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International Domestic Workers’ Day 2021: improving the rights of migrant care workers in Italy

By Oliver Fisher Published 16.06.2021

On International Domestic Workers’ day (June 16), we stand in solidarity with domestic workers around the world and celebrate the important contributions that these workers make to society. Broadly speaking, domestic work is defined as “work performed in or for a household or households”. Common forms of domestic work include cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, and providing care for older adults. There are currently at least 67 million domestic workers worldwide, many of which are migrants. Around four in five domestic workers are women.

Today also marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C189). This convention is the first international labour standard to guarantee domestic workers the same rights as workers in other sectors, including limits on hours of work, weekly days off, minimum wage and overtime pay, and access to social security systems. So far 32 countries have ratified C189, including Italy in 2013.

Italy’s migrant care worker market

Italy’s domestic work sector has experienced rapid growth in recent decades in part due to its ageing population and a lack of long term care solutions from the national or regional governments. Traditionally, family members -often women- have provided the majority of the care for older adults in Italy. However, as more women enter the workforce, and less adult children live with their parents, there has been an increased demand for home care services. To fill this demand, it has become common practice for households to privately hire migrant workers to provide care for older adults with long term care needs. These workers frequently live with the person that they provide care for. Recent estimates suggest that there are at least 750,000 migrant care workers currently employed in Italy.

However, despite the important work that they provide, there have been widespread reports of poor working conditions and labour rights abuses and violations against migrant care workers in Italy.

Migrant care workers frequently having little or no time off and are expected to work around the clock, receive low wages, and at times experience emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and racism and discrimination.

Why are labour rights violations occurring?

One of the underlying factors behind these violations and poor working conditions is the undervaluing of care work in Italian society. To understand why care work is undervalued, we need to take an intersectional approach to analysing care work. Intersectionality is the recognition that people face multiple and intersecting forms of structural discrimination. This can include, but is not limited to their gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, class, and age. These factors do not exist independent of each other, but instead each factor informs the other.

In the case of Italy, people often view women as “natural carers” and see care work as “women’s work”. Consequently, from a societal point of view, care work is often not considered work or is viewed as unskilled or low skilled work. There is therefore a lack of recognition of the complex skills required to be a care worker and because of this, some employers do not feel that they have to offer working conditions in line with what would be offered to workers in other sectors.

The home care market in Italy is also built on hierarchies on the basis of social class, gender, ethnicity and nationality. Care work within the home is for the most part outsourced to women from low income countries or countries with lower average incomes than Italy. Many of these workers come from Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Albania, Ecuador, Morocco, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. Some employers justify the low wages they provide on the basis that these wages are still higher than what would be earned in the worker’s home country.

Migrant care workers also sometimes experience discrimination based on their ethnicity and/or nationality. Previous research has shown that some employers refuse to hire or show hostility towards black care workers. While a common stereotype that Polish and Ukrainian care workers have to deal with is the belief that they only come to Italy to marry Italian men. This can lead to discrimination by employers and attempts to control their body or clothing, including by making them wear a uniform in order to downplay their femininity.

The poor working conditions of migrant care workers are also the result of the actions or lack thereof of the Italian government.

The fact that the government has ratified ILO C189 and has introduced a collective bargaining agreement for care workers is a step in the right direction. However, at present, there has been a lack of political will to enforce the rights that these workers are entitled to and migrant workers often do not have any channel to report violations when they take place.

Low levels of funding for care services also causes issues for workers. At the national level, the government provides a cash allowance which can be used to hire migrant care workers. However, this amount does not cover the full salary of the worker and some employers choose to hire workers without formal contracts in order to not pay social security contributions and therefore cut costs.

While migrant workers that hold a nationality from an EU country are able to move to Italy relatively easy due to freedom of movement laws within the EU, the same cannot be said for workers from outside the EU. Italy uses a quota-system for non-EU citizens, which details the maximum number of people who can enter Italy for employment purposes each year. However, the demand for care workers often exceeds the number of granted visas and work permits for care workers. Consequently, many care workers are forced to migrate through irregular migration channels (for example entering on a tourist visa or visa exemption). This leaves workers with even fewer options to report labour rights violations, while also leaving them at risk of deportation. The government occasionally runs programmes to provide documentation for those who entered through irregular channels. However, there is still the need to develop a sustainable migration channel for migrant care workers from countries outside the EU.

What can be done to improve the rights of migrant care workers in Italy?

One argument that is often used when talking about the home care sector is that it is inherently dangerous because it takes place within the home. However, the care sector does not have to be any more dangerous than any other type of work and it is possible to provide migrant care workers with safe and decent working conditions.

To do this, the Italian government needs to ensure that migrant care workers have safe avenues to be able to report labour rights violations if they occur. Funding non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide legal and labour rights assistance to workers is one avenue to assist with this, as workers may not feel safe reporting violations directly to government officials. Migrant care workers and the people that hire them also need to understand which rights they are legally entitled to.

The Italian government should also ratify the ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention (C190). This will ensure that the Italian government introduces laws and regulations to define and prohibit violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender-based violence and harassment.

Perhaps most importantly, Italian society needs to stop undervaluing care work and the work provided by women.

Education, information and awareness raising campaigns run by the Italian government that focus on the value of care work and the work provided by migrant workers may assist in reducing the harmful stereotypes and assumptions that migrant workers currently face.

It is also important to recognize that the discrimination faced by migrant care workers, and especially women migrant care workers does not occur within a bubble. Instead, they are often reflective of broader societal issues in Italy around racism and harmful gender stereotypes. It is therefore important that individuals within society reflect upon, challenge, and break down their own negative perceptions around migration, care work, and the work provided by women.

Care work is work, and care workers deserve to have decent and safe employment and living conditions. Care workers, like any other worker, deserve time off to rest, they deserve to have a family and social life, and they deserve the right to a life away from work. Care workers deserve to be valued.

About the author
Oliver Fisher is a PhD student and Early Career Researcher at the National Institute for Health and Science on Ageing (INRCA), Italy and Università Politecnica delle Marche. His work focuses on migration, labour rights, and the care sector.
Want to connect? Contact the author: o.fisher@inrca

Recommended reading
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