Domestic work in China and in the world

The term that keeps popping up in my blog posts and when I describe my research is “domestic work.” However, I fear that for those readers outside the field, this term may be unfamiliar. So, for this inaugural post I am going to provide background information for my readers, namely: what is domestic work, demographics of the sector both globally and in China, and what their lives look like. My aim in providing this contextual information is to really show clearly what draws me to the field, that is the vulnerability of the workers.

To get to the heart of the issue, what is domestic work? The Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) adopted by the International Labor Organization in June of 2011 defines domestic work as “work performed in or for a household or households,” which includes tasks such as household chores, childcare, elder care, etc. (International Labor Organization 2011, Estévez-Abe and Hobson 2015, 佟新 2017). Also often referred to as care work, this labor is seen as a “labor of love,” requiring a certain amount of emotion to be expended. These tasks are part of a category called reproductive duties, in contrast to productive duties. In a patriarchal society with conventional gender roles, men were responsible for the “productive duties” associated with the earning of money while women were responsible for the “reproductive duties” associated with giving birth to and rearing children, as well as the innumerable related chores (Hu and Scott 2016, 1270).

The responsibility for household chores demonstrably limited women’s educational and career opportunities, and led to the creation of terms we often hear, such as the “double day” or the “double burden.” These terms refer to the fact that even once women entered the labor market, they are often still the primary caregivers and responsible for the larger burden of household work. Additionally, this history of care work has marks it as a feminized labor. Because the work of completing reproductive chores was historically done by women, and unpaid, the work today is still not seen as a real occupation warranting the same protection as other jobs.

Now that we have a good understanding of what the history of domestic work, it is time to talk about women employed in this sector, both in the world and in China. Worldwide, there are approximately 67.1 million domestic workers, although this number underestimates the actual situation as most domestic workers are in the informal sector or irregularly employed (International Labor Organization 2016, 25). In China, there are about 20 million domestic workers, most of whom are concentrated in first tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Globally, 83% of domestic workers are women (Maybud 2015, 3) and in China, women make up approximately 90% of the industry (ILO Country Office for China and Mongolia 2017, 1).

The demographic structure of domestic work globally differs significantly from that of China’s, while worldwide the majority of domestic workers are international migrants, in China, they are mostly domestic migrants. Workers come from rural provinces such as Anhui, Henan, Hunan, Shanxi, Sichuan, and Yunnan to find work in first-tier cities (Chan 2013) and either have temporary worker status or are completely unregistered (Hung 2017, Tuñón 2006). The status of the unregistered internal migrants can be compared to that of illegal migrants in the United States, with less than 10% experiencing equal labor protections (Torriente 2017). In 2009, it was found that 81.4% of domestic workers in China did not have legal residence in the city where they worked, shedding light on commonality of having an irregular legal status (Liu 2017). Finally, according to 2016 estimates, the average annual income of a domestic worker is 14,000 RMB, or 2,000 USD (商务部服务贸易和商贸服务业司 2017)。

Knowing this information, I want to complete this post with a couple thoughts about domestic work. There are several overlapping demographic factors, which leads to the increased vulnerability of workers in this industry: majority female, majority migrant, and the majority of women with irregular legal status. The work is both dangerous and dehumanizing, with high rates of sexual assault and predatory employment. Part of the reason that this occupation has been systematically devalued is due to the fact that those employed in the industry face significant barriers to organizing for better protections.

First blog post done! Thanks for reading down to this point. Since this is just the beginning, I would love feedback or comments on ways I can make it better. Please leave a comment below!

Chan, Kam Wing. 2013. “China: internal migration.”  The encyclopedia of global human migration:1-17.

Estévez-Abe, Margarita, and Barbara Hobson. 2015. “Outsourcing domestic (care) work: the politics, policies, and political economy ”  Social Politics 22 (2):133-146.

Hu, Yang, and Jacqueline Scott. 2016. “Family and gender values in China: generational, geographic, and gender differences.”  Journal of Family Issues 37 (9):1267-1293.

Hung, Jason. 2017. “Rural-urban migrants in China: mental health challenges and denial of rights.”

ILO Country Office for China and Mongolia. 2017. Decent work country programme for China 2016-2020. In Decent Work Programme.

International Labor Organization. 2011. Domestic Workers Convention. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labor Organization.

International Labor Organization. 2016. Decent work for migrant domestic workers: moving the agenda forward In Decent work for domestic workers Geneva: International Labor Organization.

Liu, Minghui. 2017. Migrants and cities: research report on recruitment, employment, and domestic working conditions of domestic workers in China. In Conditions of work and employment. Geneva: International Labour Office.

Maybud, Susan. 2015. Women and the future of work- taking care of the caregivers. In ILO’s work in progress: International Labor Organization.

Torriente, Anna. 2017. Implementation of international labor standards for domestic workers. In What works. Geneva: International Labor Office

Tuñón, Max. 2006. Internal labour migration in China: features and responses. Beijing: International Labour Organization.

佟新. 2017. “早料劳动与性别化的劳动政体.”  社会科学 3:43-54.

商务部服务贸易和商贸服务业司. 2017. 中国家政服务行业:发展报告.

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