Worker cooperatives, a solution to empower migrant domestic workers in the Middle East?

Arab countries have seen an increase, in mainly female, migrant domestic workers who have become the primary care providers in the household. The lack of a comprehensive governance framework for migrant domestic workers results in an asymmetric working relation between the domestic worker and the employer. This working relation, determined by the kafala (sponsorship) system, is characterized according to the ILO, by an uneven distribution of power whereby the workers have limited or no space for negotiation and their voices are not represented.

18 December 2014

To map the current legislative and policy frameworks, institutional structures and membership-based initiatives that can provide domestic workers with the space to organize themselves economically in the Middle East, the ILO has produced a study entitled “Cooperating out of isolation: the case of domestic workers in Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait”. It also looks at current opportunities within national legal frameworks that could allow and promote domestic workers’ economic enterprises and solidarity economy organizations, with cooperatives being an attractive option. “Research shows that cooperatives can help provide services for their members and improve the governance of the domestic work market, especially vis-à-vis private employment agencies”, mentions the ILO.

This work stems from an upsurge of membership-based organizational activity among domestic workers in many parts of the world. “There are now emerging examples of domestic workers organizing themselves through cooperatives. Cooperatives have been recognized as a viable business model that provides services to their members across a wide range of sectors, such as agriculture, finance, housing and social services. They also constitute appropriate space for domestic workers to claim their rights and improve their working conditions, as enshrined in the ILO Recommendation No. 193”, underlines the ILO.

For instance, across the United States, domestic workers have formed their own cooperatives for intermediation with employers. UNITY Housecleaners Cooperative and Si Se Puede, both New York based domestic worker cooperatives, serve as intermediaries between their workers and employers. Through the cooperative, workers get paid almost three times the minimum wage. “Such experiences of employment services are being adopted by domestic workers around the world and could be replicated also in the Arab states. Domestic workers’ cooperatives also provide financial aid, housing, education and other services to their members from South Africa to Jamaica, Korea, Hong Kong, Italy and the Philippines”, insists the ILO.

Following on this recent assessment “Cooperating out of isolation: the case of domestic workers in Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait” the ILO organised a workshop on 14-15 December to discuss the findings and options for collective service provision among migrant domestic workers in these countries. Several worldwide cooperative experiences have participated in the event to share their know-how, including the President of the USWCF, Rebecca Kemble. “In the worker cooperative world, the basic element is the needs of the members. It is about people coming together in an economic enterprise to collectively create jobs and raise their working standards,” said Kemble. “Cooperatives make the space for workers to come together and share their talents and skills and bring what’s individual in them to contribute to that common goal.” For more information on the event the press release is available here

Read the study here

Watch the video Cooperating Out Of Isolation: The Case of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait :

International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and
Service Producers' Cooperatives

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