Domestic servitude: what drives trafficking within the family home?

Domestic servitude: what drives trafficking within the family home?

Dr Alexandra Ricard-Guay,

European University Institute

12 December 2016

The widespread employment of domestic workers in Europe is a phenomenon that no longer needs an introduction. It is well known that domestic workers are present in the lives of many European families and that the majority are migrant women. Yet there is still work to be done so that all domestic workers will be able to access full social and labour protections and before the regulations in place will effectively prevent abuses and exploitation from taking place.


As part of the DemandAT project a EUI team studied the demand-side of trafficking in domestic work in seven European countries: Belgium, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK (see country reports and policy briefs). This sample of countries illustrates the variations in regulating domestic work. For example, regarding labour law, some countries have specific regulations for live-out domestic workers, and the cases of Belgium and France are often cited as good examples. As for migration policies, in some countries specific visa regimes apply to migrant domestic workers (eg: UK and Cyprus). Otherwise, general labour or immigration laws apply.

To look at the demand-side of trafficking in domestic work was not an easy task. On one hand, the specific issue of trafficking in the sector of domestic work is little researched. Which comes in contrast with the wide literature on domestic work in Europe, and on the gaps in decent work conditions that this labour sector faces. The risk of exploitation and trafficking is often mentioned, but actually few reported cases are documented and analysed. On the other hand, the notion of demand is not well understood, nor applied in practice within the anti-trafficking responses.

In fact, the study points to important limitations of using the concept of demand in the case of trafficking in domestic work. In its economic dimension, the notion is useful to understand the dynamics of the labour markets (e.g there is a supply of workers and a demand for labour). But a purely economic understanding of demand falls short in helping to understand what happens after the hiring process, and to capture the evolution and the complexity of the relationships. The relations involved are intimate, including at times family ties or a rhetoric of being ‘as one of the family’. It can be complicated by a sense of gratitude toward the exploiter for having facilitated migration, provided shelter, or promised access to education.

‘Demand’ is also not well suited to understand the different arrangements in which care and domestic work and services are provided. When we deal with arrangements within extended families (‘help’ in domestic chores in exchange for migration status), child fostering or domestic servitude in arranged marriage, the language of demand and supply is inadequate.

Also, domestic servitude happens in a wide variety of circumstances, which can require different regulatory or policy responses to prevent trafficking and provide remedies (domestic workers employed by diplomatic personnel, the misuse of the au pair programme to pay little to have a full-time live-in care worker). The common features of those different settings is that trafficking occurs for nearly all cases in live-in care arrangements where market regulations sit uneasily alongside intimate and personalised arrangements.

The study shows that the ‘inappropriate’ demand that may lead to exploitative situations (e.g. demand for workers in a disadvantageous position ready to accept exploitative conditions) is driven by much more than financial and material gains. This is only one piece of the puzzle. Demand is also shaped by a given social environment, its social norms and values, discriminatory attitudes and the pervasive under-valuation of domestic work as well as a general sense of impunity. Policies in place, gaps in protection or lack of enforcement, play a role in setting conditions of vulnerability that give rise to exploitation. Monitoring standards in domestic work is difficult if not impossible, given that labour inspectors cannot conduct house visits without a warrant.

Preventing trafficking and exploitation in domestic work requires a multipronged response, including criminal, labour and migration policies. However, the country studies have shown that those legal frames may actually have, in practice, conflicting implications. While the criminal anti-trafficking frame may provide protection to officially identified victims, migration policies put irregular workers in a precarious and vulnerable position. Establishing a firewall between immigration and labour rights institution is an essential first step.

Also, to counter the sense of impunity that seems to lies behind situations of trafficking, there is a need to foster change in social norms and employers’ behaviour, beliefs, and attitudes to address what drives exploitation. Employers and private households who exploit have to be held accountable.

At the EU level, there have been recent steps, or signs of acknowledgement of the importance of recognising the rights of domestic workers in Europe, and of recognising their work as ‘real’ (European Parliament’s  Resolution on women domestic workers and carers). Better regulation is seen as a mean to deter exploitation and trafficking. It is indeed a necessary first set but may not prove sufficient to provide a solution, without simultaneously seeking ways of empowering domestic workers and foster a change in mentalities.


See the publications from this study here: DemandAT, EUI 


The views expressed in the blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the DemandAT Consortium as a whole