Domestic labour and inequality

A new study based on data from 74 countries suggests the employment of domestic workers is higher in societies where income inequality is high. Is a recent surge in domestic work in Europe linked to increased inequality?

Paid domestic work has traditionally been common in societies with strong social hierarchies, according to research carried out at the University of Turku in Finland using statistics compiled by the International Labour Office.

A paper by Merita Jokela, published in the Journal Social Policy and Society, says that although the employment of domestic servants began to disappear from the mid-Twentieth Century in many post-industrial welfare states, it has has now re-emerged.

The article looks at how factors such as economic inequality, care needs and labour markets are associated with the prevalence of paid domestic labour. The analysis covers seventy-four countries and is based on recently published data compiled by the International Labour Office.

Typically, white and upper middle-class households hire poorer migrant women to take care of their homes, it says. The article argues that gaps between rich and poor have increased across the world – and that the employment of domestic workers is higher in those countries with higher income inequality.

The study does not find that a higher incidence of domestic labour is linked to factors such as a high proportion of the population being over 65, with high female employment rates or with the proportion of migrants in a population. But even after controlling for other variables, higher levels of income inequality are associated with higher levels of domestic employment.

Western European countries, including the United Kingdom, have lower levels both of inequality and of domestic labour than other regions such as the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean. But within that group, there are significant differences.

In the Nordic countries, where public care provision enables both women and men to participate in the labour market with less need for private care, there is a low incidence both of domestic workers and of income inequality. In contrast, Southern European countries have the highest prevalence of paid domestic labour in this group of countries and the greatest income inequality.

The results do not support the hypothesis that care needs are associated with a higher share of paid domestic labour: a high proportion of over sixty-five-year-olds is associated with a lower prevalence of paid domestic labour, and nor is the the female employment rate significant.

The results do not support the notion that the employment of domestic labour decreases as a country becomes more developed: a lower level of GPD per capita is not associated with a higher prevalence of paid domestic labour.

During the past fifteen years, the paper says, the number of domestic workers has increased by almost 20 million – official figures put the total at around 53 million but the total is believed to be much higher.

In affluent countries, the ILO estimates that 3.5 million people are employed in domestic service, accounting for nearly one per cent of total employment. Around 80 per cent of domestic workers are women, and in some regions, such as Latin America, this proportion is over 90 per cent, according to ILO figures.

A significantly smaller share of paid domestic work is performed by men, who typically work as security guards, chauffeurs and gardeners. The more common jobs in the domestic-work sector, those of cleaners, nannies and other caregivers, are mainly occupied by women.

The numbers of domestic workers from the ILO database are mostly derived from official publications such as censuses, labour force surveys and other household survey reports, and from the ILO’s statistical database, LABORSTA. The ILO defines all persons employed by private households as domestic workers.

“On the whole, the results of this research suggest that the preconditions for the domestic work sector still lie heavily in income distribution within societies,” the paper concludes. “Discussions on domestic services, especially in Europe and the US, increasingly emphasise the need for help in ordinary households and see paid domestic work as an alternative to public care provision. Population ageing, together with other societal developments, will only increase the demand for domestic and care services in the future.”