For many domestic workers, co-ops hold the key to decent work

Simel Esim (left) is Head and Senior Technical Specialist at the Cooperatives Unit International Labour Organization. Lenore Matthew is a Cooperatives Unit Intern.

The 104th International Labour Conference has voted for the adoption of a Recommendation on transition from the informal to the formal economy after two years of deliberations.

It was the first ever international labour standard specifically aimed at tackling the informal economy, which comprises more than half of the world’s workforce.

Sí Se Puede! Women’s Cooperative – We Can Do It! Inc. provides house cleaning services in all five boroughs of New York City. In the space of nine years it has grown from 15 members to 67, almost all of whom belong to the Latin American community. Find out more

Domestic workers comprise a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment and are among the most vulnerable groups of workers.

When Ida Le Blanc, the former Secretary General of the National Union of Domestic Employees, talks about the launch of the Service Workers’ Centre Cooperative in Trinidad and Tobago she has a conviction and passion in her voice.

She says that after forty years of struggle for the recognition of domestic workers in national laws and policies, the union has now decided to support a membership-based, collective enterprise for the economic empowerment of domestic workers. The cooperative provides job matching, skills training, accountancy and awareness-raising among other services.

The domestic worker cooperative experience in Trinidad and Tobago is not unique. The National House Managers Cooperative of Korea, a cooperative of mostly middle-aged women domestic workers, is supported by the Korean Women Workers’ Association which, also provides professional development and awareness-building activities for its members.

As domestic workers launch their efforts to establish their cooperatives, it will no doubt be crucial for the workers’ and cooperative movements as well as governments to provide them with the support they need.

On a wider social scale, the cooperative/association partnership is helping change stereotypes about domestic workers in Korea, who are too often seen as “servants” instead of workers deserving of respect.

Other types of organizations have also supported domestic workers in establishing and managing their cooperatives. The all-women, worker-owned cooperative Si Se Puede! (We can do it!), which provides eco-friendly housecleaning services in New York City, was supported by the Center for Family Life, a non-profit community-based organization based in Brooklyn.

Si Se Puede helps women, particularly immigrants, secure gainful employment in the domestic sector and has succeeded in securing member wages at USD$ 20 per hour, up from the USD$ 7-8 per hour that most workers earned before. Si Se Puede also provides members with educational and skills-building opportunities. Dozens of other similar domestic worker cooperatives are being formed by immigrant women across the US with support from organizations including the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives.

In a mapping exercise undertaken by the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit in its Enterprises Department in 2013, over 40 cooperatives of domestic workers from around the world, which are facilitating their members’ transition to formality, were found. The mapping initiative shows that cooperatives of domestic workers help them with economies of scale, voice and representation, as well as a wide array of support services which help formalize their work. They provide their members with higher wages and better working conditions, member-controlled operations and decision-making processes, and greater bargaining power to leverage for improved wages and conditions.

Highlights of findings from the mapping on domestic worker cooperatives can be accessed in ILO COOP brief on cooperating out of isolation. For domestic workers, the collective platform of cooperatives is particularly meaningful, as it breaks down the social isolation which is common of domestic work, and introduces workers into networks that advocate for improved employment situations.

The ILO’s Regional Office for Arab States has recently undertaken research that shows the role cooperatives can play in providing services for domestic workers and even serving as a possible alternative to private recruitment agencies. A Validation Roundtable, ‘Cooperating Out of Isolation: the case of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait’, was held in Amman to validate the research outcomes, prioritize findings, and explore ways to provide services for migrant domestic workers through cooperatives.

The ILO’s Pretoria office is also folllowing upon the requests from the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) with an assessment that looks into the needs of their members which can best be addressed through cooperatives.

A workshop is scheduled for early July to discuss the findings and identify the ways forward. The momentum around domestic worker cooperatives is growing as a means to enhancing their access to decent work. As domestic workers launch their efforts to establish their cooperatives, it will no doubt be crucial for the workers’ and cooperative movements as well as governments to provide them with the support they need.  

2 thoughts on “For many domestic workers, co-ops hold the key to decent work

  1. Thanks for the report we in Kenya we shall think how we can sell the idea to the Domestic Workers committees, These is very useful and it will empower women who are employed as a Domestic workers.

    • Harrison, please let us know in ILO COOP ( if there is any way we can contribute to advancing your thinking on this. South Africa has already developed an implementation strategy to start piloting domestic worker cooperatives in this year which is to be led by SADSAWU and COSATU with support from the ILO.

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