Domestic Workers' Organizing Strategies and Models: An International Comparison

Monday, 11 July 2016: 09:15
Location: Hörsaal 16 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Claire HOBDEN, International Labour Organization, Switzerland
Helen SCHWENKEN, University of Osnabruck, Germany
Despite its reputation as a workforce that was “impossible to organize”, domestic workers around the world have successfully formed organizations to build their collective power. While they share many common goals and strategies, they also differ significantly, depending on organizing traditions, extent of labour and trade union rights, and collaboration with trade union confederations. Whereas domestic workers’ unions have existed in Latin America since the 1930s, they are a more recent phenomenon in Europe, where they are beginning to take hold in a trade union movement sometimes reluctant to include this “marginal” and precarious workforce. Efforts also differ according to migration status: in Hong Kong, Singapore and New York, domestic workers overcame cultural and linguistic diversity in an effort to reach common goals; nevertheless, the dependent (temporary or irregular) migration status clearly inhibits organizing.

Using data collected through field work in 13 countries (Brazil, Dominican Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Italy, Namibia, The Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the United States), this paper compares domestic workers’ organizations’ strategies and structures, with the aim of identifying and explaining patterns and points of divergence. Comparisons were made across variables, including outreach strategies, organizational form, position of domestic workers in the organization, and relationship to trade union confederations. Cases were then placed on a spectrum of organizing models, ranging from the “union” to the “associational” model (Ally 2005). The study reveals that organizing strategies, while they differ, work to overcome the sector’s characteristics, namely its decentralization, informality, instability, low worker to employer ratios, and socially marginal status of the workers. The comparison also paves the way to theorize domestic worker power, applying concepts of advocacy versus social power (Jenkins 2002), associational versus structural power (Olin Wright 2000), and other social movement theories and labor studies’ scholarship.