Domestic workers

Pamela Maposah, domestic worker in Malawi

Domestic work is an important source of employment, representing 4.5 per cent of employees worldwide. Yet domestic workers are amongst one of the most vulnerable and unprotected categories of workers. They consistently lack decent working conditions including social protection and are disproportionately exposed to violence and harassment. The vulnerabilities experienced within the sector are also compounded by the fact that the sector often encompasses disadvantaged groups, including women, migrants and children.    

To address these vulnerabilities, in 2011 the ILO adopted the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and its accompanying Recommendation No. 201. In the ten years since the adoption of these instruments, governments, together with workers’ and employers’ organizations, have secured more rights for domestic workers through the extension of laws and policies to cover domestic workers. Such measures are a first step towards the reduction of domestic workers’ vulnerabilities, the improvement of their income security and health care access as well as the transition to the formal economy. 

Despite this progress in legal coverage, however, it is estimated that only six per cent of domestic workers are legally covered by all social security branches This compares to 30.6 per cent of the working-age population legally covered by comprehensive social security systems worldwide, with women’s coverage lagging behind men’s by a substantial eight percentage points. Levels of social security coverage of domestic workers vary according to the branch concerned. While 50 per cent of the countries reviewed in 2020 provide for the most common branch of social security, old-age benefits, only 25 per cent provide for the least common branch,unemployment benefits. The lack of unemployment protection became particularly evident during the COVID-19-pandemic, during which job losses of domestic workers have been among the highest while only a small percentage had social security to fall back on. It is clear that the extension of social security to domestic workers is crucial and decisive for the attainment of sustainable development and social inclusion. 

These goals are not to be reached by the extension of legal coverage alone. Domestic workers need to be effectively covered as well, especially in the areas of working time, wages and social security protection. Still,many domestic workers cannot effectively access their rights and protections. 

Domestic work is not a homogenous sector, it is characterised by a variety of situations. However, the lack of social protection coverage appears to be crosscutting for a number of reasons. Legal challenges range from the exclusion from labour and social security laws to issues related to entry requirements (e.g. the thresholds of minimum working hours). Further, administrative barriers prevent full coverage due to non-transparent and complicated application procedures or regional diversity. Difficulties of monitoring and enforcing compliance also add to the challenges as well as societal norms that disregard domestic work as form of employment that does not need to be declared. 

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, some best country practices can help tackle these coverage gaps. These include mandatory affiliation and the elimination of threshold provisions on minimum working time, the duration of employment or earnings. Further, the extension could be increased by facilitating access to social protection schemes, including through various financing mechanisms, and reducing administrative barriers (for more information see resources below).

Photo credit: “Pamela Maposah, domestic worker in Malawi” International Labour Organization via Flickr


Inclusion of Vulnerable Groups

As a human right that is intrinsic to all, the international community recognizes the need to design and implement social protection systems according to the principle of social inclusion, underlying the particular need to include persons in the informal economy (Recommendation No. 202, para 3e). Delivery systems should therefore be particularly attuned to the challenges […]

Equality and Non-discrimination

Non-discrimination and equality are core elements of the international human rights normative framework. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every human being is entitled to all rights and freedoms “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, […]

Legal Instruments

South Africa, Unemployment Insurance Amendment Act 32 of 2003

The Unemployment Insurance Amendment Act granted domestic workers a number of social protection benefits by including domestic workers in the Unemployment Insurance Fund. The Fund provides (a) full or partial unemployment benefits in case of dismissal, retrenchment, illness, or death of the employer; and (b) maternity benefits for pregnant domestic workers before or after their […]

Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)

The Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and its accompanying Domestic Workers Recommendation, 2011 (No. 201) address closing the gaps in social protection coverage. It calls on Members to ‘… take appropriate measures, in accordance with national laws and regulations and with due regard for the specific characteristics of domestic work, to ensure that domestic […]

Domestic Workers Recommendation, 2011 (No. 201)

