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Fighting Invisibility -The Recognition of Migrant Domestic Workers in The Netherlands


Eight years ago, Lorie left her family in the Philippines to join a second family in The Netherlands. Although the international au-pair program that arranged her travels is traditionally structured to provide a positive cultural exchange, her first year here was extremely difficult. She missed her family, and at times felt so claustrophobic and vulnerable she “wanted to shout.” When her year was up, she decided to remain in The Netherlands, becoming an irregular migrant without legal documentation. She continued to work long days, often around the clock, earning only €4 an hour for both cleaning and babysitting. In 2005, when her son was killed in the Philippines, she was unable to go home for his funeral in fear that she would not be able to return to her work in The Netherlands. 

In order for the human rights of migrants to be acknowledged and protected in The Netherlands, the Dutch people must recognize migrants as a part of their community. With the current political climate on immigration, we have seen how migrants are often publicly excluded.  While we continue to talk about integration and segregation more generally in Dutch society, we chose to zoom in on an environment in which these dynamics can be concretely explored—households in which migrants are hired to do cleaning work. The physical presence of migrant women in these private environments is often the most personal and confrontational interaction between these immigrant and native groups in daily life. Therefore it is necessary to investigate the social dynamics and communication barriers in these relationships in order to make visible the role of these women in Dutch society.

The Profile of Migrant Domestic Workers

“When I repeat the familiar, nauseating, painful exercises, I withdraw more every time- leaving behind the disgust. In a kingdom of loneliness, sadness and despair, there I consider once again the possibilities of escape.” – Migrant Domestic Worker, Hristina Tasheva in

De Huizen van Hristina  (The Houses of Hristina)

In The Netherlands, migrant domestic workers (MDWs) form a labor sector not formally recognized by the Dutch government or civil society. Therefore there are no statistics that can accurately describe the profile of this community. The CNV Labor Union estimates that there are 1.2 million domestic workers in The Netherlands, around 240,000 of which are migrants. They also guess that 60-70% of the domestic migrant workers in The Netherlands are irregular. 

MDWs in The Netherlands are usually “live-out,” meaning that they choose to maintain their own residences and work for their employers during the day. On average, a woman has 10-13 employers at a given time, working 3-4 hours per week for each one. A recent publication of the Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers (CFMW), a non-profit organization based in The Netherlands that works towards the self-empowerment of irregular MDWs, showed that these women are generally educated. Thirty eight percent have a University degree and fifty one percent have achieved a secondary level education. They traveled to The Netherlands for economic reasons in order to provide for their families. The majority of women entered the country on tourist visas, organized through international employment networks or personal social connections. As their intentions are often to remain in The Netherlands these women simply wait for their visas to expire at which point they lose their documentation status.

In 2002 the London office of the CFMW conducted research to monitor and document the problems faced by these women. Of the 4,000 migrant workers registered with their organization, 98% reported psychological abuse, 69% described physical abuse, 71% claimed they did not receive regular pay and 65% were not allowed to keep their own passport. Fortunately, the research that has been done to study Dutch migrant workers has suggested that such drastic human rights violations are not as severe in The Netherlands. For example, Christine Vogelaar, who recently completed her master’s thesis at the University of Amsterdam on global domestic workers, found that in general, MDWs in Amsterdam are paid well and have good relationships with their employers. In her research, she found many women who characterized their employers as friends. Nonetheless, Fe Jusay, coordinator of the CFMW Women’s Programme in Amsterdam, claims that rights violations occur frequently. Jusay says that the worst abuses most likely go unreported. The most vulnerable women are those who have not yet been connected with organizations like the CFMW and therefore remain invisible. 

The most common problem faced by MDWs is the long hours they are expected to work. MDWs labor without contracts, vacations, sick days or a general sense of job security. As irregulars they are excluded entirely from the welfare state and its social benefits despite their daily contributions to the Dutch economy. Therefore they have no access to medical care, educational opportunities and a pension later in life. Even during family emergencies, they are unable to return to their home countries, contributing to what Lorie described as a feeling of “mental torture.” In addition, irregular migrants live in daily fear that they will become the victim of the Prestatie Akkoord, the new deportation quotas that were recently ordered of the police force as an incentive to organize raids.

