Marissa Begonia migrated to England via the Philippines and Hong Kong, chasing domestic jobs to feed her three young children. She left them behind in the Philippines, settled in her new country, learned the language and paid taxes — all the while cleaning houses.
“I was the perfect example of a domestic worker coming [to] a new country and contributing to society,” says Begonia, 48, founder and coordinator of UK’s Justice 4 Domestic Workers (J4DW), a support network and advocate for migrant workers. She still works as a cleaner.
But now, she says, those opportunities are not readily available to domestic workers arriving from other countries. Every Sunday, migrants come to J4DW’s London-based meetings with stories of abuse and misinformation, with many of them living in fear about how to gain better job security and rights while remaining in their new country.
As populations in Europe and other parts of the developed world have aged and more women have entered the workforce, the need for domestic workers to care for the elderly, provide childcare and perform housekeeping has soared. Waves of migrants have arrived to fill these positions. Understanding how to integrate these — mostly female — workers into society, while making sure they have decent labour standards, has been an ongoing challenge.
“These workers are here,” said Kerstin Howald, from the European Federation of Food, Agriculture, and Tourism Trade Unions, (EFFAT) whose members represent domestic workers. “So now for us the question is: how can we ensure domestic workers have decent working conditions and that they are not exploited?”
Global migration, local problem
There are 67.1 million domestic workers around the world, of whom 11.5 million are international migrants. In 2016, 2.2 million of those migrants were living in Europe, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). These numbers are likely grossly underreported — many migrants don’t register on arrival and it is often unclear whether au pairs or diplomatic staff are counted.
A portion of domestic workers arrive on visas tied to their employers, and since they are officially in the formal workforce scant attention is paid to their conditions, leading to stories of unchecked abuse.
What each arriving migrant needs to thrive and succeed in the job market depends on factors like their language skills, social network, and ability to access the internet. Some workers are migrants, arriving with employment papers, others are refugees or asylum seekers and others still are undocumented.
“Domestic workers — even undocumented — are included in Europe’s labour laws. The problem is enforcing those rights, in particular for the undocumented, and delinking work from immigration policies,” said Karin Pape, European coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation. If undocumented workers are being abused in their workplace they should be able to go to the authorities without fear of deportation, Pape added.
In February 2018, a consortium of advocacy groups issued policy recommendations they said were needed to further strengthen protections for migrant workers. Some proposals include ensuring domestic workers can change jobs and still retain their visa or employment rights, and ensuring that regular labour standards apply to all domestic workers, even those without residence papers.
If there are issues with an employer or they experience unfair working conditions, all workers should be free to report discrepancies to authorities without fear of arrest or deportation, the consortium argued.
Voucher systems provide one answer. Perhaps the best such system is found in Belgium, experts interviewed said. There, people can purchase electronic vouchers via an online platform or in shops to pay for domestic service. One hour’s worth of work costs nine euros.
When a domestic worker completes their work for an employer, the employer gives them the vouchers. The worker can then redeem them at an employment agency, where they are paid in cash, minus taxes, social security and other costs.
That cash comes from the government and is worth 12 euros before tax, three more Euros than the employers had to shell out to purchase the vouchers — they are incentivised to pay in this way because the government is subsidising the worker’s wage. Meanwhile, the government can be sure workers are paying taxes. The state gains a 50% return on average.
“This is a win-win situation,” said EFFAT’s Howald. “Belgium’s service voucher program brought 150,000 workers into formal labour sector that now have social security and have paid taxes.”
She cautions that voucher systems must be well-managed. Italy’s, for example, was shut down amid concerns about hiding undeclared work.
And often undocumented workers can’t be covered by service vouchers tools, as they don’t have papers allowing them to work legally, leaving a large swath of domestic workers vulnerable to abuse.
Bringing workers into the fold
Another approach is Geneva’s Operation Papyrus, which aims to grant residency rights and combat illegal work practices for the region’s approximately 4,000-6000 undocumented domestic workers.
Under the scheme, a residence permit is provided to workers who have been living in Geneva for ten years, or for five years if they have school aged children, can speak French, have financial independence and have no criminal background. Geneva launched an information campaign educating workers about the new permit, and letting employers know that when they hire cleaners or childcare professionals they have to follow the region’s labour laws.
The program will run for two years initially, with an external evaluation to assess whether it has caused an influx of unauthorised migrants to Geneva. Some 1,093 people have been granted a visa since the program began in January 2017 and can now work under regular employment contracts.
“For the moment, the project is proven to be a success as it implements the regularisation process together with the measures aiming to combat illegal migration network and unlawful work, mainly in the household economy,” said Pierre Maudet, President of Geneva’s regional government, in an email interview.
But ideas like these don’t work without migrants having access to information about what their rights are, says Begonia, founder of the UK’s Justice for Domestic Workers.
Pape agrees: “Trade unions are essential to bringing domestic workers into the fold, but many don’t have the capacity or understanding or how to reach the domestic workers,” she said.
She recommends that policymakers should work with migrant centres to set up listening sessions with migrants to learn about their needs and how trade unions can further assist them. They should also, Pape argued, be flexible around worker’s hours, noting many offices are closed on Sundays, when most workers are free.
If advocacy groups can be flexible, the results are positive. Geneva’s Support Group for Undocumented Workers, which consists of four centres, regularly advises clients on whether they are eligible for Operation Papyrus and guides them through the process. The group also holds information sessions for workers about the program.
“Everyone needs to remember, all we want to do is work,” said Begonia. — Cara Tabachnick
(Picture Credit: Aditya Romansa/Unsplash)