of domestic workers being women. The gendered aspect contributes to the informality of the sector, as many people do not perceive domestic work as “real work” because tasks such as cooking, cleaning and childcare are traditionally associated with women’s work. While women predominantly work as cleaners and helpers, men are engaged in a wide range of activities, including as drivers, security guards and gardeners.

Education levels vary among domestic workers. Globally, around half have a secondary level of education, but they are more likely than non-domestic workers to only have a primary education or to have no education at all. Most domestic workers come from low-income backgrounds, which is another reason for the below-average education rate. Around 17 percent of all domestic workers are international migrants, though in some regions their share can be significantly higher. In addition, many domestic workers tend to be internal migrants from rural areas – often from marginalized ethic groups. Poverty, language barriers, lack of local knowledge and networks, discrimination, and limited of access to public services render migrant domestic workers (both international and internal) particularly vulnerable.

Channels to Reduce Vulnerability

Reducing vulnerability and improving working conditions of domestic workers can happen through multiple channels. This includes both vertical mobility into higher paying and higher responsibility positions, as well as horizontal mobility to a similar job with a different employer. Below we highlight three main avenues to promote economic mobility and reduce vulnerability for domestic workers (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Channels to promote economic mobility for domestic workers

 1) Upgrading to better working conditions with the current employer(s). The first channel to reduce vulnerability relates to improving domestic workers’ employment situation with the employer(s) they already have. This typically includes taking on additional (and potentially higher skill) tasks/roles within the household, and to bargain with employers for better working conditions, such as higher pay and better hours.

2) Providing domestic workers with more freedom of choice between employers. The second important source to reduce vulnerability is to make it easier for domestic workers to identify suitable employers and to leave a work situation that is unfavorable or exploitative. By having more and better options, domestic workers naturally gain more bargaining power and have better chances of being in a “quality” job.

3) Expanding workers’ options beyond private domestic work. Third, domestic workers’ opportunities can be further broadened by transitioning out of domestic work into (potentially more formal) work in the private or public sector. Indeed, the tasks carried out and the skills used by domestic workers are often similar to other occupations in adjacent industries, such as cleaning personnel in hotels or care work in the education or health sector. Leveraging existing skills and experiences can therefore open opportunities with additional types of employers.

Barriers to Economic Mobility

If we are interested in reducing the vulnerability of domestic workers, we need to understand what prevents them from quitting jobs with unfavorable or exploitative working conditions and finding more suitable employment. Hence, recognizing common barriers to advancement for domestic workers is important in rectifying them and providing workers with more opportunities. Common barriers include:


    • Economic dependency: Since domestic workers often come from low-income groups to begin with, have low wages, and do not benefit from social security benefits such as unemployment insurance due to widespread informality, domestic workers often do not have a financial cushion that allows them to leave an undesirable job without having a new one. In essence, they may not be able to afford to stay unemployed for long, hence giving them limited flexibility to search for better jobs. Economic dependency is particularly severe for live-in domestic workers who only have one employer, contrary to other domestic workers who typically have a portfolio of households they work with, and who can more easily afford to leave one of them. Moreover, live-in domestic workers face the added barrier of losing their housing if they choose to leave. For migrant workers this issue is particularly salient.
    • Lack of education and/or training for specific positions: Most jobs in the domestic work sector do not require high levels of education or training, and they can often be the “easiest job to get into.” That said, the lack of the right skills can still be a barrier for domestic workers. For instance, poor workers may not know how to use modern appliances found in upper-class homes such as washing machines or Smart TVs. Similarly, a house cleaner may want to take on childcare responsibilities but may lack desirable vocational skills such as first aid and basics in children’s health and nutrition. Upward mobility to other jobs within the hospitality and care sectors is also limited by the scarcity of certified skills training programs. Moreover, domestic workers often not just lack some useful technical skills, but also transversal skills such as the ability to effectively communicate and negotiate with the employer. For migrant workers, limited language skills can be an additional impediment. Many domestic workers also face time constraints to engage in further education or training, especially when they have young children.
    • Limited networks: In any industry, having a broad professional network increases opportunities for advancement. As domestic work takes place within private homes, many domestic workers find themselves particularly isolated and lack this network. This is especially true for live-in workers, who may not even have the time and opportunity to meet with other potential employers. Moreover, migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to isolation as they have limited roots in the city or country they are working in and may struggle to find networks or domestic worker collectives that would be helpful in finding other opportunities. This implies that many workers may find themselves stuck in an unfavorable employment situation.
    • Informal hiring practices: Hiring of domestic workers depends heavily on word-of-mouth, and households often rely on friends and colleagues’ recommendations to identify new workers. This makes it very difficult for domestic workers to identify opportunities. While social media and online platforms have added new avenues to learn about existing opportunities, limited access to information continues to complicate the job search process. Moreover, since there is typically no formal recruitment process, many unspoken and non-transparent elements can influence the hiring decision, such as likability, discrimination, etc.
    • Emotional household ties: Domestic work, especially care work, is not just economic. Domestic workers often develop emotional attachments to the families they are caring for, especially when there are children involved. This makes leaving more difficult, even when they are not being fairly paid or face difficult working conditions.