The Domestic Workers Recommendation, 2011 (No. 201) accompanies the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and urges ILO member States to take measures to facilitate the payment of social security contributions. It also highlights the potential of bilateral and multilateral agreements to guarantee equal treatment of migrant domestic workers in terms of social security, with […]

Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015 (No. 204)

This Recommendation recognizes the lack of protection of workers in the informal economy, and provides guidance for improving their protection and facilitating transitions to the formal economy. It also recognizes that decent work deficits – the denial of rights at work, the absence of sufficient opportunities for quality employment, inadequate social protection and the absence […]

Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102)

A reference for the development of social security systems, Convention No. 102 is the flagship of the up-to-date social security Conventions since it is deemed to embody the internationally accepted definition of the very principle of social security.  Convention No. 102 is unique for both its conceptual formulation of social security, and the guidance it provides for […]

Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202)

Recommendation No. 202 is the first international instrument to offer guidance to countries to close social security gaps and progressively achieve universal protection through the establishment and maintenance of comprehensive social security systems. To this aim, the Recommendation calls for (1) the implementation, as a priority, of social protection floors (SPF) as a fundamental element […]


Making decent work a reality for domestic workers: Progress and prospects ten years after the adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)

This report assesses the working conditions of domestic workers ten years after the adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189). It highlights the progress made over a decade, as well as the remaining legal and implementation gaps, and provides guidance on policies that can pave the way to make decent work a reality […]

Extending social security to domestic workers: Lessons from international experience

This policy brief outlines the challenges in extending social protection to domestic workers, which were aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis. These include inter alia legal exclusion in relation to working conditions and arrangements (part time work, multiple employers, informality, etc).  Even where domestic workers might be covered in law, administrative barriers or the lack of […]

Expanding Social Security Coverage to Migrant Domestic Workers

The briefing note explains the ILO strategy to expand social security coverage to migrant domestic workers, including the ILO standards relevant to migrant domestic workers. Despite the long list of ILO social security instruments adopted, the note goes on by describing the main challenges of standards setting for migrant domestic workers, not only in multilateral […]

Labour inspections and other compliance mechanisms in the domestic work sector: Introductory guide

This guide focuses on the challenges that countries face in implementing labour legislation covering domestic work. It is targeted in particular to government agencies, including labour inspectorates and other institutions that enforce labour regulations, as well as social partners and, more generally, domestic workers and their employers. The guide provides a practical overview of the […]

Domestic work voice and representation through organizing

The policy brief outlines the obstacles for the formation of trade unions, strikes and collective bargaining in the sector of domestic work. It highlights that voice and representation for domestic workers is nevertheless important and advocates for new paradigms and new thinking to organize workers of and set collective standards. It therefore focuses on illustrating […]

ILO Resource Package on “Extending Social Security to Workers in the Informal Economy”

The ILO policy resource package “Extending social security to workers in the informal economy: Lessons from international experience” serves as a reference for policy makers, workers’ and employers’ organizations and other stakeholders engaged in the development of social protection strategies, or the planning, design, implementation and monitoring of systems and schemes. This practical tool can help in […]

Your Toolkit on ILO Convention 189 – The Domestic Workers’ Convention

WIEGO and the IDWF partnered to write this toolkit to support International Domestic Workers Foundation affiliates in their efforts to make the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) real for domestic workers. The Toolkit describes Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and its history and provides three steps on how the Convention can be implemented, […]

Formalizing Domestic Work

Many countries around the world are at the onset of a care crisis: with the ageing of the population, and continually increasing rates of female labour participation, families are increasingly turning to domestic workers to care for their homes, children, and ageing parents. While an increasing share of domestic work is part of the formal […]

Social Protection Policy Papers (Paper 16) —Social Protection for Domestic Workers: Key policy trends and statistics

This working paper: (i) provides an overview of the global situation of social security provisions for domestic workers in 163 countries; (ii) analyses trends, policies and gaps in terms of legal and effective social security coverage for domestic workers; (iii) describes and analyses the configuration of social security schemes for domestic workers, such as their […]

Social Protection and Human Rights