On November 12th, MDW interviewed Mark Bergfeld, Director of Property Services and UNICARE at UNI Global Union Europe. UNI Global Union is a global union federation based in Nyon Switzerland, it was founded in 2000 under the name of Union Network International and today it represents over 20 million workers from more than 150 different countries in the fastest growing sectors in the world: namely, skills and services. The organization and its affiliates in various regions are driven by the responsibility to ensure that such jobs are decent, and workers’ rights are protected - e.g right to join a union and right to collective bargaining.
To the question of which are the main challenges and obstacles countries face to ratify and implement the ILO C189, the interviewee paused, anticipating that this would have been a long and complex answer. He pointed at three dimensions that need to be considered: economic, social, and legal.
From an economic point of view, it is convenient for wealthier households to hire migrant domestic workers at a lower wage as the state cannot provide care services under a universal guarantee. There exists a dynamic for which domestic workers are pooled from countries in which they are the cheapest; if a sending country has moved up the “hierarchy of value”, then recruiters shift to a new sending country.
At a social level, the main issue is that domestic work lacks recognition as proper payable work. This has negative repercussions on the job itself that, as a result, lacks many elements which instead are present in other sectors, namely trainings, security, clear boundaries with the employer, and the ability to build a career. The working environment, that is the house, is characterized by a significant power imbalance between employer and employee, however, the house is a legal grey zone: potential abuses of workers are hard for authorities to detect. The disadvantaged position of migrant domestic workers in this setting is made even worse when visas are tied to a specific employer.
Finally from a legal perspective, there is a coordination problem between the employers and the unions, with the latter being hardly present in the sector. There exists a vicious circle for which none of the actors involved (governments, unions and employers) take responsibility to bring change. Moreover, a reform of labor laws in the domestic sector would entail a major review of the legislation in other sectors as well and this discourages policy-makers to act.
According to Bergfeld, domestic work is systematically devalued as a job, the problem cannot be solved with one policy but it needs a holistic approach.
The interviewee points out that a serious difficulty for researchers in the sector is gathering data: 80% to 90% of domestic work (from migrants and non-migrants) is undeclared. Being in the informal economy, domestic workers receive no protection – which turned to be a huge issue with the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of quantitative data collection, researchers should rely more on alternative methods based on testimonies from the workers or self-reporting from households. The latter is particularly difficult to observe as employers fear retroactive rights claims.
Precisely because of the invisibility of domestic workers in the labor market, unions are extremely rare to find. Belgium has one but most other countries rely on domestic workers organizations, like Respect in Germany or the National Domestic Work alliance in the US. In cases in which there is no freedom of assembly, organizing becomes really complicated. Sometimes, migrant domestic workers manage to create their own informal network by regularly meeting in the same place – e.g. churches or mosques – and sharing information about their working conditions.
Bergfeld’s recommendations for changing the current situation start from bringing domestic work into the formal economy; this would have consequences on many aspects: equalization of wages across different employers and organization, proper work-life balance and a specific number of working hours, safety both from accident and long-term physical problems due to the working activity, and finally, protection from deportation, so that workers do not get punished from reporting abuses.
UNI Global Union is giving a significant contribution in this battle. In June 2020 they organized the “homecare worker day of action” in order to give voice and visibility to domestic workers. They also represented them at the political level with the WHO which agreed to include domestic workers in the categories who should be provided with protective equipment during the COVID pandemic. They are constantly fighting in favor of domestic workers’ coalition building and visibility in the economic and political sphere.