Why is domestic work undervalued and unregulated?

Annemari de Silva

Although domestic workers are a regular feature of many households in Sri Lanka, this section of our work force is understudied and unprotected by regular labour laws.

The adoption of the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers (C189) in 2011 was a watershed moment in moving towards decent work for domestic workers internationally, but Sri Lanka is yet to ratify it. Activists and unions have been fighting for recognition in Sri Lanka and in 2018, a National Action Plan to bring domestic workers under Sri Lanka’s labour law was tabled as a Cabinet proposal, signaling a conducive environment to gain labour protections for domestic workers. However, activists have faced ridicule, silence, and even antagonism from the state in attempts to gain protections for domestic workers. In 2015, when the Domestic Workers Union attempted to get the Minimum Wages Act to include domestic workers as well, the Act was amended to explicitly exclude domestic workers by stating that the definition of “worker… does not include a domestic servant”.

Why is it so difficult to protect domestic workers?

Domestic work is notoriously undervalued and difficult to regulate. The difficulty in regulation stems primarily from the performance of domestic work occurring within a home, which is not usually subject to outside scrutiny under labour law. However, plenty of countries have now come to include domestic workers within some amount of labour regulation, including India, Jamaica, Qatar, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Some countries have circumvented the privacy issue by using such measures as prior consent of employer or authorisation of inspection through judicial means.

The sociocultural dimension that makes domestic work difficult to regulate is the perception that it is (a) unskilled and (b) women’s work. Even though historical studies have shown a more masculinized domestic worker population in the past, this equation of domestic work and women is hard to shake. As at 2013, 83% of domestic workers across the world were female. The perception of domestic work as ‘unskilled’ roots from the interpretation under patriarchy that reproductive labour is the domain of women. That is, all that is to do with care of the family and the household is women’s work, and if domestic work is just the natural extension of women’s existence, then it is ‘unskilled’, not requiring any formal acquisition of skills. This is, of course, false, as anyone who has had to manage household chores can attest to.

Domestic work requires mental and emotional energy in addition to physical labour. While untrained people (say, a husband or a child) help with housework, they do so by task alone. They may wash dishes or chop vegetables or hang clothes out to dry. However, the management of the whole process – keeping mental itineraries of what tasks need to be done, how, by when, for whom, to what level of detail – is a whole other level of mental and emotional demand that is hidden and unrecognized.

Another challenge to regulation is the lack of support for organized action. Although employers claim to be sympathetic to workers’ personal struggles and may hand out charity to them, they stop short of supporting their joining a trade union or any the introduction of any legislation. In a survey among 85 employers in 2018, 87% agreed to overall protection of domestic workers’ rights but only 25% agreed that there should be a trade union for domestic workers. Fewer still, only 19% said they would hire someone if they knew she or he belonged to a trade union. Collective action is incredibly important for a workforce like domestic workers, who are highly atomized. Constrained to working individually within households, they become vulnerable since they are invisible and isolated. Moreover, their vulnerability is higher because a disproportionate number of domestic workers are from disprivileged sections of society. In a study of 300 domestic workers, 41% of those surveyed were Indian Tamil, even though overall population of Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka is only 4.1%. With the enormity of inequalities between the employer and the worker – gender, language, ethnicity, economic situation, and sheer working hierarchy – the worker is at impossible odds to negotiate anything with her employer. Thus, collective action is needed where strength and solidarity can be found in numbers.

Paid domestic work in Sri Lanka

There is a high demand for domestic workers in Sri Lanka. One can see about 200 ads a week in a popular Sinhala Sunday newspaper and about 30 in a Tamil paper. There are diverse reasons for why this demand exists. Culturally, domestic servitude has been a status marker and mark of social mobility. Even if one family member is at home and is able to fulfil domestic work, the existence of a domestic worker may be seen as ‘essential’ – more for status and leisure than due to workload. With the increase of women’s participation in the formal economy, along with the continued resistance of men to share in household labour, many couples may prefer to avoid conflict at home by outsourcing domestic work to a third person (generally a woman) – the domestic worker. There is also the additional aspect of children and aged persons who need care. With inadequate options for care facilities available (e.g. assisted care, good quality elders’ homes, day-care centres, crèches, etc.), those who can afford it will employ a worker for this service.

Not only is domestic work an incredibly important form of work for many women, there is a growing demand for it from employers. Those in the formal workforce are growing in number, requiring more delegation of housework responsibilities. Sri Lanka also has an ageing population which will see more demand for aged care as well as more older women who seek paid domestic work to support themselves in old age. Continuing the field of domestic work as things are, i.e. by convention, risks increased precarity for both employers and workers. In the context of Sri Lanka’s changing realities and its imminent care crisis, the field of domestic work warrants far more attention than it currently receives

Therefore, it is time Sri Lanka paid attention to domestic workers, given that the country’s economy and society has changed over the years.

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