Intervention areas

Now that we have identified barriers to advancement and possible channels to reduce vulnerability, how can we achieve these goals? What type of interventions have been tried across the globe to support the economic empowerment of domestic workers?

    • Targeted skills training programs for domestic workers that vary by type of job. The domestic work industry is diverse, and different roles require different skills. Traditionally, however, many training programs did not sufficiently distinguish between different roles and specializations within domestic work and lacked emphasis on transversal skills. Skills trainings must therefore include both vocational skills tailored to the specific role, such as CPR training for direct care workers or technological trainings for domestic cleaners, as well as soft skills such as communication, organization and negotiation skills. Depending on the profile of workers, strengthening basic and financial literacy may also be warranted. For instance, in an effort to formalize and professionalize the domestic work sector, Argentina implemented free vocational training programs for domestic workers. Course participants reported feeling better-organized in their workload and more confident in their ability to find upskilling opportunities. Similarly, the ILO reports that in countries where certified skills training programs and other mechanisms to professionalize domestic work are implemented, workers have more “occupational mobility within the hospitality sector.” In practice, skills training programs may need to go hand in hand with the development of national or regional competency standards for domestic work.
    • Job matching and placement assistance. Supporting the intermediation of workers with potential employers is another important area of intervention. There has been an increase in different types of intermediary organizations over the years (e.g., private recruitment and employment agencies, worker cooperatives, digital platforms), though their impact on working conditions can be ambiguous. One promising strategy is to integrate matching support directly within the training programs. In this scenario, training centers (run by domestic workers’ unions or public sector) can act as intermediary and point of hire for household employers who are then asked to sign a contract with employment terms and conditions that are in line with labor laws. Such arrangements reduce domestic workers’ search costs and improve their bargaining positions with employers, thus making it easier to establish fair working conditions.
    • Strengthen networks and access to domestic worker collectives. While domestic workers are vulnerable to isolation, there are already many networks and organizations available to them for support and community. The International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) is a membership-based international domestic workers’ organization that works to advance workers’ rights across the globe, with affiliates around the world in the form of trade unions, associations, and workers’ cooperatives. Other organizations exist on a more regional scale such as Confederación Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Trabajadoras del Hogar (CONLACTRAHO) in Latin America and the National Domestic Workers Alliance in the United States. While most existing organizations focus on fighting for domestic workers’ rights, these networks can also help domestic workers connect with each other to find opportunities for advancement. These opportunities can be strengthened through creating dedicated initiatives within these organizations. For example, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India is a trade union for self-employed women that also promotes full employment, self-reliance, and skills training to improve opportunities for working women. Supporting domestic workers collectives in strengthening these programs will empower members and broaden their employment options. In many cases, establishing simple, low-cost channels for communication and exchange (e.g., through social media) might already be quite helpful to improve access to information and support.

Takeaways and Way Forward

While domestic work is less visible than other economic sectors, it represents an important source of employment for millions of people across the globe. Governments and development agencies must therefore continue working towards better opportunities and working conditions in the sector, especially in regions where a significant share of the labor force are domestic workers, such as in many countries in the Middle East and Latin America.

