Agosto 24, 2021

The impact of the pandemic crisis on domestic workers: a global overview

Distribution of sanitary kits in Senegal. Permission to reproduce, copyright: IDWF


This contribution presents the results from two surveys conducted in collaboration with the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF) in Latin America and Africa, to assess the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the sector. It shows that the pandemic crisis has worsened pre-existing vulnerabilities, while also creating new forms of social inequalities. Both surveys were designed with IDWF regional teams and disseminated through their local affiliates. In Latin America, we collected 2,650 responses from 14 countries and 22 domestic workers’ organisations, and in Africa, we obtained 3,419 responses from 14 countries and 14 domestic workers’ unions. The surveys were conducted at different moments of the pandemic (April to May 2020 in Latin America, November 2020 to January 2021 in Africa), and with slightly different methodologies, therefore, they are not strictly comparable. However, the results discussed here give an insight into the hardship suffered by domestic workers, as well as the lack of adequate mechanisms to protect them in times of crisis.


One key, but sadly not so surprising, finding is the massive loss of jobs and income in the sector. In Latin America, about half of the respondents (49 per cent) were either dismissed or suspended, a quarter kept working normally, 14 per cent experienced a reduction in hours and wages and another 14 per cent benefitted from a paid quarantine in their own homes. Since only 30 per cent had a written contract, those who were dismissed were also very unlikely to receive any form of financial compensation or social benefits.


Figure 1: Employment situation during the crisis in Latin America

Source: IDWF Latin American survey

In Africa, levels of job loss where lower than in Latin America, but the survey was conducted later in the pandemic and restrictions on economic activities and mobility differed slightly. Nonetheless, 29 per cent of respondents were suspended or dismissed, 46 per cent continued to work as before, risking their lives in order to make ends meet, 18 per cent kept working but saw their hours and wages reduced, and only 6 per cent benefitted from a paid quarantine at their own home. As in Latin America, high levels of informality mean that those who lost their income could not easily access social protection. Notably, 85 per cent of laid-off workers received no severance pay whatsoever.


Figure 2: Employment situation during the crisis in Africa

Source: IDWF African survey.  


For those who continued to work, there was an increase of irregularities and violation of rights. In Latin America, 5 per cent reported violence or mistreatment, 6.7 per cent were in forced quarantine at their employer’s house and 11.8 per cent were asked to work more hours than usual. Similarly in the African study, respondents reported violation of rights and dramatic changes in their workload. The absolute majority (75 per cent) experienced an increase in their workload. A quarter were forced to stay at their employer’s house during the lockdown period, while less than 10 per cent usually live at their workplace.  Lastly, 6 per cent declared having had to take care of or work with someone who contracted Covid-19. Thus, even though keeping their job has allowed domestic workers to maintain their income, it has come at the detriment of their rights to health and safety. Those infringements are in contradiction with ILO Convention 189, which guarantees decent work for domestic workers, as well as with most existing legislation at the national levels.


According to the ILO, in June 2020, 72 per cent of domestic workers worldwide had been impacted by the crisis. Although the situation has been dramatic everywhere, there are important national and regional variations. In Central America, an absolute majority of domestic workers was dismissed or suspended (54 per cent in Mexico, 61 per cent in Guatemala, 75 per cent in Panama, 87 per cent in El Salvador) and there was practically no paid quarantine scheme or government support at the time of our survey. In South America, there were mixed cases such as Brazil or Colombia, where domestic workers faced restrictions to work during the period of the lockdown unless they were categorised as care workers, an occupation considered as ‘essential’ by their governments. This led to high levels of dismissals in the sector, but the classification of ‘essential’ allowed some to remain in work – although sometimes against their will. These two countries also adopted emergency financial aid for informal workers, to which day labourers (diaristas) could apply. However, the procedures were complicated and not easily accessible, resulting in a low level of uptake by domestic workers: only 13.50 per cent of respondents in Colombia and 26 per cent in Brazil reported having received the financial support.


In Africa, non-work related social assistance played an important role in mitigating the negative socioeconomic impact of the crisis. In the countries surveyed, governments introduced various forms of income-support such as cancellation of bills at the household level, distribution of food baskets, and emergency cash transfers. However, it was striking to notice the lack of targeted response and the exclusion of domestic workers from most public emergency packages. Indeed, 57 per cent of respondents did not even apply to government schemes, and among those, 47 per cent declared that the main reason for not applying was the lack of inclusion of domestic workers into the policy. Since they are already outside of social protection due the lack of formalized employment relations, domestic workers are unlikely to be covered by most existing mechanisms. Therefore, in the absence of a targeted state response when they lose their income, risks are high to fall into extreme poverty. Just like in Latin America, regional averages hide important national disparities: in Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia, over 90 per cent of respondents received no support whatsoever from their government, while in Senegal 85 per cent reported having benefited from bills cancellation and 45 per cent in Namibia were eligible for unemployment benefit.


Thus, these two surveys confirm the precarious living and working conditions of domestic workers, as well as the damaging consequences of informality. In a context of pandemic crisis, pre-existing factors of inequality and social exclusion are being reinforced, meaning that domestic workers have had to choose between their income and their health. Since they cannot access social benefits even under ‘normal’ circumstances, many were forced to stay in work to survive despite this representing a considerable risk for their health and that of their family. For domestic workers, a loss of revenues has meant falling into extreme poverty, while being kept in work led to an increase of rights’ violation and occupational hazards. As the leaders from the Brazilian Federation of Domestic Workers put it, they are considered ‘essential’ when it comes to keep working, but not when it comes to respecting their rights.


To know more about IDWF’s campaigns and local affiliates’ activities, see the Covid-19 page and consider donating to the global fund for domestic workers. The money is being used to distribute food baskets and sanitary kits to those who are most in need.




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About Ruth Castel-Branco

Ruth Castel-Branco

Ruth Castel-Branco is the Research Manager of the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). She was the author of IDWF African report on the impact of Covid-19. Email: Recent publications include: Castel-Branco, R. (2021). Improvising an E-state: The Struggle for Cash Transfer Digitalization in Mozambique, Development and Change; and Castel-Branco, R. (2020) O Trabalho Doméstico em Moçambique: Uma Década Após a sua Formalização, IESE.

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About Louisa Acciari

Louisa Acciari

Dr Louisa Acciari is Research Fellow and Co-director of the Centre for Gender and Disaster at the University College London (UK), and Research Associate of IDWF and A-id. She coordinated the data collection and analysis for IDWF Covid-19 impact studies. Email: Recent publications include: Acciari, L.; Britez, J. C.; Morales, A. C.
(2021) Right to Health, Right to Live: Domestic Workers Facing the Covid-19 Crisis in Latin America, Gender & Development; and Acciari, L. (2021) Practicing Intersectionality: Brazilian Domestic Workers’ Strategies of Alliance Building and Identity Mobilising, Latin American Research Review.

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