On 16 June 2011, the ILO approved Convention 189 regarding decent working conditions for domestic workers, building on the fundamental premise that “domestic workers are neither ‘servants’, nor ‘members of the family’ nor second-class workers”. The essential aim of this new international instrument is to overcome domestic work’s invisibility and informality, thus guaranteeing at least some basic forms of protection for domestic workers in line with the principle of equal treatment for all workers, including those involved in less structured and more informally organized working sectors.
Lucia Amorosi is a PhD candidate in Economic Sociology and Labour Studies at the University of Milan. Her research interests revolve around gender studies, the marketization of domestic work and care, labour studies, and migration studies. She is also a political activist involved in different grassroots movements in Italy, such as Potere al Popolo! and Non Una Di Meno.
Italy is among the top three European countries in terms of employing domestic workers, and ratified ILO Convention 189/2011 in 2013 as the first European Union member to do so. Domestic work was first addressed by the Italian legislature in the 1950s when, thanks to the activism and mobilisation of Associazioni Cristiane di Lavoratori Italiani-Collaboratori Familiari [ACLI-COLF, the Christian Associations of Italian Workers-Family Workers], Special Law 339/1958 was enacted. This norm, compensating for the absence of a national contract, required the Italian state to regularize the domestic and care sector. In those days, a ban on collective bargaining specifically targeting domestic work prevented national collective contracts from being signed in the sector, reflecting the shared idea that domestic work was not “real” work and should thus not be regulated as such.
After the ban was lifted in 1969 following a rule by the Italian Constitutional Court, the time was ripe for a national collective contract—but the role of the ACLI would once again prove fundamental in the struggle to change the cultural stereotype hindering the recognition of domestic work as “real” work. The national ACLI-COLF congress held in Siena in 1973 marked a turning point: thanks to the emphasis on the social benefit of domestic work, it paved the way for the first national collective contract, signed in 1974. Interestingly, although unions and feminist movements would be central agents of social change in 1970s Italy, the issue of paid domestic work was obscured: while unionists, even female ones, would focus more on the needs and necessities of working women, and feminists especially concentrated on unpaid domestic work, nobody focused on paid domestic workers, or the “worker-housewife” as defined by Olga Turrini.
Both unionists and feminists expected domestic work to be overcome by technological developments and the provision of public social services. But in fact, domestic work has not only remained essential in our society, but its importance has even risen in parallel with the process of the feminization of labour: since the signing of the first national collective contract in 1974, conditions have gradually improved for domestic workers in Italy, but the challenge to recognize domestic work as decent work remains unmet.
An Important Step
The ratification of Convention 189/2011 thus occurred in an already institutionalized setting, in which domestic workers’ right to collective bargaining was formally recognized and employment and working conditions had already been defined through the national collective contract. It must be noted that in those countries where no regulation of domestic work existed prior to the adoption of Convention 189/2011, extensive mobilization and activism on the part of domestic workers has taken place. In Italy, by contrast, where the sector was already regulated, the formal process of ratification was not backed by workers’ participation, nor was it sustained through public debates involving the wider citizenry. Today, eight years since Italy ratified the Convention, some issues are yet to be resolved: despite the formal recognition of the principle of equal treatment for all workers, contradictions emerge at both the regulatory and practical levels, directly involving the concrete implementation of the principles of this Convention within the national framework.
At the legislative level, domestic work in Italy is regulated by the renewed national collective contract signed in 2020. This contract renewal certainly introduced some positive changes in employment relations for domestic work: first, it finally defined all domestic workers (whether caregivers, housekeepers, babysitters, or others) as family assistants, thus promoting notions of greater professionalism and greater social importance. Moreover, this new contract establishes an increment in domestic workers’ wages for all established occupations and introduces various specific allowances, including an allowance of 150 euro per month for those looking after children of up to six years, and an allowance of 100 euro per month for workers who work with more than one not self-sufficient person. This last point in particular puts an end to the very widespread practice of not changing a worker’s salary regardless of whether he or she takes care of more than one not self-sufficient person.
The contract now recognizes the differing amount of effort and attention required of a worker, depending on how many people she or he cares for, which enhances the formal recognition of domestic work’s value. It also introduces another effective novelty, as it extends the range of reasons for a worker’s individual paid leave, including not only medical examinations but also duties relating to the renewal of residence permits. In this way, the contract responds to a concrete and real need of many workers, who until now were often forced to sacrifice their regularization process due to very extensive and inflexible working hours.