1. Strategies to foster decent work for domestic workers should look beyond regulatory changes and consider economic empowerment as a complementary approach. As informality in domestic work will likely remain high for the foreseeable future despite formalization efforts, strategies to promote decent work for domestic workers should not be limited to regulatory changes and social dialogue, but must also include practical interventions to tackle domestic workers’ barriers to economic mobility, such as economic dependency, limited skills and networks, and lack of information about available jobs. 

2. Expand research to better understand domestic work, in particular from the employer perspective (labor demand). There continue to be multiple knowledge gaps around domestic work. For instance, current research tends to refer to domestic workers as one singular category, which ignores differences between status and/or pay between various occupations. This makes it difficult to explore potential pathways for upward mobility within the sector (e.g., from cleaner to care worker). Moreover, we need to better understand employer needs and perspectives. However, despite some good examples (e.g., studies on India and Jordan), research on employers is much more limited than research on workers.

Closing these knowledge gaps is key to inform what type of services are needed to advance opportunities for domestic workers. For instance, better data would be useful on the following dimensions of domestic work:

  • In general: Is there a hierarchy within domestic work in a given country, i.e., are there differences in pay and working conditions across different types of domestic work?
  • Employers: Who are they (e.g., level of household income); what type of needs do they have (e.g., tasks, time schedules, etc.); how do they look for workers; what worker characteristics do they value; which specific skills do they look for in different roles; what is the preferred contractual relationship; and would they be willing to pay extra for an employee who has certain skills or experiences?
  • Workers: How do they find work; what criteria matter in accepting a job; what type of tasks are performed; what networks do they have; what information channels do they use; etc.?

 3. Invest in active employment support measures. Based on a clear understanding of employer needs (by households and adjacent industries), governments, NGOs and development agencies can test demand-driven, tailored skills training approaches that have the potential to upgrade domestic workers’ status and bargaining power with their employer and/or broaden their opportunities outside of domestic work. Existing international experience suggests that soft skills such as communication, negotiation, and interpersonal skills should be an integral part of such trainings. In the case of helping domestic workers transition to other industries, training programs need to be based on proper certifications that are recognized by the respective industries.

Besides training, more work is needed to test successful approaches in giving domestic workers better information about available opportunities and offering matching support, as well as to strengthen domestic workers’ networks. Innovative approaches to mitigate severe economic dependencies should also be tested, such as emergency housing and/or emergency cash transfers to leave abusive working conditions (similar to efforts helping victims of domestic violence).

Domestic workers collectives’ organizations can play a key role in these efforts. While many of them tend to be focused on advocacy efforts and fighting for workers’ rights, there is an opportunity to broaden their mandates and get them engaged in strengthening the economic empowerment of domestic workers as well. 

4. Build the evidence base. When active employment support measures are tested and implemented, they must incorporate robust Monitoring and Evaluation. Indeed, more quality research is needed to assess how effective skills training programs, job matching, and other support mechanisms are in securing higher wages and better working conditions. So far, existing research is largely limited to qualitative studies (e.g., in Argentina), while rigorous evaluations of economic empowerment programs for domestic workers are lacking. Going forward, better quantitative evidence can contribute to increased investments in these types of initiatives. 

5. Foster engagement by the international community. Contrary to other economic sectors, it is noteworthy that few international development agencies are actively focusing on domestic work (when they do, it is usually limited to a migration angle). The ILO is clearly the exception, leading research and policy dialogue in this space. In terms of promoting the economic empowerment of domestic workers, there is definitely room for other development agencies to play a bigger role, especially those whose strategies include components on economic empowerment of women and who already have experience in labor market integration programming, such as demand-driven skills training and related interventions.



About the authors:

Chloë Haynes is a second-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a Research Analyst with Prospera Consulting. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

Kevin Hempel is the Founder and Managing Director of Prospera Consulting, a boutique consulting firm working towards stronger policies and programs to facilitate the labor market integration of disadvantaged groups. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.