You are here: Home News Are domestic workers really just "one of the family"?

Are domestic workers really just "one of the family"?

Thomas Reuters Foundation - 26 May 2015 - Many who employ domestic workers consider them “one of the family”.

Many who employ domestic workers consider them “one of the family”.

It is a phrase held close, to denote the importance of the domestic worker, how egalitarian the relationship is and how vital this person is in daily life. Domestic workers are called “auntie” and “amah” – the term in many Asian countries that refers to the woman or girl who cooks or looks after children – and as such, given a family role. It is a compliment and almost invariably, meant kindly.

Being a member of the family means a lot of things – for every family holiday, there is a family crisis; for every family birthday, there is a family argument; for every family celebration, there is a family emergency, big and small.

But, if you eat separately, have a different kind of bedroom, stay up later and get up earlier than everyone else in the house, are you really family?

And is being “one of the family” even good for domestic workers? Probably not, despite the noble intention.

Being “one of the family” means that hours are irregular, work tasks varied and emotionally-charged. It can mean that domestic workers are isolated within the home, with paternalist attitudes designed to keep young women “safe” from dishonor and disgrace - ideas strongly linked to family reputation.

Being “one of the family” means that for the domestic workers’ job, a key performance indicator is how much love is given to the family, especially the children. And love, as we all know, is an exercise in tolerance, forgiveness and selflessness – quite the job description. This is what makes domestic work, according to a popular motto, “work like no other”.



According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates, one in every 13 wage-earning women is a domestic worker, for a total of at least 53 million domestic workers worldwide. Around 40 percent are in the Asia Pacific region.

These are women (around 83 percent of domestic workers are women) who leave their families to find work that pays enough to support them - not to become a member of someone else’s family. They move for better wages. Sadly, fair wages are regularly denied – across the world, just 10 percent of domestic workers enjoy the same labour protection as other workers.

Historically, the domestic worker has not been considered a worker, in the same way as workers in other jobs. This is due to multiple factors, including the undervaluing of what is considered traditionally “women’s work” and the lack of visible production that comes from house-minding and caring for children.

But domestic work is becoming increasingly commoditized. More and more families are choosing to outsource care work to domestic workers. It is a huge industry that is expected to grow, and a major factor in global women’s economic empowerment and mobility.

For women without formal skills, it is an accessible path to paid employment. But protection for domestic workers remains weak, with most unable to access social security schemes or insurance, something that is even harder if the domestic worker is also a migrant. Worse still, stories of abuse, exploitation, forced labour and human trafficking abound.

Recognising that domestic work was indeed “work like no other” in part because it had little legal recognition, the ILO in 2011 adopted a Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. This Convention was the first international legal standard that recognised domestic workers as workers.

The Convention enshrines some basic standards – a day off each week, reasonable working hours, minimum wage where it exists, and for live-in domestic workers, a private room. More and more domestic workers’ unions and advocacy groups are using these standards to make the shift from “work like no other” to “work like any other” – work that contributes to human dignity.



The idea that domestic workers are “one of the family” springs from the concept that being a family member is an honour, a point of pride, that belonging to something is security, safety and comfort. What if we extend this idea to consider the domestic workers’ own family? How can employers honour the families of their domestic workers?

All of us, employers and domestic workers alike, must offer and insist on security, safety and comfort for domestic workers in the workplace. We have to challenge the notion that because domestic work is “work like no other”, different standards apply. We must ensure regular working hours. We must demand and deliver fair wages that can support domestic workers’ families. We must convey and claim paid leave that enables travel and connection with loved ones, after months of connecting with employers’ families. We need to encourage communication, both between employer and employee, and also domestic workers’ communication with family.

So, it is relatively simple. On June 16, the world marks the fourth anniversary of the adoption of the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. On this day, consider what you would want for a member of your family in their workplace. If that doesn’t match what you offer your domestic worker, perhaps you need to rethink your ideas about what makes “family”.

Anna Olsen is a technical officer working on the Tripartite Action to Protect the Rights of Migrant Workers within and from the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS TRIANGLE project) at the International Labour Organization.

This selection of news and comment is provided as a service to Network users, and is not intended to be comprehensive. The articles featured are compiled by external agencies and in no way reflect the views of the ILO, its constituents or partners. Their inclusion does not imply the endorsement or approval by the ILO of the information contained therein.


Document Actions
comments powered by Disqus