The varied experiences between ethnic groups are also notable. A CFMW report entitled “MDWs Visible and Making a Difference,” discusses the harsh discrimination faced by African migrants in the domestic workforce. While the average hourly wages of most MDWs are around €9, the highest earnings of African MDWs remains at €6.5-7. They also report that while Filipino women are usually trusted with keys to the houses they clean, African migrants typically must wait for someone to let them into the front door. But despite some differences in experience based on their countries of origin, women overwhelmingly describe similar power dynamics that determine a sense of dependency and powerlessness.

Emancipation and Upward Mobility

 “Every new day of my life I start anew. The result is that I don’t know where I’m heading.

 It is very foggy. The path is only fleeting.” –Hristina Tasheva

The female housemaid is one of the oldest professions to be found in European society. Until the end of the 19th century, maids were considered a symbol of status and social hierarchy. At turn of the 20th century, women gained the right to vote and a greater accessibility to educational and professional opportunities. As a result, the role of women as ‘natural providers’ was partly replaced in the West by a perception that women should break out of traditional gender roles. With the emancipation movement of the sixties, the visibility of women in Europe became more prevalent, enabling more social and financial independence. In her article ‘At your service Madam!,’ Helma Lutz describes the difficulties women have faced in combining professional work with traditional female household roles. In compensation, the emancipation demanded that other, less emancipated women took over their daily occupations. 

Women from developing countries who are looking to improve their family’s financial situations have been the ones to fill these positions. Thus, emancipated women and migrant workers find each other “conveniently” in the market of domestic labor. It is however with some contention that the MDWs are filling in the gaps. While the trend of upward mobility suggests that MDWs will eventually integrate into European societies and experience emancipation as well, the CFMW disagrees with this prospect. Fe Jusay says that it is difficult to place the emancipated role of women in a globalized world. According to Jusay, migrant women only experience financial emancipation, without social or educational benefits. She is of the opinion that the emancipation of any group of women always demands the service of housemaids. For example, some of the Pilipino women even employ a maid to take care of their own children or send them to a boarding school in order to improve their financial situation overall. This suggests that while the groups of women performing house chores are changing, the traditional gender roles remain the same.

The emancipation movement has eroded the status of the cleaning job by perceiving it as inferior and not as a ‘proper’ job. Among other things, this is a result of the lack of educational requirements needed to perform the work. Although a large part of the MDWs have obtained degrees in their home countries, these diplomas are not recognized by European standards. Therefore upward mobility is obstructed for migrant women, particularly the undocumented women, who are only able to do household jobs. In other words, there is no ‘space’ for them in Dutch society aside from their roles in the informal economic sector. Betty Sajet, an employer of an MDW, is of the opinion that native Dutch women today have the opportunity to follow any form of education whenever they want to. As a result, Dutch women are not condemned to cleaning jobs and migrants are left to fulfill these roles. Additionally, the irregularity of MDWs contributes to the assumption that the job has no rights. It is often assumed that the sole desire of these women is to improve their financial situation.  This encourages employers to further assume that the women should be content solely with the opportunity to work and not concern themselves with the conditions of that employment. 

The Employer Perspective

When explaining our research interests to others, we frequently received negative and confused responses, hinting at the taboo nature of the subject. As Helma Lutz writes, “neither the employees nor the employers are interested in giving up the clandestine character of the work, because they fear negative legal and social consequences.” In our interviews with employers we regularly encountered a sense of discomfort when discussing their relationships with their domestic workers. 

Employers explained that their decision to hire MDWs was influenced by time constraints. Other interviewees claimed that they simply did not want to have to clean the house. Betty Sajet explained that she was used to it and that it was a necessity given the health of her husband.  All of our interviewees had found their current domestic worker through social networks and discussed how difficult it was to find someone who was trustworthy and responsible. A few of them had had negative experiences in the past and had been frustrated with the search to find someone “good.” Dick Cohen, for example, even walked into the Hilton hotel in search of recommendations, and in the end, his efforts proved futile. For household employers, being able to trust their employee was an important part of the hiring process. Vincent van Stekelenburg remembered the doubtful moment when he realized he was handing his house keys over to a complete stranger and decided to hope for the best. We found the giving of keys to be symbol of this trust. Of all the MDWs Christine Vogelaar interviewed, every single one had been entrusted with keys, pointing out that in general, trust does exist between workers and employers.

