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Health and safety at work in PHS

Aurélie Decker, Director of EFSI, and Nuria Ramos Martin, lecturer at the Fair Work and Equality law Clinic-University of Amsterdam, organised a hybrid seminar on health and safety at work in the personal and household services sector (PHS) on the 16th of November 2021. The seminar was organised in cooperation with the Fair Work and Equality Law Clinic (Amsterdam Law Clinics - University of Amsterdam).

In this seminar, a group of experts from the OECD and European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), as well as social partners at the EU level, discussed what are the best strategies to fight informality in the PHS sector and improve the protection of workers regarding health and safety at work. They also provided information on the situation of workers in the PHS sector during the COVID-19 pandemic and on best practices and innovative initiatives aimed to improve their protection. 

The following experts participated as speakers at the seminar: Aurélie Decker (EFSI), Grace Papa (EFFAT), Lorenzo Munar (EU-OSHA) and Jonas Fluchtmann (OECD). Jean-Francois Lebrun and Daphné Valsamis, also intervened with their views on the subject and Ms. Boisseuil (EFFE) and Mr. Bergfeld (UNI Europa) sent a written contribution with their views on the best strategies to reduce informal work and improve health and safety at the sector. The director of the Amsterdam Law Clinics, Linde Bryk, and Prof. Agnes Akkerman also participated at this event, presenting their views on this legal clinical project aimed to provide a comparative study on health and safety at work in the PHS sector in Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands.

During the seminar it was highlighted that adequate public policies on the PHS sector and social care leading to a further formalisation of the sector is key for the protection of health and safety at work. In the EU countries where there are proper legislations and public policies facilitating regular labour protection for PHS workers, it has led to the improvement of workers’ protection concerning health and safety. It was recalled that one main challenge in the sector is that most workers are women, with low skilled profiles, and many are undocumented migrants. It was also mentioned as a worrying issue that, in many EU countries, more than 50% of the workers in the sector are providing services at home in an informal setting.

Participants to the seminar also discussed the risks to which PHS workers are exposed during their work. In particular, it was mentioned that these workers are in a particular vulnerable position regarding health and safety hazards due to the specific characteristics of the workplace (the home of the client, behind closed doors, and in isolation). This is why it is difficult to control that there is a proper assessment of the risks regarding health and safety and therefore, initiatives aimed to training of both workers and users on health and safety measures and code of conducts to avoid possible risks, such as harassment at work, are innovative and important initiatives that are most welcome to improve their protection.


In this regard, the students of this legal clinic project presented the first results of their research, stressing the importance of adopting “best practices”/”innovative initiatives” aimed to improve the protection of workers in this sector concerning OSH. A crucial component of the students’ approach to this research topic is the need to take into account the human rights perspective of this issue and the need to dignify and value this occupation. Moreover, more attention should be paid to the psychological aspects which may arise in the day-to-day working field.

During the seminar, the ILO Domestic Workers Convention No.189 was considered in terms of evaluating its contribution to the quality of work in the sector; Italy has ratified it in 2013, Belgium has ratified it in 2015 and the Netherlands has not currently ratified it. The aforementioned countries have been found to attain different approaches regarding to their policies in the domestic sector. Italy is one of the few countries wherein labour relations for the domestic work sector is defined through legislation and collective bargaining at a national level, and organizations have inaugurated a bipartite healthcare fund to ensure sufficient healthcare coverage for the domestic workers. In Belgium, a service voucher system was set up in 2004 to eliminate the so-called black labour market and increase employment possibilities for low-skilled workers, whilst implementing mandatory training. The Netherlands has domestic legislation transposing the rights in the PHS sector and demonstrating that domestic workers rights are inherently limited.

The question of liability in case of work-related accident or occupational diseases was also embedded in the presentation. This issue of liability evidently differs per country given the vast divergences of the systems, yet it ought to be acknowledged that the domestic workers are in a weaker position, hence, should have higher protection available. In addition, the potential for inspections to take place will be considered, alongside the implementation of rating systems, and methods to tackle the persistent language barriers.

Given the contemporary nature of the on-going pandemic, this was, simultaneously, addressed; contracting the virus has increased the risks imposed in the PHS sector. In Italy, PPE was issued for domestic workers along with short-term income support. In Belgium, a number of companies halted their services, training was also stopped, and unemployment benefits were granted due to the impossibility to work. In the Netherlands, there was a lack of regulations during the pandemic, and as a result, numerous workers were fired with zero notice. From the first findings of the conducted research, it is clear that there are gaps in regulation in all three countries regarding health and safety.

Finally, the seminar highlighted as a “golden rules” that political will to properly regulate the sector and to establish public policies supporting the users who are in need of those services is crucial. In addition, the promotion of proper representation of the workers in the sector by trade unions and of employers, as well as  the establishment of mechanisms of social dialogue and collective bargaining (which are weak or lacking) in many EU member states are also needed.

Policies providing incentives for users to consume formal PHS and systems which simplify the employment formalities are the most suitable strategy to improve the protection of PHS workers at all levels. Information and training campaigns of both workers and users on health at safety rules are also a good practice. It was also noted that in those countries where there are intermediaries companies between the user and the provider of the services the control is higher, the working conditions are better, and the standards regarding health and safety at work are better respected. Also, the growth of platforms involved in the provision of PHS services was mentioned. Concerning this issue, it was emphasised that, if well regulated, they could play a role in taking PHS work from the shadow economy and promote the formalisation of the work in the sector.