Domestic workers are now the iconic female migrants – paradigmatic symbols of the feminisation of migration and the globalisation of care. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that there are at least 53 million domestic workers worldwide, and the number could be as high as 100 million, 83 per cent of whom are women. As the ILO (2011) puts it, even at the lowest estimate, ‘if all domestic workers worked in one country, this country would be the tenth largest employer worldwide’. Domestic workers are also amongst the lowest paid of all groups, often earning below minimum wage and largely working in the informal sector. They carry out a wide range of household tasks including cleaning, cooking, laundry, childcare and elder care.

While not all domestic workers are migrants, international migration to carry out domestic work has grown rapidly in recent decades. This flow of workers has been encouraged by labour export policies from countries such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka and the immigration regimes of receiving countries that include specific visas for domestic workers, or other arrangements such as the au pair scheme, which allow entry to those who carry out paid domestic labour but restrict their rights as both migrants and workers. Such regulations frequently include the stipulation that domestic workers live in their employer’s home. This gives employers substantial control over their employees’ lives and makes domestic workers particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Migrants are favoured to carry out domestic work, not only because immigration regimes may make them pliant workers, but also because ethnic ‘others’ are often considered appropriate to deal with dirt. Closeness to or distance from dirt is a marker of status, and migrants and members of minority ethnic groups are regularly portrayed as inherently dirtier than more privileged groups and therefore better suited to so-called dirty work. Employers may also treat domestic workers as if they are innately dirty. It is not uncommon for domestic workers who live with their employers to be forced to use different cutlery and crockery from the rest of the family, and not to be allowed to wash their clothes in the same washing machine or to bathe in the same bathroom. The stigma of working with dirt traps them in a vicious cycle that defines domestic work as low status because it is done by migrant women and migrant women as low status because they deal with dirt. At the same time employers of domestic workers are able to enhance their status by displaying to the world their spotless homes, beautifully prepared meals and stress-free lives – all made possible by the labour of others.

Au pairs carry out the same kinds of tasks as domestic workers, yet rather than being seen as dirty, they are generally imagined as young, healthy, enthusiastic, white, middle-class girls having fun in a foreign country before settling down to ‘real life’. Au pairing is constructed as a form of cultural exchange and au pairs are by definition migrants, young and lacking language skills. Despite this image, au pairs often live and work in conditions that differ little from those of other domestic workers. The precise regulations surrounding au pairing differ from country to country, but nowhere are au pairs recognised as workers. Instead, they are ‘part of the family’; the labour they carry out around the home is ‘help’, their pitiful pay is ‘pocket money’ and their employer is a ‘host’. While some au pairs and hosts do use the scheme as originally intended, there are many others who do not, and au pairs are often favoured as the cheapest form of flexible childcare available.

One particularly interesting example of how the au pair ‘cultural exchange’ formulation has played out is in the Nordic countries. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden there has been a rapid growth in au pairing in recent years supported, at least in part, by state subsidies to families to cover childcare costs – part of wider ‘woman friendly’ welfare policies (see Isaksen, 2010). The majority of au pairs in these countries come from the Philippines and take on the role in order to send remittances home, just as other domestic workers do. Yet Nordic countries have rejected the idea of a domestic worker visa and allowing migration for domestic work because such a practice would be out of sync with their egalitarian principles. Au pairing, as a form of ‘cultural exchange’ rather than work, is acceptable and even portrayed as in keeping with ‘feminist’ principles as it supports (some) women’s access to work outside the home.

The study of paid domestic labour has grown in tandem with the growth of paid domestic work itself. Researching paid domestic work is appealing because it encompasses the major structural inequalities of contemporary life. It reveals the home to be a site of waged labour, thereby disrupting the public/private divide; it shows social reproduction to be a form of waged work and one that is affected by globalisation just as much as any form, including manufacturing. It also exposes the subtle intertwining of gender, race/ethnic and class inequalities within a single employment situation, and all within the confined space of a family home.


Isaksen, L. W. (ed.) (2010) Global Care Work: Gender and Migration in Nordic Societies, Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

International Labour Organisation (2011) ‘Domestic Work Policy Brief Number 4: Global and Regional Estimates on Domestic Work’, ILO, Geneva, Switzerland.

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