By sharing keys, employers also bypass the need to be at home whenever their employees come to work. Our interviews showed that the desire to be absent from the house was very common. While the nature of work schedules usually facilitates an empty house, we found that even when interviewers were around while they cleaned, they would usually leave the house for a cup of coffee. Most interviewees thought it was uncomfortable to be in the house while someone else was cleaning it. Hans Stokman said that he did not want to interfere with the work of his employee. Van Stekelenburg noted that he did not want his housecleaner to feel as though he was breathing down her neck. Cohen said, “I want my house to look clean, but not for it to look like somebody cleaned it.” 

The people we interviewed characterized their relationships with their employees in different ways. The range of communication between the two parties varied based on schedules and language barriers. Some interviewees said they communicated mostly by notes left on the kitchen table. At the other end of the spectrum, Cohen said he communicates regularly over coffee with his Brazilian employee. On average, employers knew basic information about the lives of their employers such as where they were from, how long they had been in The Netherlands and where their family was. Only some of the employers were able to confidently say they knew whether or not their employee was documented or irregular. 

Authors who have written on this topic speak of guilt as an important theme in these relationships. When we asked our interviewees if they felt guilty for hiring someone else to clean their houses, we had a variety of responses. Stokman said that he did not feel guilty at all because it was a professional business deal. Cohen admitted that his guilt came from acknowledging his own laziness. He appeased this guilt by often ironing alongside his employee while he cleaned. Sajet said that while she didn’t feel guilty, she felt sorry for her employee, and women domestic migrant workers in general, because “they often have children and are irregular.” She continued by saying that “when someone works for you for such a long time, you feel responsible.” 

Christine Vogelaar explains the guilt associated with hiring an MDW to a heightened sensitivity in Dutch society to issues of human rights. In a society founded on principles of equality, people are cognizant of a common humanity and therefore do not feel entirely comfortable having others serve them. Employers recognize the vulnerable positions of these migrant workers. They have heard horror stories of their exploitation and don’t want to be associated as the perpetrators of abuse. According to Fe Jusay at the CFMW, employers resolve their guilt by believing that the migrants are “lucky they are here.” The easiest way to avoid employer guilt is to maintain a certain distance from employees, preventing personal connection and uncomfortable confrontation. In many forms, this detachment was a common theme in our interviews, causing communication to be either minimal or unprofessional.

We found that this breakdown in communication between migrant workers and their employers is exacerbated by their different expectations of what constitutes a “good relationship.” Employers want good employees they can trust, but due to social values, are unable to see the work of the women they hire as an established profession. While some employers seek to avoid any personal relationship, others feel responsible for facilitating the social integration of the MDWs. Sajet claimed that she sought to “guide” her employees, without discrimination. The migrant women, on the other hand, simply seek a recognition of and respect for their rights as workers. For example, Lorie feels uncomfortable when her employers, in an effort to include her, call her “part of the family.” “If I were part of the family, then I wouldn’t have to pick up their underwear,” she says. What she really wants from her employers is a decent wage and fair working hours. 

In addition, the irregular status of some migrant workers and the personal nature of the work complicate the traditional employer/employee relationship. A professional relationship would bring about the acknowledgement that jobs come with rights, even in the situation of an irregular migrant. Therefore many of the relationships that are found between households and these women can be improved by way of clear communication on the conditions of the work environment.  We can assume that these communication barriers also exist more broadly in The Netherlands and may be the cause of tensions in the Dutch integration processes.  


“I’m beginning to fear that I have become invisible, because my world is invisible. 

