“Protected, paid well and pleasurable”: decent work for domestic workers

Maria Suelzu, Caritas; Raffaella Maioni, Acli and Livia Turco, Fondazione Nilde Iotti

Maria Suelzu, Caritas; Raffaella Maioni, Acli and Livia Turco, Fondazione Nilde Iotti

Round table to mark International Domestic Workers day
“For thousands of years until recently, domestic work was a form of slavery. In some parts of the world it still is,” said Armando Montemarano from the Italian domestic workers trade Union, Federcolf.

He was just one of the people contributing to a discussion held in Rome by Caritas along with Acli Colf (the Italian Christian workers association) and NoDi (the Italian association for the rights of women migrants) to mark International Domestic Workers day on Sunday 16th June.

The date was chosen because it marked the adoption of the International Labor Organisation’s ‘Convention 189’ in 2011, which set labour standards for domestic workers around the world. These included the right to time off, the minimum wage and protection from abuses.

Caritas campaigned hard to get the convention approved and ensure the rights of domestic workers  were respected. The very nature of domestic work – behind closed doors and hidden from view – means that the terrain is rife for abuses and protective measures are minimal.

Svitlana Kovalska, president of the Ukrainian women workers association in Italy, told the gathering how expectations from host countries of migrant domestic workers don’t quite level up with the protection social and legal systems offer: “I’m a ‘real citizen’ where my responsibilities are concerned, but regarding rights I’m not a fully-fledged citizen.”

Eighty percent of migrants who come to the European Union do domestic work. In Italy alone, there are 830,000 registered domestic workers – more than the number of workers in the health system and hospitals together.

Some suggestions put forward to improve the workers’ situations included the promotion of a national welfare system,  fiscal incentives for families who have people working in their homes and reforms to the system of migration.

The impact of workers leaving their families behind was highlighted in a photo slideshow of life in rural Romania by photographer Giuseppe Aliprandi . His pictures showed children living in poverty with their grandparents while their parents tried to earn money abroad.

Aliprandi asked one young girl who he photographed, “Did you cry when your mother first left.”

“Yes, I cried for a week,” the girl answered.

The discussion also touched on the economic impact of countries left behind. Romulo Sabio Salvador, president of Roma Capital and representative of migrants from the Philippines explained how his country’s agriculture minister was currently in Rome to meet with migrants and encourage them to come back home to work where there were jobs in agriculture but no one to do them.

Maria Suelzu, international advocacy officer with Caritas explained how working with Acli and NoDi is important for Caritas to help cover the international, national and local dimensions of domestic work.

“We are planning to do more together,” said Maria, “such as a study session on portability of pension schemes in the near future. The synergy between CI and ACLI-Colf has proved very fruitful in many occasions as they have a positive and fresh approach which is greatly valued by the whole of Caritas’s migration team.”

Ten countries have ratified the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers so far: Uruguay was the first followed by the Philippines, Mauritius. Others were Italy (the first country in the EU to ratify the convention), Nicaragua , Paraguay, Bolivia, Colombia, Germany and South Africa.

Caritas will continue its work in this area along with Acli and NoDi. But as former Italian minister Livia Turco explained, “In my experience, the hardest part wasn’t drafting or getting laws approved, but making sure they were applied.”

As with much of Caritas’s work, it’s about people being able to have dignity in their lives. When you’re not being paid much, or you aren’t allowed holidays or a proper contract, dignity disappears.

Svitlana Kovalska summed it up in her adopted language of Italian, “What we have without adequate protection is a situation which is pesante (heavy), pericoloso (dangerous), precario (precarious), poco pagato (poorly paid) and penalizzato socialmente (penalised socially). What we want is a life that is positivo (positive), pagato bene (well-paid), protetto (protected), produttivo (productive) and piacevole (pleasurable).”

Maria Suelzu talks to Vatican Radio about promoting the rights and dignity of domestic workers (in Spanish).

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Secretary General: Michel Roy

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