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October 30, 2020

Invest in care

Opinion

October 30, 2020

On June 22, Mirtes Renata Santana, a domestic worker, brought her five-year-old son Miguel with her to work in an affluent neighbourhood outside of Recife in eastern Brazil. She did not have much choice – the coronavirus pandemic had closed schools, and there was no one else to take care of her son. When Santana was out walking her employer’s dog later that day, tragedy struck: Miguel, left to himself, fell off a balcony and died.

The case has become a lightning rod in Brazil, sparking a fierce debate about both class and the working conditions of the poorest in society. This conversation is as timely as it is necessary – not just in Brazil, but in many other parts of the world. In fact, Santana’s case is sadly emblematic of the plight of domestic workers everywhere.

Domestic workers are too often the forgotten workforce. Like Santana, they lack legal protection, exist on the margins of social safety nets, and are often the most vulnerable in times of crisis. Many live with the stigma that cooking, cleaning, caring for children and buying groceries is not ‘real work’ – or even worse, that it is just something ‘that women do’.

There are at least 67 million domestic workers across the world today, and more than 90 percent of them do not have the same social protection as the rest of the labour force. Unemployment benefits, pension schemes and even sick leave are often out of reach for those who provide care inside homes.

This has left domestic workers particularly vulnerable to abuse. Many end up trapped inside the houses of abusive employers, where they are driven to exhaustion through long working hours and sometimes even face physical violence.

In Hong Kong, recent aresearch shows that foreign domestic workers work on average 13 hours a day. A string of horrific cases of abuse has also grabbed media headlines, most infamously in 2015 when a Hong Kong woman was fined and jailed for beating and starving her Indonesian maid for years.

The pandemic has exacerbated many of these issues. Lacking access to healthcare, domestic workers have been unable to get tested or acquire the personal protective equipment they need. Many have lost their jobs, while others have been forced to continue to work long hours in homes where they are at risk of being exposed to the virus. Unlike their employers, who do have access to treatment if they catch the coronavirus, most domestic workers do not.

Covid-19 has also exposed the particular vulnerabilities of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers around the world.

Excerpted: ‘Invest in care workers, invest in care’

Aljazeera.com