Situating child domestic work
Internationally, ‘child domestic workers’ have been broadly understood to be children and young people under the age of 18 who “work in other people’s households, doing domestic chores, caring for children and running errands, among other tasks” (UNICEF, 1999: 2).1 As the definition indicates, the situation of children living and working in the households of others has tended to be positioned in the policy literature as primarily a labour concern – whether as ‘employment’ or ‘exploitation’ (see section 4).
Child domestic workers may be paid for their work in cash or in kind and, while some live independently of their employers, many typically ‘live in’. The situation of those who live with their employers is of particular concern. Those who live-in are often discriminated against based on ethnicity, social status, poverty and position as non-family members, as well as experiencing social isolation, limited access to education, and dependence on adults whose primary concern is not their welfare (ILO, 2013a).
A definition of child domestic workers which emphasises the work that they do or their relationship to their employer tends to be preferred in academic studies on the topic (see, for example Jensen, 2014; Klocker, 2014). At the same time, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) continues to utilise economic/labour market terminology to refer to child domestic work as “children’s work in the domestic work sector in the home of a third party or employer”, a concept which “encapsulates both permissible as well as non permissible situations” (ILO, 2020; author’s emphasis).
Evidence indicates that the extent and nature of the work that children do depends on the households they enter, how they get there, and whether they work alongside others (including employers and the children of their employers), as well as on their gender, physical strength and cognitive capacity (Thorsen, 2012). The lack of set working hours and the absence of boundaries between what is work and what is not has led some researchers and activists to declare that a defining feature of child domestic workers’ situation is that they are on-call 24 hours a day (ILO, 2004). 1.1
The ILO has indicated that domestic work is the most common type of work for teenage girls worldwide (ILO, 2004). Of the estimated 17.2 million child domestic workers globally, almost 70% are girls and over two-thirds (11.5 million) are, from the perspective of international standards, considered to be in unacceptable conditions, either because they are below the legal minimum working age (usually around 14 years); are working in situations defined as hazardous; or are in servitude or debt bondage (ILO, 2013a). While there are no figures for the numbers in slavery, the ILO has estimated that 3.7 million of all child domestic workers are in hazardous work situations (2.6 million girls and 1.1 million boys), a quarter of whom are under 12 years of age (ILO, 2013a).
These global estimates, the only ones that exist and dating back to 2012, are based on samples of national household survey data gathered by the ILO. There are several limitations to these estimates: they are reliant on the quality of the surveys and the reliability of householders’ responses when asked about children living in their households who are not their own; there is ambiguity surrounding which children to include (with a tendency to only include children described as in an ‘employment relationship’); and there is a lack of data regarding the 1 The types of tasks performed by child domestic workers appear to be similar across countries and contexts; they include care of children and the elderly, fetching water and wood, tending to animals, cleaning, cooking, and purchasing daily household essentials. Child domestic work: Summary framing paper 5 “Domestic work in most countries is strongly gendered, with girls socialised from an early age to take responsibility for domestic and reproductive spheres” numbers of children in servitude, debt bondage and other extreme situations. All of these limitations point to a significant underestimate in the global prevalence figures. (Annex 1 contains a snapshot of national-level data from African contexts and the challenges to accurately counting this group.)
Causes and drivers
The large majority of child domestic workers come from poor families and, particularly in societies lacking social protection safety nets, are sent to work to supplement their family’s income or simply to lessen the financial strain at home (UNICEF, 1999). Other ‘push’ factors include the desire to escape from domestic violence, to flee an early marriage, or the cultural motivations of parents to send their girls into ‘safe’ and suitable situations in advance of married life (Black, 2011). A study of the psychosocial impact of domestic work on children found that the level of cultural and social acceptability of child domestic work in a society impacts upon the age at which children enter the sector and how they are subsequently treated – with children in societies where the practice is widely accepted found to be starting work at a younger age and subject to greater exploitation than those places where the practice is less tolerated (ASI, 2013).
Children are also ‘pulled’ into domestic work as a result of the widespread belief that the move will offer better opportunities and living conditions, and by siblings and friends already working in households. For prospective employers, balancing the demands of work with childcare has meant a considerable demand for domestic help – with many employers opting for younger workers because they are cheaper and considered to be more acquiescent to employers’ requirements (ILO, 2011). In some countries, significant numbers of older children report that they themselves make the decision to leave home and seek work in order to be able to continue with their education (Blagbrough, 2008).
At the same time, domestic work in most countries is strongly gendered, with girls socialised from an early age to take responsibility for domestic and reproductive spheres. In this sense, domestic work can be seen as an age-based and gendered continuum, with young girls socialised to take on the domestic work burden at home, then moving to neighbouring towns or cities to work with their extended families and for strangers as their age and experience increases – and even, perhaps, transnationally where these migration patterns have developed (YOUR World Research, 2019; see also section 4.3). Child domestic work: Summary framing paper 6 2
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