Europe has as many as 3.5 million people – mostly women – providing domestic services illegally in the black economy without social protection. Formalising their work and bringing them into the mainstream economy could boost employment levels and provide many social and societal benefits.
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In 2011 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted a convention on “Decent work for domestic workers” and the European Commission has recently published a proposal to authorize its Member States to ratify the Convention. This is in line with its involvement and work on personal and household services which main objective is job creation. Bringing the domestic workers out ‘of the shadows’ and into gainful, recognised employment with suitable working conditions and greater protection is one way to boost employment in the sector.
This was the picture which emerged from the 4th Policies & Practices Breakfast Debate in Brussels, 28 March, on the theme of “Personal and household services: inclusion of workers and job opportunities with the formal economy”.
Keynote speakers at the event were Rudi Delarue, Director of the Brussels office of the ILO, and Claudia Menne, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) responsible inter alia for worker’s participation and social protection.
Mr Delarue presented the state-of-play in the implementation of the ILO’s groundbreaking Domestic Workers Convention which is regarded by many as a historical achievement.
Claudia Menne explained that the NGOs and the trade unions have been a driving force behind this convention.
“It is a massive cross-cutting topic which involves many interest groups,” she explained “Together we have helped bring this topic out of the shadows. And the challenge now facing Europe is the ratification process and implementing the appropriate measures to make it effective.”
Working in the shadows often involves accepting poor working conditions and pay. Bringing domestic workers into the formal economy can help provide fair employment terms and a greater measure of social protection. Moreover, domestic workers are frequently linked to migrant workers so their social inclusion within hosting countries’ societies is also an issue.
The ILO Convention makes a distinction between different spheres: household services (gardening, cleaning, helping people in the home), and professional services (agency work in the area of Social Services of General Interest). A clear border line has to be drawn between these two spheres, Rudi Delarue stressed.
The convention brings an obligation for signatories to introduce measures for fair terms of employment and decent working conditions on an equal footing with other workers. “The convention encourages the formalisation of the employment relationships” Delarue explained. “It also requires a country to have a system to ensure compliance.”
As the implementation could have cost implications, the provisions allow for social security protection to be implemented in a progressive way, which is an important factor in times of economic austerity.
Job creation, governmental investment: a European debate
Claudia Menne pointed out that the idea of giving incentives or subsidies to enterprises to support employment is not the tradition in all EU countries. Some of them, as Germany, prefer to give support directly to individuals. The level of tax incentives to promote such services is a debate which has to be launched, she said. Moreover, Claudia Menne stressed that in such a period of economic austerity as today, it is necessary to formalise household services’ jobs so that more workers can contribute to the national budget and to the social protection system. “Money that goes into the shadow economy takes money away for the social services protection systems and the tax intake and makes it more difficult to cope,” she said.
Jean-François Lebrun from the European Commission and a keynote speaker at the 1st Policies & Practices’ session was invited to give an update on recent actions at the European level on personal and household services. He explained that the Commission had launched a consultative document to stimulate a debate on personal and household services. Stakeholders’ answers were presented during a conference last January and the report of this event will be published shortly.
The Commission avoids the term ‘domestic services’ he explained. “We prefer the idea of promoting services ‘made at home by professionals’”. “We have developed a controversial approach in putting together the care activities and other services such as cleaning, ironing, gardening etc. We believe the relationships between these types of activities are intense. Through the Service Voucher system, the public authorities can co-finance the work. Without public intervention the majority of this work would be carried out in the black market.”
Mr Lebrun also stressed the longer term issue of training (as learning opportunities in the job contribute to the objective of better quality of work) and productivity. “We must also think about the future and take on board new technology, robotics, etc. Otherwise it is difficult to think about how wages can be increased which is an important element of working conditions.”
In the coming weeks the Commission plans to launch a call for proposals to support the development of a stakeholders’ platform to mutualise their thoughts and efforts. “It should be possible for organisations representing non-care and care activities to work together, particularly in times of crisis, focused on the need to create employment and find solutions” he explained.
“I hope that our consultative document is opening a door to new thinking about personal and household services,” he added. “The Commission is not presenting a solution, but opening the debate. It is one of the main elements of the future.”
Heinz Becker, Member of the European Parliament (Austria, PPE), welcomed this approach. The priority of the moment, he said, is the exchange of views between all the stakeholders, the carers, the institutions, etc. He pointed to the many complex issues involving the formal and informal sectors and the role of internal migration within the Union. He also stressed the importance of examining whether these actions in general (caring/non caring, comfort, etc.) have a social impact or not. The availability of ironing for elderly people has social impact as it allows them to remain at home. Then, according to him, our main objective should be to assess these services’ social impact for the people and the society.
Luc Zelderloo, EASPD – European association of service providers for persons with disabilities, said that there should be a clear distinction between the comfort services – ironing, cleaning, etc. - and social services of general interest which are an obligation of the state. According to him, they are fundamentally different and they should not be mixed up, particularly in policy objectives.
Haroon Saad of the local urban development European network (LUDEN aka QeC-ERAN) considers that the debate should be more holistic about what goes on in the household. His concern is that 19 million people in Europe, who provide informal care in their household, are, according to him, “simply ignored”. “This is a fundamental service and these women are being left on the margins”.
The need for a societal commitment
Rudi Delarue stressed the importance of the involvement of civil society otherwise these issues tend to fade away.
“We made this mistake at the ILO in the past. The lack of ratifications was due to the lack of outreach, so your support is key for making this succeed.”
Marieka Koning of the International Trade Union Confederation pointed out that the unions have implemented the “12 by 12 campaign” to try a further raise awareness and to strengthen the debate on the domestic workers’ issue.