Chapter 8: Minimum wages for domestic workers

8.2 Why domestic workers’ wages are often very low

Domestic workers provide crucial services to households around the world. It is thanks to the labour of domestic workers that the women and men of the households for which they work are able to go to work, to earn a living for their own family, and to realize sustainable and fruitful futures for themselves and their children. Yet, the wages paid to domestic workers are often extremely low. In fact, available data shows that they receive substantially lower wages in comparison to other employees 1. Estimates suggest that they typically earn less than half of average wages – and sometimes no more than about 20 per cent of average wages.

The low levels of remuneration among domestic workers is the result of a range of factors, including a large labour supply, undervaluation of domestic work and its contribution to society, the low bargaining power of domestic workers, the lack of representation in the sector, and frequent exclusion from labour protection, particularly minimum wage coverage – all of which tend to be interlinked. Establishing a minimum wage for these workers is a key means to ensure their right to decent work and a decent life.


Despite the clear contributions of the sector, domestic work is frequently not perceived as real work, performed within an employment relationship. Employers and societies often perceive domestic work as a natural part of any woman’s work, and not as a valuable service provided to their households, performing concrete tasks such as cleaning, cooking, shopping, laundry, as well as caring for children, older people, disabled and other household members in need of care.

Such attitudes and perceptions tend to result in domestic work being undervalued in comparison with jobs predominately performed by men.2

Gender-based pay discrimination in domestic work may also be compounded with other forms of discrimination. For example, the worker’s ethnic or social origin, or nationality may determine the level of remuneration as opposed to being based on legitimate criteria, such as the type of work performed or actual hours of work.

Low pay in the domestic work sector is also linked to the perception of domestic work as “unproductive” because it is not seen as directly generating economic gains or profits for the households employing them. Yet, domestic workers enable their employers – especially women – to go to work and earn income to support their families. In this way, domestic workers’ labour supports households and national economies.

Low bargaining power and representation

Domestic workers’ weak bargaining power in the home and the low incidence of representative domestic workers’ organizations also make them subject to low wages.

Because their workplace is a private household, domestic workers perform their duties in relative isolation from other workers. This particularly holds true for domestic workers who reside in the household for which they work (“live-in workers”). Domestic workers usually have no co-workers. Long and unpredictable hours of work may make it exceptionally difficult for them to meet up with fellow workers to exchange experiences and information and to organize collectively. Employers often do not see themselves as employers and are usually not organized.

This decentralization and isolation of the workforce has posed challenges to establishing representative organizations for domestic workers, or for their employers. Although organizations do exist in some countries, large swaths of the domestic workforce remain unorganized and therefore more vulnerable to abusive practices such as unduly low wages or non-payment of wages. Live-in domestic workers are particularly unlikely to demand higher wages, since losing their job also means losing their accommodation.

In some countries, socio-cultural factors, such as language barriers, may prevent domestic workers, particularly migrant domestic workers and those belonging to ethnic minority groups or indigenous peoples, from engaging and negotiating with their employers.

Low levels of education among domestic workers and their position in society often limits their access to other job opportunities, pushing domestic workers into accepting poor conditions. Such factors also increase their vulnerability to abusive treatment, discrimination and unfair working conditions.

1 ILO (2013). Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection, (Geneva, ILO).
2 ILO (2007) “General Observation on the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100)”, in Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, Report III (Part IA), International Labour Conference, 96th Session, Geneva, 2007 (Geneva), pp. 27172; and ILO (2009): Decent Work for Domestic Workers, Report IV(1), International Labour Conference, 99th Session, Geneva, 2010 (Geneva).