Labour Market and Private households

Rights, Equality, Solidarity, Power - European Cooperation Today
Great Britain

Cleaning, looking after children, nursing old people, ironing, washing, taking care of the pets, washing the car - and in most cases, all at the same time - paid housework in most European countries is mainly done by female migrants from non-European states. Especially for women without residence permit, jobs in private households are the only chance to earn their living. Although the organisation of women, who often work in isolation and have no rights of their own, is rather difficult, in many large European cities you will find self-help groups and support organisations which fight for the rights of housekeepers, amongst other things. The Philippino community is the best organised, with a wide range of housekeeper groups all over Europe. [back to top]

Rights, Equality, Solidarity, Power - European Cooperation Today
For the last year, a European network of migrant domestic workers has existed. The network RESPECT was founded on 3./4. October 1998 at a conference in Athens. Amongst the supporting organisations, self-organised domestic workers, such as the Communidad Dominicana en Catalunya, or KASAPI, a Philippino migrant organisation in Athens (see list of addresses below) are also among their members. It is the goal of RESPECT that domestic workers exchange information about their situation, their organisation and their political strategies in different European countries and that they act in unison all over Europe. Various meetings have taken place on European as well as national levels. In the year 2000, the European meeting is to take place in Germany. The contact address is IN VIA in Berlin (see below). At the moment, RESPECT is working out a summary of international legal fundamentals, in the form of a charter in the interests of domestic workers, as well as a manual of practical advice. Furthermore, they have written a newsletter, to be found here. [back to top]

Great Britain
A foundation member of RESPECT is the London support group Kalayaan, which has defended the rights of domestic workers in Great Britain for ten years now, in close exchange with the self-help group Waling-Waling; in the meantime with some success. Kalayaan succeeded in 1998 in ensuring that the residence permit of a domestic worker does not depend on work in a single household, but that it applies independently of a specific place.
It was a result of the prior regulation that domestics found themselves extremely dependent on employers and often had to endure physical and mental abuse, being left without food or pay, unless they fled and worked without a residence permit for other employers.
In the course of their work, Kalayaan reported 4000 cases of mistreatment of domestic workers. In a campaign, executed with the help of the church, trade unions and solidarity organisations, they succeeded in making the Labour Party promise to change the laws before the last election, and also stand by it after the elections. At present, Kalayaan is working on handing in requests for thousands of domestics who have worked without legal documents for periods between a few weeks up to 14 years as "overstayers" and who could be legalised under new regulations. However, the process of case-by-case examination is complicated and at the moment they are having negotiations about which papers the domestic workers have to hand in and which ones may be replaced by a legal affirmation. [back to top]

The subject of "regularization" also preoccupies the RESPECT groups in other countries. At a meeting in Athens, the participants protested against the bureaucracy of the present initiative of the Greek government, in principle to allocate residence titles for a number of years. Here, as in other sectors, the requirements - like the evidence of a stable employer-employee relationship and the remittance of social insurance through the employer - turned out to be an insuperable impediment - in particular for those persons working in private households.
Nearly all domestics in Greece work without residence permits. The largest groups are Philippinas, and Polish, Albanian and Ethiopian women - in the last few years, there have been many newcomers from Sri Lanka and India. Many domestics come to Greece via agencies which often withhold the identity cards of the workers until they have paid the costs of the journey and procurement. Others organise their first jobs in Greece themselves, as well as their place of employment, through family networks.
As in many other European countries, there is a racial hierarchy amongst the different nationalities of domestics as far as payment and working conditions are concerned. In Greek households, Philippo women are considered status symbols and are generally better paid (just like Polish women) than Albanians, Africans or South Asians. On the whole it can be noted that most women work in so-called "live-ins", which means that they live at their place of work and often have over 16 hour shifts every day, except for a few hours of free time of their own on Sundays. [back to top]

In contrast to the situation in Greece, an increasing number of domestic workers in Spain is succeeding in obtaining legal status - in most cases however, only after a longer period in which they have no legal documents. The Spanish government distributed work and residence permits in 1991 in preparation for the Olympic games. Since 1993, up to 20,000 work permits a year are allocated to workers from non-European countries for the sectors of private households and agriculture. At the beginning, only Philippinas, Dominicans and Peruvians were given permission - however, due to protests against this kind of stigmatisation, this restriction to certain nationalities has been withdrawn.
Nevertheless, Dominican women are still the largest group of domestic workers in Spain. In Barcelona, for example, live about 7000 persons with a residence permit from the Dominican republic - 85% of them women, who nearly all work as domestics. Other large groups are women from Morocco and from other Latin American countries. In Spain, as well as in other countries, most female domestics work in badly-paid "live-ins" and have extremely long working hours. Due to the racial stigmatisation in the labour market hierarchy (about qualities such as discretion, honesty, industry and cleanliness) the Philippinas are also preferred to Maghreb women and Latin Americans.
Yet the long history of their organisation could also be a reason for better working conditions. In Barcelona alone there are three organisations for Philippino domestics.
Despite the 'cupo' system, one of the most important problems for newcomers is the lack of residence and work permits. However, it is also difficult for legalised female domestics to claim better working conditions - the members of RESPECT complain that co-operation with the trade unions is difficult as far as housework is concerned, because it is not perceived as 'real work'. [back to top]

In contrast to other countries, work in private households in France is much more governmentally regulated. There is tax relief for employers and a system of vouchers by which, taxes and social services are simplified and 'debureaucraticised', even if someone is only employed for a few hours a week.
The organisation of employers, FEPEM, has 900,000 members and employs 568,350 registered domestics. Compared with other countries, in France many EU - citizens and French women work as domestics - the last group however, often consists of 'migrants of the second generation', who are racially discriminated against in the French labour market, though they have legal documents. Despite this regulation, the private household is still the most important labour market for female Sans-Papiers, or 'illegals'.

