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Labour standards

Domestic workers deserve a better deal

Op-ed by Malte Luebker, ILO Senior Regional Wage Specialist, published in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) on 12 January 2013.

Comment | 15 January 2013
Malte Luebker, Senior Regional Wage Specialist for the ILO office in Asia*
GENEVA (ILO News) – They are often called the hidden work force. But their numbers are huge: in Asia, more than 21 million women and men work as domestic workers, according to a new report from the International Labour Organization (ILO), Domestic Workers Across the World: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection.

In fact, these are conservative estimates based on official statistics; many more have probably gone uncounted. What is clear is that domestic work is a significant source of jobs, especially for women, and that the sector is growing fast across Asia – by 50 per cent over the past 15 years. Hong Kong alone now employs 300,000 foreign domestic workers.

Recently, the public debate in Hong Kong has focused on the question of residency for domestic workers who have worked in the territory for many years. But there is a more fundamental question that is often lost in the debate: Do we treat domestic workers as equals, or as second class workers?

Let’s start with some of the basic rights that most of us take for granted – such as a day off, or a good night’s sleep. If you are a domestic worker in Asia, you will most likely depend on the good will of your employer for these ‘luxuries’. Because as of 2010, a mere three per cent of Asia’s domestic workers could turn to the labour laws to claim a weekly day of rest, and only one per cent could rely on a statutory limit of their working hours. Paid annual leave? Dream on, unless you are among the three per cent that are covered.

Other regions, namely Latin America with its 19.6 million domestic workers, show that better legal protection is feasible. Of course, even in Latin America compliance is not always perfect. Only a third of Brazil’s domestic workers are enrolled under the social security scheme, but that is a huge improvement since the mid-1990s. And the wages of Brazil’s domestic workers have doubled in real terms over the same period, largely due to substantial increases in minimum wages, which – unlike in most Asian countries – also cover domestic workers.

Like elsewhere, Hong Kong’s domestic workers have taken to the streets to protest against poor working conditions. It’s true that in some respects they are better off than many of their counterparts elsewhere in Asia. The familiar scene of domestic workers gathering in the Central district on Sundays is testimony of their right to a weekly day of rest. And the Minimum Allowable Wage (HK$ 3,920 per month) sets a floor for their wages, although live-in domestic workers remain exempt from the (hourly) rates of the Minimum Wage Ordinance. Nonetheless, the territory can – and should – do more to position itself as a place with fair labour standards for domestic workers, for example by limiting their often excessive working and by remunerating overtime.

Ruthless practices by private employment agencies are another concern. The ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), and other international labour standards call for the regulation of these agencies, including an effective complaints mechanism and the prevention of fraudulent practices. Placement fees should always be borne by the employer, and not by the worker – whether they come in the form of an outright fee, or in the disguise of a ‘training levy’.

When abuses of domestic workers occur, this is tragic for the individual and shameful for the perpetrator, who should be punished. But, widely reported in the media, they are also very bad publicity for countries that depend on migrant domestic workers to look after their homes and children. If they want to attract the best-skilled workers, it is a much better advertisement to offer sound legal protection and to ensure effective remedies in cases of mistreatment.

Hence, there is also a business case for improving labour standards. The economic value that domestic workers create is often overlooked, simply because it does not feature in the headline statistics on growth. However, their contribution to national welfare is sizable: domestic workers do not only give us comfort at home and run countless errands, but they also enable those with care duties to leave the house and join the labour force. If professionals suddenly had to run their households without a helping hand, they would rush home early to wash dishes and change diapers – and enterprises would surely feel the toll on productivity.

The good news is that the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention has set in motion change for the better. In September 2012, the Philippines were the first country in Asia to ratify the Convention, and the country has recently updated its legislation. In November, Thailand announced that domestic workers will gain a right to a weekly rest day, public holidays and sick leave, and Singapore’s domestic workers enjoy a weekly day of rest under new labour contracts starting this month. Viet Nam’s new Labour Code, which comes into effect in May, strengthens the protection of domestic workers. This is a promising trend – but other countries have to follow suit, and much more needs to be done to give domestic workers a fair deal across Asia.

* Senior Regional Wage Specialist with the ILO’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (Bangkok) and principal author of the ILO’s new report on Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection (Geneva: ILO, 2013).