In accordance with the general aim of recognizing and valuing workers’ training and professionalization processes, the contract introduces special training permits for permanent workers with more than six months of seniority, while establishing that workers involved in special protection programs due to gender-based violence have the right to be absent for a maximum period of three months while maintaining the right to receive an indemnity paid by INPS, the National Social Insurance Agency. Moreover, the signatory parties concluded a joint declaration in which, recognizing violence and harassment in the domestic workplace as a clear human rights violation, they committed themselves to promoting initiatives to counter such conduct. This measure appears very important and necessary if we consider the high rate of abuse and harassment in domestic work, obviously linked to the dimension of invisibility characterizing this work, explicitly mentioned in the ILO Convention 190/2019, which is itself quoted in the renewed collective contract.
Work in Progress
If these are the most interesting novelties of the 2020 contractual renewal, it is important to also highlight the contradictions that remain unresolved, especially concerning maternity protection and sick leave. On the first point, the main issue is that so far there is no general prohibition of dismissal during maternity leave and during the child’s first year of life. In fact, the current ban is only valid during maternity leave (the two months preceding birth and the following three months), but not until the child is one year old, as is often the case. Nevertheless, it is a positive sign that, unlike the previous contract (signed in 2013, the same year of Italy’s ratification of ILO Convention 189/2011), this time all involved parties signed a joint declaration to promote all the initiatives necessary to extend the protection of working mothers.
On the second point, sick leave payment is up to the employer and not the INPS, and only for a maximum period of 15 days for those with a longer length of service. Obviously, this can lead to blackmail, and thus amounts to a factor of great vulnerability for workers, who are often reluctant to declare their true state of health as to not to suffer repercussions. The problems related to this point are even more evident if we consider that domestic workers are among the most exposed workers in this phase of pandemic: if it is true that a case of COVID-19 is considered a work accident and therefore paid by INAIL, the National Institute for Insurance against Industrial Injuries, it is equally true that this would have been an opportunity to change the rules and introduce stronger safeguards and guarantees for domestic workers on such a delicate issue. Moreover, the national collective agreement on domestic work still includes some derogations concerning the calculation of social security contributions, layoffs, health and safety at work, and redundancy payments compared with other working sectors.
These are the main regulatory limits of the national process of reception and implementation of ILO Convention 189/2011. Even if eight years have already passed since its formal ratification by Italy, the national collective contract still appears lacking, especially with regard to the principle of equal treatment: if issues such those of maternity protection and sick leave represent an explicit example of the unaddressed challenges in the ongoing process of domestic work’s recognition as decent work, it should be taken into account that other important innovations of the 2020 national collective contract only arrived eight years after the adoption/signing of ILO Convention. This legislative delay reflects the general opinion that Italians have of domestic work, namely that it is a private issue regularized by a sui generis employment relationship. Without going too deeply into legal details, essentially, the main legislative limit is the derogatory approach to the regulation of this sector, due to the political desire to avoid burdening households, which represent the key actors of Italy’s familialist welfare state.
It is thus interesting to notice also the existing practical gaps in the ILO Convention’s implementation. According to INPS data, in fact, the informality rate in domestic and care work in 2019 was 57.6 percent: even if a national collective contract exists, the majority of domestic workers in Italy are nevertheless excluded from social protection and fair working conditions.
Some contextual information may provide a clearer picture: according to the same INPS data on the regular component of domestic workers (namely those recruited with regular work contract), in 2019, 70.3 percent of them were foreign, and 88.7 percent were women: the average domestic worker is, thus, a migrant woman, in accordance with the migrant-in-the-family model of care that has characterized Italy since the early 2000s. Within a highly familialist welfare state such as the Italian one, in fact, care and domestic work are seen as a family responsibility and, considering the impact of the gender regime and the gendered division of labour, women’s natural vocation. Women’s increasing participation in the national workforce has nevertheless created a real care shortage, which has been perfectly addressed through the use of a migrant workforce: it seems impossible and totally useless to talk about domestic and care organization in Italy without considering the impact of the current migration regime and the rules of residency, immigration policies, and cultural norms affecting relations with ethnic minorities.
The invisibility affecting domestic work, connected to the intimate and private dimension in which it takes place, namely that of the household, seems to be reinforced by the legal invisibility of irregular migrant workers: in fact, migration policies create different legal subjectivities corresponding to different models of workers with different employment conditions and social protection. The high informality rate of domestic work in Italy testifies to the concrete weight of invisibility in domestic work’s organization: if the ongoing process of migrants’ criminalization makes them exploitable and vulnerable, the historical undervalorization of domestic and care work and the private dimension of the household obstructs and hinders the control and monitoring activity on the part of labour inspectorates. It seems obvious that a strict emergency approach relying on exceptional amnesties for irregular migrants when the situation appears unmanageable is not a concrete solution in the long-term.