Nevertheless, I exist without anyone seeing me. If I am invisible,

 how do I appear to myself? And to others?” – Hristina Tasheva

The emancipation of women in The Netherlands has not been successful in permanently changing traditional household gender roles. This is evidenced by the fact that the responsibilities have been shifted to women migrant workers, rather than divided between the various members of the household. The rising demand for and supply of MDWs is not necessarily negative, but rather simply a product of globalization. However when this sector of work remains unrecognized and invisible, as we have seen in The Netherlands, migrant workers become vulnerable to a series of human rights violations. A recent article by the Transnational Institute quotes Jusay. “It is the lack of recognition of domestic work as proper work or as a category for immigration which creates the conditions of vulnerability and violations of MDWs rights as workers and as migrants.”

The CFMW works to facilitate negotiation and communication by striving to unionize and recognize domestic migrant workers in The Netherlands. Jusay says that most Filipino women like their jobs and are content with the idea that this is the way to improve their financial situation at home through remittances. This means that those women who are domestic workers do not necessarily have any intention to climb up the ladder of Dutch society; their main priority is financial support. Jusay explains that a majority of the MDWs even assume that in a globalized world these jobs are what these women are supposed to do. 

The CFMW works to strengthen communication between migrant workers and their employers by empowering the women and making them aware of their rights. Another step in the right direction is the recent recognition of MDWs by the CNV Labor Union, which will help migrants obtain benefits such as health insurance. In a society where the upward mobility of MDWs is limited, the focus must be placed on preserving their human rights. When the rights are more clearly defined, employers know what they can demand and expect while the migrant women become more skilled in assessing their position in Dutch society.  

Despite the difficulties Lorie has faced in pursuit of a better life for her family, she is a spirited woman who loves her work and is proud of the three ‘surrogate’ children she has raised in The Netherlands. Some of her strength comes from her affiliation with the CFMW. Through them, she learned that migrant workers do indeed have labor rights, and has since found the courage to successfully negotiate her wages and hours with her employers. Although the conditions of her work have improved and she feels close to her “host” mom, she still struggles against forces of social invisibility. Domestic migrant workers like Lorie are still confronted with many barriers that prevent their successful integration to Dutch communities. Therefore organizations such as CFMW, with their focus on human rights education through empowerment, are essential to fighting the invisibility of migrant women. Only through communication, will migrants achieve recognition of their work, their rights and their existence.


Bakan, Abigail B. and Stasiulis, Daiva K. “Making the Match: Domestic Placement 
Agencies and the Racialization of Women's Household Work” Signs. University 
of Chicago Press.. 20, No. 2, (Winter, 1995), pp. 303-335.

Lutz, Helma. “At Your Service Madam! The Globalization of Domestic Service” 
Feminist Review, No. 70, Globalization (2002), pp. 89-104

Keuker, Joyce. “CNV Bedrijvenbond zet deur open voor illegale schoonmaker” 
deVerdieping Trouw. September 8, 2006.

Keuker, Joyce. “Illegalen/ Hoe meer werk, hoe beter,” deVerdieping Trouw. September 
8, 2006.

Raes, Suzanne. De Huizen van Hristina. Produced by Human en IDTV Docs. 2007.

Transnational Institute. “Breakthrough for Trade Union and migrant Domestic Workers” 
CFMW Press Release, Amsterdam, June 27, 2006

Vogelaar, Christine. “Then I decided to go to The Netherlands: The Migratory 
Experiences of Migrant Domestic Workers in Europe and The Netherlands.”
Masters Thesis: International Relations at the University of Amsterdam. July 2008.


•Vincent van Stekelenburg, Employer of domestic migrant worker, June 23, 2008 
•Christine Vogelaar, Student of International Relations at the University of Amsterdam, June 25, 2008
•Dick Cohen, Employer of domestic migrant worker, June 26, 2008
•Hans Stokman, Employer of domestic migrant worker, June 26, 2008
•Betty Sajet, Employer of domestic migrant worker, June 27, 2008
•Fe Jusay, Co-ordinator of Women’s Program at the Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers, June 27, 2008. 
•Lorie #1, Coordinator of Trusted Migrants and current domestic migrant worker, June 27, 2008
•Lorie #2, Current domestic migrant worker, June 27, 2008

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2008


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