Domestic work examined

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In 2002, Spanish trade unions have been raising the issue of the problems faced by domestic workers. Work in Spain's domestic service sector is mainly done by women, and is increasingly becoming the main form of integration into the labour market for female immigrants. Domestic workers are covered by a special system of employment law and social security, which is inferior in many respects to that enjoyed by other workers. There is much informal and irregular employment, and pay and conditions are reported to be deteriorating. The unions want the special system for domestic workers to be brought into line with the general legal and social security system.

Domestic work (servicio doméstico) - ie work, such as domestic chores, performed by a person in another's home for remuneration - is regarded in Spain as a special employment relationship, governed by a separate set of employment and social security regulations, dating from 1985. The main features of this 'special system' are as follows:

  • the employment contract may be written or verbal, though it is most often verbal;
  • persons under the age of 16 may not perform domestic work, and those aged 17 to 18 need their parents' permission;
  • the compensation for dismissal is seven days' pay per year of service, with a limit of six months' pay, compared with 33 days' pay per year and a limit of 24 months' pay for ordinary workers;
  • domestic workers are not entitled to unemployment benefit;
  • special bonus payments (which form part of pay in Spain) are based on pay for 15 days' work rather than 30 days. Domestic workers also receive lower seniority pay increments than ordinary workers;
  • social security contributions amount to 22% of pay, of which the worker pays 3 percentage points. However, domestic workers who work in more than one home must pay the whole amount, and their employers are exempt. In 1998, the average monthly social security contributions for domestic workers came to approximately EUR 108.37, compared with EUR 493.49 for normal workers;
  • whereas for other workers sick pay is received after three days' sickness, in domestic work it is received after 28 days;
  • the maximum state retirement pension for domestic workers is 70% of their declared monthly income. In practice, this means that their pensions are far lower than those under the normal system, in which the minimum pension is EUR 6,355.72 per year; and
  • the maximum working week is 40 hours, but does not include agreed time for performing 'non-habitual tasks that require little effort, such as opening the door, answering the telephone, etc'. The working day is established by the employer, with a maximum of nine hours per day. 'External' staff not living on the premises must have 10 hours uninterrupted time off per day and 'internal' workers living on the premises must have eight hours. The regulation of the working time of domestic staff is thus very flexible. When domestic workers live in the workplace, abuses are reportedly more common.

Current situation

The current Survey of the Active Population (Encuesta de población Activa, EPA) and data from a number of other sources reveal a number of characteristics of domestic work in Spain:

  • there are 393,500 homes with domestic employees (most of whom are women) in Spain;
  • there is a high degree of informality in the sector. According to a survey conducted by Colectivo IOE research institute, about 60% of domestic workers are in the unregistered underground economy;
  • 161,036 domestic workers are registered with the social security system. The majority, however, do not register for social security but are covered by a family member's registration - 53%, according to a 1993 survey by the Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO);
  • a total of 57,289 domestic workers (35% of all those registered for social security) are immigrants. Domestic service is therefore one of the main sectors for the integration of immigrants - and especially female immigrrants - into the Spanish labour market. Most of these immigrants are from Latin America, particularly the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. The number of workers from the Philippines is falling sharply;
  • according to CC.OO, 6% of domestic workers live on the premises, 24% do not live on the premises but work for only one employer, and 70% work by the hour for more than one employer. Therefore, if they register for social security, most domestic workers have to pay all the contributions themselves; and
  • external domestic workers not living on the premises earns EUR 4 to EUR 8 per hour, according to a calculation by the La Voz de Asturias newspaper, based on the EPA. According to the same source, internal employees living on the premises earn EUR 360 to EUR 540 per month, though before the widespread arrival of immigrant workers in the sector they earned EU 600 to EUR 720 per month. Cash pay is sometimes lower than the national minimum wage, because accommodation, board etc are considered as 'payment in kind'. It is calculated that the monthly wages may be reduced by up to 45% for this reason.

However, the official statistics rarely offer an accurate picture of the domestic service sector. Whereas most of these workers do not register for social security (the main statistical indicator which can give an idea of the number of people involved), some workers in other sectors approaching the end of their working life register for the cheaper 'special system' of social security for domestic workers, in order to complete the 15 years of contributions that are required in order to obtain a pension. This distorts the figures.

Social partner views

According to the trade unions, there is a high degree of informality in the domestic service sector, which employs almost exclusively women, and since the 1990s it has been a major form of integration in the labour market for female immigrants (male immigrants have gone mainly into construction and agriculture). The unions believe that another main reason for the high degree of informality and irregularity in the sector is the inequality caused by the contrast between the general system of employment regulations and social security and the special system for domestic workers. Because the special social security system offers few benefits to these workers, they often think that it is not worth paying contributions. Their employment is thus often concealed by both employers and employees. The unions claim that many employers offer different rates of pay for workers who wish to be covered by social security, and workers accepting informal employment without such cover may earn about EUR 90 more per month. However, for female immigrants, social security contributions are important because their legal situation depends on having legal employment.

The unions and other organisations that are sensitive to the situation of domestic workers have for years been calling for the special system to be brought in line with the general rules of the Workers' Statute, so that domestic employees have the same rights as others.

There are no employers' organisations in this sector because it is highly atomised. The employers are individual households, with the exception of a few large firms that have grown significantly, such as Eulen, which is mainly involved in general cleaning and security.


With rising numbers of women in paid employment, housework is now increasingly being done by other women on low wages. Instead of being shared by the various members of the family (which is difficult due to the increase in the working time of family members in present-day society and the continuity of a culture that assigns these tasks to women), housework is now performed in many cases in the underground economy by poor women, often immigrants.

Domestic service is a sector with a low level of employment regulation, and that offers fewer rights to worker contributing to social security than those enjoyed under the general system. It also receives little attention from the social partners and the public authorities.

The special system for domestic workers totally excludes unemployment benefit, provides a low pension, offers little compensation for dismissal, and the contracts are almost always verbal. Though the special social security system offers healthcare and cover for invalidity or death, the low level of income and the unstable employment of domestic staff who do not work full time (who may be as many as 90%, according to IOE) mean that they are reluctant to pay the monthly social security contributions. The special legislation for the sector therefore means that domestic workers are particularly unprotected. In short, the low level of regulation and the lack of social protection of domestic workers is one of the main reasons for their irregular situation. It provides little incentive for registration, offers few benefits and social rights, reduces the already low wages, and forces the workers (who are often not well-informed) to register for social security themselves.

The recent phenomenon of increasing immigration from abroad (replacing the former migration from the country to the city that characterised Spain) has led to an escalation of the problem (ES0112244F). Some immigrants are illegal, and have to accept poor conditions in order to obtain legal employment that will allow them to obtain a residence permit. This is an obstacle because they tend to accept any type of employment relationship in order to obtain to survive and regularise their situation. (Daniel Albarracín, CIREM Foundation).

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