Rights at work

Domestic work, Work like any other

The well-publicised case of the abused Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih placed a spotlight on the plight of a vulnerable and often invisible population, migrant domestic workers. Yoshiteru Uramoto, ILO's Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, explains how we can contribute to end this plight, relying on international labour standards.

Comment | 16 June 2014
Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih who was allegedly tortured by her Hong Kong employer left hospital after a month, tearfully expressing the hope that her case would prevent future abuse of "small people like us".
© Anwar Mustafa / AFP
BANGKOK  (ILO News) - A few weeks ago, a 23-year-old domestic worker from a little-known Indonesian city was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. Ms Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was recognised alongside presidents and pop stars for something she didn’t do — Erwiana didn’t stay silent.

During her eight months working in Hong Kong, Erwiana was violently abused by her employer, and when her injuries prevented her from continuing to work, she was sent home with just US$9 in her pocket. But since returning Erwiana has been campaigning for the rights of domestic workers just like herself, many of them migrant women, most of them still vulnerable in their workplaces across the globe.

There are more than 20 million domestic workers in Asia Pacific alone — that’s equivalent to the population of Sri Lanka. But because these workers are often hidden in private homes, in workplaces that remain unregulated, they are especially vulnerable to abuse. In many countries, domestic workers aren’t protected by the general labour law, and are excluded from receiving the minimum wage. On average, domestic workers earn less than half of average wages; some earn less than a fifth.

Domestic workers: Facts and figures
  • There are over 50 million domestic workers worldwide. That's equivalent to the entire population of South Korea
  • 83 per cent are women. That means one in every 13 female wage earners are employed in domestic work
  • 41 per cent of domestic workers are in Asia and the Pacific. The number of domestic workers in the region nearly doubles between 1995 and 2010
  • 8 billion US$ of profits are made each year from domestic workers who are trapped in forced labour
This is in part because many people still see domestic work as a woman’s unpaid familial duty, or as a job for a lower class or caste of women, instead of as productive work for wages like any other job. This misconception has slowed the process of recognizing domestic workers’ rights in international law and in our own homes.

Despite the risks, domestic work is a fast growing sector. Globally, there are 19 million more domestic workers today than there were in the mid-1990s — that’s a 30 per cent increase in less than 20 years. More than 80 per cent of these workers are women.

The world needs these women. Migrant domestic workers contribute significantly to their home communities, sending remittances that are regularly spent on the education and health needs of their families, and increasing the Gross Domestic Product and development potential of their countries.

Domestic workers also enable members of their employer’s household – who may have valuable work skills themselves - to go out to work by reducing the time needed for cleaning, cooking, shopping and family tasks.

So domestic work, and migration into domestic work, potentially yields many benefits, but these can only be realized if these women are in work that is both profitable and safe.

Progress is being made. In June 2011 the first Convention recognizing the rights of domestic workers was adopted by the ILO’s member States. In doing this the international community finally and positively affirmed that “domestic work is work”. So far, 14 countries have agreed to enshrine basic rights for domestic workers by ratifying this ILO Convention, No. 189.

In June, at the 2014 International Labour Conference, a binding Protocol on Forced Labour was passed. This is important because recent ILO estimates are that more than US$8 billion in profits are made each year from domestic workers who are in forced labour.

You don’t need to wait for your government to act to improve the lives of domestic workers.
The Protocol includes new provisions to increase protection and compensation for victims of forced labour. It recognizes that the profits of their labour should rightfully go to the workers and their families, instead of lining the pockets of recruitment companies that charge excessive or fraudulent fees, or exploitative employers who make money from forced labour.

I call on all governments to consider ratification of the Convention and the new Protocol, and to consider including domestic workers in the general protections provided by their labour laws.

But you don’t need to wait for your government to act to improve the lives of domestic workers. If you employ a domestic worker, talk to her about ways to implement the principles of the Convention in your own home. Recognize her right to a full day of rest each week, reasonable working hours, and fair wages in line with the minimum wage.

Refuse to employ children under the minimum working age and allow young workers to combine work and school. Encourage your domestic worker to join a network or association of domestic workers. Provide holiday and sick pay, social security entitlements and insurance, freedom of movement, and payment in cash. Respect your domestic worker’s right to privacy, and, if she lives in your home, make sure she has a lockable bedroom.

I admire Erwiana’s courage. She stood up and fought for the rights and dignity of herself and other domestic workers. She shouldn’t stand alone. You can stand with her by protecting the rights of domestic workers in your home and your community, and by calling on your government to ratify Convention 189 and ensure that women have safe and profitable access to these much-needed jobs.

If we don’t acknowledge domestic workers as the valuable members of society that they are and protect them fully under the law, how many more cases like Erwiana’s will there be?

By Yoshiteru Uramoto ILO's Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific

A version of this article appeared in the News strait times online