A domestic worker, domestic, servingman, servingwoman, or servant is one who works, and often also lives, within the employer's household. They are distinguishable from serfs or slaves in that they are compensated, that is, they must receive payment (and, following labour reforms in the 20th century, benefits) for their work. They are also free to leave their employment at any time, although foreign workers may find these freedoms restricted by, for example, visa regulations. In large households, there can be a large number of domestic workers doing different jobs, often as part of an elaborate hierarchy. However, most such employees work in middle class households, where they are the only such employed individual.
Domestic workers take care of the household and its dependent members. They perform domestic chores such as washing, ironing, buying foods and drinks, accompanying the head of the household for grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning the house. They may also run errands and walk the family dog. For many domestic workers, a large part of their job is taking care of the children. If there are elderly or disabled people in the household, domestic workers may care for them as well.
Prior to the labour reforms of the 20th century, servants, and workers in general, had no protection in law. The only real advantage that service provided was the provision of meals and accommodation, and sometimes clothes, in addition to the modest wage. Also, service was an apprentice system; there was room for advancement through the ranks. However, it was also perilous, particularly for females, as there was no protection from unscrupulous employers or other members of the family, including sexual exploitation.
In Britain this system peaked towards the close of the Victorian era, perhaps reaching its most complicated and rigidly structured state during the Edwardian period, which reflected the limited social mobility of the time. The equivalent in the United States was the Gilded Age.
In Brazil, domestic workers must be hired under a registered contract and have most of the rights of any other workers, which includes a minimum wage, remunerated vacations and a remunerated weekly day off. It is not uncommon, however, to hire servants without registering them. Since servants come almost always from the lower, uneducated classes, they are sometimes ignorant of their rights, especially in the rural zone. Nevertheless, domestics employed without a proper contract sometimes sue their employers to get compensation from abuses.
Major sources of domestic workers include the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia. Taiwan also imports domestic workers from Vietnam and Mongolia. Organizations such as Kalayaan support the growing number of these migrant domestic workers.