Migrants employed in the domestic work sector are essential workers in the COVID-19 response, due to the important roles they play in the care of children, sick, and dependent people, as well as the maintenance of homes, which helps prevent the spread of the virus. However, despite their enormous contribution to the functioning of households and the economy, they tend to be one of the groups most affected by the crisis.
Traditionally, domestic work has been considered precarious due to poor or even exploitative working conditions, such as long working hours, low wages, informal conditions, little-to-no social protection, and a tendency to live with their employers. A 2018 report released by UN Women found that the Caribbean region has high levels of informal working conditions among domestic workers, with 90% of domestic workers employed informally. Specifically, the following states had particularly informal work situations for domestic workers: Haiti (99%), Dominican Republic (96.5%), Jamaica (92%) and Guyana (94.9%).
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 93% of domestic workers in the Caribbean are women, and out of this, 17% of domestic workers are migrants. Furthermore, race and class inequalities are reflected in the domestic work sector with Afrodescendant and indigenous populations overrepresented in domestic work. According to a 2010 survey from ECLAC, 63% of domestic employees are of Afro descent in Latin America.
Under lockdown, migrant domestic workers’ already unstable situations have worsened, according to a new report on Domestic workers in Latin Americas and the Caribbean during the COVID-19 crisis, released by UN WOMEN. Many have continued working, despite the current pandemic, while others have been dismissed without pay, meaning they cannot pay rent or send remittances back home. Specific contextual factors that exacerbate domestic worker´s vulnerabilities include:
- Caring for at-risk populations: domestic workers must attend to the ‘at-risk’ population, such as elderly or sick people, while at the same time caring for children who must stay home due to the suspension of classes and restrictions on mobility. Some domestic workers have not received adequate Personal Protective Equipment despite having to interact with others outside their household or having to care for people who have tested positive for the virus, which increases their risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19.
- Extra workloads: Stay-at-Home orders have increased the ordinary workloads in the house, such as cooking and cleaning tasks. IOM CREST reports that over 50% of domestic migrant workers have had to work extra hours, without extra pay or compensated hours. Since official recommendations are not to leave the house, domestic workers have reported being unable to refuse to work on their day off. In addition, some domestic workers have been pressured to stay overnight in their workplaces to lower risks or exposure to possible contracting and/or transmission of COVID-19 during their commute.
- Access to health care: the informal nature of much domestic work means that many migrant domestic workers have limited or do not have adequate access to healthcare, as well as limited health seeking behaviour due to limited financial resources or because they are not affiliated with the social security system in the country where they work. It is particularly critical in the case of migrant domestic workers in irregular administrative situation who often cannot even attend public health centres in many countries.
- Reduced wages: In other cases, domestic workers have reported reduced working hours, loss of wages and/or unemployment as a result of decreased economic activity or unemployment. According to the IOM, 70% of domestic workers in the Americas have been affected by quarantine measures, resulting in a reduction of working hours or the loss of work altogether. For migrant domestic workers whose migratory status is attached to their employment, COVID-19 induced unemployment can increase their risk of entering an irregular migratory status.
- Loss of home: some live-in domestic workers have been dismissed. Some domestic workers have been found in the streets, after losing their homes along with their jobs, increasing their health vulnerabilities and the need for physical and mental health assistance and support. Additionally, this situation puts them at greater risk of falling into situations of trafficking or exploitation as they try to survive.
The IOM has released a set of guidelines for employers and businesses to enhance migrant worker protection during the COVID-19 pandemic, with specific recommendations to address the unique vulnerabilities of migrant domestic workers. Recommendations include the adoption of health and safety measures in the home, the modification of work commutes to reduce the possibility of contracting or transmitting COVID-19, and the responsibilities of employers to ensure their domestic workers have up-to-date identification and migration documents.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the vulnerabilities of at-risk groups of the population, and the serious consequences for domestic workers in the Caribbean region, among others. The pandemic has emphasized the State’s responsibility to extend social welfare and labour protection for all migrant workers, irrespective of their migrant situation. It is crucial that this crisis does not represent a step backwards in the consolidation of the labour rights of migrant domestic workers.
For more information, please contact Mr. Jorge Gallo, Regional Communications Officer at IOM Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean.