On June 22, Mirtes Renata Santana, a domestic worker, brought her five-year-old son Miguel with her to work in an affluent neighbourhood outside of Recife in eastern Brazil. She did not have much choice – the coronavirus pandemic had closed schools, and there was no one else to take care of her son. When Santana was out walking her employer’s dog later that day, tragedy struck: Miguel, left to himself, fell off a balcony and died.
The case has become a lightning rod in Brazil, sparking a fierce debate about both class and the working conditions of the poorest in society. This conversation is as timely as it is necessary – not just in Brazil, but in many other parts of the world. In fact, Santana’s case is sadly emblematic of the plight of domestic workers everywhere.
Domestic workers are too often the forgotten workforce. Like Santana, they lack legal protection, exist on the margins of social safety nets, and are often the most vulnerable in times of crisis. Many live with the stigma that cooking, cleaning, caring for children and buying groceries is not “real work” – or even worse, that it is just something “that women do”.
There are at least 67 million domestic workers across the world today, and more than 90 percent of them do not have the same social protection as the rest of the labour force. Unemployment benefits, pension schemes and even sick leave are often out of reach for those who provide care inside homes.
This has left domestic workers particularly vulnerable to abuse. Many end up trapped inside the houses of abusive employers, where they are driven to exhaustion through long working hours and sometimes even face physical violence.
In Hong Kong, recent research shows that foreign domestic workers work on average 13 hours a day. A string of horrific cases of abuse has also grabbed media headlines, most infamously in 2015 when a Hong Kong woman was fined and jailed for beating and starving her Indonesian maid for years.
The pandemic has exacerbated many of these issues. Lacking access to healthcare, domestic workers have been unable to get tested or acquire the personal protective equipment they need. Many have lost their jobs, while others have been forced to continue to work long hours in homes where they are at risk of being exposed to the virus. Unlike their employers, who do have access to treatment if they catch the coronavirus, most domestic workers do not.
COVID-19 has also exposed the particular vulnerabilities of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers around the world. They have for years been easy prey for unscrupulous hiring agencies, who often charge exorbitant fees to arrange work overseas.
In Malaysia, thousands of domestic workers have lost their jobs during the pandemic but have been unable to return home amid border closures throughout Asia. Since they mostly work in the informal sector, their embassies have been unwilling to help them return – they exist in a state of legal limbo, without work, homes, and sometimes even enough food to eat.
But in crisis, there is also an opportunity – and this pandemic is no different. Usually hidden in homes and forgotten, COVID-19 has brought into the open both the predicament of domestic workers and their immense contributions to society. Domestic workers provide care, both indirectly and directly, to millions of people across the world. They are also a crucial part of the economy – remittances from domestic workers are hugely important in many countries, from Mexico to the Philippines.
Today, as the world marks the Global Day of Action for Care, our demands are simple: domestic workers should have the same rights as everyone else. Governments must realise that all care work is equally critical, whether it takes place in a hospital, a nursery, or in the home. States around the world must enact laws that extend the same protections to domestic workers as the rest of the labour force enjoys, including access to healthcare, unemployment benefits, and pension schemes.
We also urge more governments to join the growing lists of countries that have signed up to the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Domestic Workers 189. This landmark international treaty, which was adopted in 2011, enshrines basic rights of domestic workers, including to the right to rest days and a minimum wage.
Thankfully, some countries are leading the way. Several South American states, including Argentina and Chile, have included domestic workers in labour laws, while South Africa put in place a minimum wage for all domestic workers. In Asia, a region generally lagging behind the rest of the world on workers’ rights, Hong Kong has set an example by including migrant domestic workers in the same labour law for local workers.
It is high time for the rest of the world to follow suit, as domestic workers deserve our gratitude, protection and respect. We are care workers, and we are also in need of care. Governments must make sure that tragic and avoidable deaths like Miguel’s never happen again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.