It is also important to remember the impact that the recent increase of domestic and care work agencies and cooperatives has had on workers’ employment and working conditions. The overall process of care marketization has strengthened the role of these agencies, even in a familialist welfare state such as Italy’s. Even if studies and data on this topic are still insufficient, these labour market intermediaries contribute to increasing the heterogeneity of the sector through the application of different employment and working conditions. The fact that this is a recent, growing trend (at least in Italy) may lead us to reflect on the negative effects of the increasing marketization of care, especially if, as in the Italian case, it is counterbalanced by a weak and incoherent regulatory and normative framework.
If this is the Italian reality after ten years of ILO Convention 189, things have been getting worse since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the invisibility constitutive of domestic work has been seen more clearly than ever since the first lockdown and the related measures taken by the Italian government to protect and sustain workers. It appears paradoxical that the government’s first extraordinary decree, the so-called “Cura Italia” in March 2020, although recognizing domestic work as essential work, did not address domestic workers’ needs. Only with the so-called “Decreto Rilancio” in May 2020 did anything change, and only thanks to the mobilization of social actors and public opinion.
It is important to distinguish two level of analysis: the first concerns domestic workers’ health and the second their economic needs. Regarding the former, domestic workers have been among the most vulnerable workers since the beginning of the pandemic: there has been much confusion about who was responsible for providing them with personal protective equipment, and the issue of sick leave has obviously exploded, as already mentioned.
Concerning the second level, domestic workers were initially excluded from the prohibition of dismissals, from the babysitter bonus (provided to other parents working in essential sectors), and from any type of economic protection: they are recognized as essential, often described as heroes, but not protected like all other workers. Only in May did some improvement begin, through the introduction of an allowance of 500 euro for April and May, but only for regular live-out domestic workers with one or more employment contracts not exceeding a total of ten hours per week. This constitutes a partial measure that overlooks the majority of regularized domestic workers, not to mention the irregular ones: the government’s decision to resort to a new extraordinary amnesty is the umpteenth example of the invisibility affecting domestic work in “normal” times, considering that these exceptional migration laws are adopted when the importance and social value of this work is clearly evident to everyone due to specific circumstances, only to later return to the previous normality made up of discrimination and exploitation. Thus, differences among domestic workers have emerged during the pandemic: if regularized workers may have had access to help or support, irregular ones have been left totally alone. Moreover, if live-out workers have risked losing their jobs, live-in ones have continued to work more easily, but with much fewer opportunities to stop and rest or to leave the home, since it is also their workplace.
The pandemic has shown once again that domestic workers are far from being considered equal to other workers: the interaction of the gendered notion of the private domestic sphere as a place dedicated to non-working activities, with the juridical production of racialized subjectivities differentially included within the labour force, reinforces the invisibility of these workers. Even if Italy has formally ratified ILO Convention 189/2011, in fact, the way in which the Italian government has dealt with domestic work during the pandemic reflects the shared idea of domestic work as “not-real-work”, in which personal and intimate relationships between workers and family members continue to count more that the formal establishment of an employment relationship.
Trying to take stock ten years after the ILO Declaration, and in light of the most recent events, something appears almost self-evident: the formal economic and social valorization of domestic and care work is almost impossible within a society that systematically downplays and underestimates social reproduction activities. This means that overcoming the gendered division between public and private spheres is an essential step: recognizing that care is a crucial value in our society, but also a synonym for democracy itself appears urgent, especially in this pandemic era.
Care should, of course, no longer be treated as a private responsibility, but as a public and collective one based on the idea of an interdependent society. We should learn something from this terrible period: care can no longer be a private issue, since social reproduction activities are so essential that they must go on even when the whole world has to stop because of a pandemic. This, of course, means that we should now rethink the same idea of our welfare state: in the Italian case, for instance, the damaging effects of the famialist dimension of welfare are now completely apparent. It is the state, the public sector that should take on this responsibility, because it is a public and collective responsibility—it is not only an issue of working conditions but of democracy, at least as long as the private and domestic sphere is seen as something distinct and different from the public and political sphere or the democratic sphere.
This means investing in the care and domestic sector and not leaving all the responsibility and economic burden to families (especially in a country marked by an ageing population, such as Italy. According to the National Association of Domestic Workers’ Employers, in fact, thanks to the crucial role played by families in our national welfare, the Italian state saves around 10 billion euro each year. In this context, there is also an economic motivation leading families to look for the cheapest solutions: economic factors, as well as cultural and social ones contribute to the persistent undervalorization and invisibility of domestic work. Thus, it is understandable that market solutions may worsen workers’ situations, as families’ main concern is to keep costs low.
Without this systemic and comprehensive rethinking of the role of care and domestic activities in our society, it will be difficult to obtain better working conditions for domestic workers and recognize domestic work as decent work in concrete terms. Ten years after ILO Convention 189, and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be the right time to initiate this true paradigm shift.