(All this information comes from the Newsletter issued by RESPECT, as well as from the study published by the Kalayaan activists Bridget Anderson and Anne Phizacklea, "Migrant Domestic Workers: a European Perspective", Leicester University, 1997) [back to top]

"Of course I do cleaning; as a foreigner you have no other choice - none of us. I have looked for a job, again and again, and I would so much enjoy doing something in the computer sector, because that is what is missing in my training as an engineer. But that is quite hopeless."
"I work as a cleaning woman and I do some baby sitting. I cannot expect anything else - despite the fact that I was a trained book - keeper in my own country."
In view of the clarity with which these two migrants describe their work perspectives in Germany, it is really astonishing how little the labour market in private households has been noticed until today, even in anti-racist circles - compared to the apparently more 'sensational' sectors, such as the sex - or building industries. Even in the latest migration research, occupied with the expansion of the service trade and the informal labour market in the industrial countries, it is primarily the public sector that is treated, and not the private sphere, and unpaid or underpaid reproductive work. In the 90's, this sector was nearly exclusively women's work and, with the decline of government services, is increasing rather than decreasing. However, it is more and more classified along racial lines and split into social classes within the expanding sector of paid housework.
This labour market also seems to be unspectacular, because deregulation has always seemed to be more self-evident in this area than in others. Even women with residence and employment permits are hardly organised in trade unions - the trade union responsible, "Nahrung- Genu§- Gaststätten" (Food - Pleasure - Restaurants) only counted about 600 members in the whole country, as far as the private housework sector was concerned. And while in 1996 there were about 2,7 million people working in menial employment, there were only about 30,000 persons with national insurance employed in private households in the whole country.
For women without legal documents, deregulation means a certain protection against government persecution; that is why many of them prefer this kind of work to the more public alternatives such as cleaning/kitchen help in restaurants or take-aways, or work for cleaning companies. However, the work in private households, in particular that without legal status, means at the same time an extreme lack of protection. It is no coincidence that many seeking employment in newspapers end their advertisement with the words, "No sex".
Due to their experience of having been sexually molested, or of having been confronted with the expectation of sexual services besides the cleaning work, many women abstain from looking for work through advertisements. They prefer to seek work through private contacts, in order to have a certain social control. Female domestics are also without protection with reference to any labour conventions. In many cases, neither the working duties, nor the working hours are clearly defined. The specific aspect of housework is that it is often work without any time limits - there is cleaning, ironing, washing, the care of pets, babysitting, cooking, telephone service, serving possible guests, etc. Permanent stress and extreme physical strain are often the result. At the same time, employers often expect extreme flexibility and permanent availability.
In Germany, the majority of women working on an hourly basis in private households seem to have various jobs in different households - apart from travel to and from work, it demands great organisational talent to arrange enough jobs per week as far as working hours are concerned.
These arrangements are always precarious, because jobs may suddenly come to an end, due to holidays, removals, or variation in the income of a family. Especially in Berlin, it is getting increasingly difficult for those women, who do not have many social contacts, to find sufficient work to be able to survive - not to mention being able to repay any debts or support their children, who are often left at home, or other family members. The salary paid often varies a lot.
Some jobs reach the usual limit of 15 DM per hour, but there are also jobs for 5 DM and even less. A racial segmentation seems to be taking place in the labour market, and women earn more or less according to their origin. For example, Polish women earn more than Bulgarian women.
It is difficult to estimate how many women work regularly as household helps and perhaps even live in, like housekeepers in other European countries. The advice centre "IN-VIA" in Berlin reports that women are being recruited by agencies from Eastern Europe to nurse old people, or as housemaids for single men. They often work in complete isolation and without any rights of their own. Latin American women in Berlin also talk about employment conditions in which they are only paid 200 DM per month for a 12-hour day, plus board and lodging. Sometimes they do not get any pay at all after their tourist visas as domestic workers have run out, and they can be threatened with denunciation at the Foreigners' Office.
It is extremely difficult for domestic workers without any legal documents to get organised, due to their isolated working conditions and their lack of rights.
However, informal networks do exist on the level of recommending jobs to each other and taking care of each other's children, or helping each other in the case of illness. The possibility of defending themselves, even without residence permit or work permits, has only been tried in a few cases, and only directed against cleaning companies, not against private persons.
Until today, public support groups have mainly stressed the subject of paid housework as a central theme in the context of debates about traffic in women. Due to the definition of the international network Global Alliance against Traffic in Women, the procurement of women in private households can be counted as traffic in women, if this work is connected with wrong information about the work, with blackmail, (sexual) violence and imprisonment. However, only the most extreme cases of the violation of human rights are thereby picked out as a central issue, not the everyday situation of the employment of women. Furthermore, the definition "traffic in women" only concentrates on an employment relationship.
In the meantime, politicians, the prosecuting authorities and the police use the term "traffic in women" in an inflationary way, mainly in order to prosecute those people who organise the immigration of women. In that way, migration is meant to be reduced. In practice, however, it only makes it more dangerous, more expensive and more difficult for these women, instead of improving their working and living conditions.
In other European countries, housekeepers organise themselves not only under the definition of traffic in women, but also with reference to (international) human rights and labour rights. The UN Convention for the rights of all migrant workers and their family members is perceived as a possibility, but is not yet valid, as it has only been ratified by less than 20 states. The German government has not yet signed it, either. It foresees labour regulations independent of residence status. [back to top]

Susanne Schultz

(Translation Claire Merkord, Cologne, official translator)