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The Socio-Economic Role of Domestic Service as a Factor of European Society

Executive Summary

The SERVANT project aims at bringing together researchers from different disciplines to compare the economic, social and cultural roles played by domestic workers within the European Union, while taking into account the existence of discrepancies linked, among others, to historical traditions and the recent directions taken by the Member States regarding employment and migration. The various meetings and the reading of recent reports and data allowed us to draw a picture of the domestic population within the EC at the start of the 21st century.

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Five seminars on various themes related to the domestic work sector were organised, gathering together members of the network and experts, in order to have a better understanding of its different aspects (historical, economic, legal, sociological, anthropological, etc.) in several European countries or regions and throughout time. An international symposium (2001) and a workshop on the informal or “black” work (organised by DG Research and DG Employment and Social Affairs 2003) enabled us to confront other points of view and other results obtained from international research projects supported by the EU (cf. 4th and 5th Framework Programmes). Moreover, an internal site was created, complemented by a bibliography and a pan-European data bank. The publication of results was also an integral part of the methodology for SERVANT.

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Research findings

The typology of servants and masters in Europe during 16th-20th century reflected structural contrasts (sex, age, socio-economic status, education, etc), taking into account regional and national diversities. Interdisciplinary studies have to be understood in their socio-economic context. For instance, the historical context of the 16th to 20th century has allowed us to frame and to carry out comparisons in the attempt to understand the current situation of domesticity in Europe.

Table 1: Regular and irregular domestic workers in Italy (thousand)

Year 1992 1996 2000
Domestic servants 953,900 1,050,200 1,049,500
Irregular domestic servants 710,300 802,700 807,900

Source: ISTAT, 1992-2000, data May 2001

Focus on Global care chains

“Local and translocal networks alike are essential to organise migration and a transnational lifestyle. These networks are especially important if children are left behind and if their care has to be organised with either family or kin members or with a paid care giver. Arlie Hochschild has defined this phenomenon the ‘global care chain’” (Hochschild, Arlie, 2000: “Global care chains and emotional surplus value”, in W. Hutton and A. Giddens (eds.) On the edge. Living with global capitalism, London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 130-145). Data on percentage of irregular domestic workers in the European Community in the early 21st century have allowed to distinguish amongst immigrants coming from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America who frequently work without a work permit or visa. Here emerges the paradox of an archaic labour market in the midst of a revolution in domestic and others technologies. While traditionally domesticity was invisible in official sources and was confined to the circuit of the informal economy, it is now increasingly emerging as a major phenomenon. The heterogeneity of the tasks requested reflects the changing needs of the employers. Analysis of domesticity underlines not only the feminisation of migration to Europe, but also the globalisation of the international labour market. Particular attention has been given to the development of state regulation in the economic sector, which today is less regulated than others. Domestic workers often belong to the underground economy. For this main reason the analysis has evaluated the effect of measures taken to fight against informal work (for example cheque employ in France and ALE in Belgium). The findings of the SERVANT research have been of a crucial importance for the elaboration of the EU policy.



1. Waged domestic work is characterised by a great heterogeneity.

2. The concept of “(waged) externalised domestic work” (“cleaning and care”) is not unanimously defined.

3. Approximate estimations and absence of precise statistical information currently do not allow one to precisely quantify the phenomenon of (waged) domestic work.

4. For the last two or three decades (post-industrial period), demand, by European households for private domestic services is high and probably increasing because of recent economic, social, demographic and cultural changes at the family level and within the European society:

5. The need of many households for help in their everyday management of the house and housework cannot or can no longer be met in the same way as before, i.e. thanks to the work of the spouse, the mother, other family members, neighbours and/or friends. It is necessary

6. Domestic work is sexualised on a double level: not only are employers mainly women, workers are predominantly female too. It is necessary

7. Today native female domestic workers are :frequently low educated/skilled; often long-term unemployed; often heads of the household (single mothers, divorcees, widows) or main wage-earners in the family (unemployed or industrially disabled spouse); but there are also students who baby-sit or retired persons who only work in households a few hours a week to increase their pension or to help their children.

8. Today an increasing share of domestic workers is represented by international migrants (from Eastern Europe, Latin and South America, Asia and Africa).

9. Domestic work is often undeclared.

10. In the fight against informal economy, several European national or regional authorities recently adopted some measures to develop the household services/domestic services sector – new “source of wealth” (the proximity services belong to the new sources of employment defined in 1995 by the EC) – on a regulated basis, thanks to a simplification of administrative procedures, some incentives for potential employers (fiscal advantages, exemption from the payment of social security contributions) and a reinforced control of potential workers.

11. Divergent opinions are expressed about these recent systems

12. Domestic work is characterised by bad and difficult working conditions:

13. Domestic workers suffer from stereotypes applied to their occupation and to their social/ethnic origin.

14. Live-in servants (often migrant domestic workers) are vulnerable to violence, sexual harassment and economic exploitation.