From the Philippines

Domestic work is no longer a “domestic issue”

The ratification of ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers by the Philippines this week breaks new ground in extending basic labour rights to the nearly 100 million of domestic workers worldwide. We look at what it will mean for these workers when the Convention comes into force next year.

Feature | 05 September 2012
Convention 189
Domestic workers who care for families and households must have the same basic labour rights as other workers. These rights include:
  • Reasonable working hours,
  • Weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours,
  • A limit on in-kind payment,
  • Clear information on terms and conditions of employment,
  • Respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
DUMAGUETE CITY, Philippines (ILO news) – Dumaguete City is one of the Philippines’ top destinations for divers and nature lovers.

For Aileen Capacite Bulfa, however, it was not the perfect summer getaway. The daughter of a poor farmer, she moved to Dumaguete to become a domestic worker when she was 13.

She tried to attend the first year of high school, but was not able to do her homework because her employers would usually turn off the lights when it was late at night.

“I would usually wake up at 3 a.m.,” she said. Her first task was to sort out the laundry. “I also took care of their child, took him to school and bathed him. I did everything that they asked me to do…,” Bulfa added. Her working day ended at midnight.

One year later, she was recruited by another employer. Besides the household chores, he forced her to operate computers. It was not long before she realized that she had fallen victim to a trafficking operation offering cybersex through a video camera.

When she refused to do her new job, she received death threats from the person who had recruited her. Finally, she was rescued by a local NGO and went on to become the first leader in her field, representing SUMAPI, the National Association of Domestic Workers in the Philippines.

Today SUMAPI is led by young domestic workers and has 80,000 members across the country. SUMAPI, together with national trade unions and others, has become an important actor in advocating the improvement of the living and working conditions of domestic workers nationally and in the passing of a new Bill that would grant better protection for this category of workers in the Philippines.

A landmark treaty

Bulfa is one of millions of domestic workers worldwide. This week her country, the Philippines, has become the first Asian country to ratify ILO Convention 189 concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
We have moved the standards system of the ILO into the informal economy for the first time."


The Philippines is also a major source country of migrant labourers. Each year, over 150,000 domestic workers, mainly women, travel to other parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East seeking better wages to lift their families out of poverty.

Most of the time, these workers get paid below the minimum wage, and rarely benefit from health insurance, paid leave, or even time off. Many of them are likely to be fired if they take one day off for being sick. And forget about any unemployment benefits if they lose their job.

In some parts of the world, domestic workers face physical and sexual abuse, seclusion, conditions of near slavery, and even murder.

Convention No. 189 is meant to protect these workers. It lays down global, minimum labour protection for domestic workers.

Under the convention, domestic work is internationally recognized as work, and domestic workers as deserving the same legal protection as workers generally.

The new standard establishes that domestic workers should be entitled to social security and a minimum wage (where the latter applies to workers in the formal economy), fair terms of employment, and effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.

“We have moved the standards system of the ILO into the informal economy for the first time. This is a breakthrough, but the challenges to making domestic work decent work remain. For protection to be effective, action is required at different governance levels both within and across countries,” said Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO’s Labour Protection Department.

Verifying compliance is key

According to Ms. Tomei, the home is not a conventional workplace, and national laws tend to preserve the inviolability of individuals’ privacy. “Verifying compliance with the law in private households is therefore more difficult than in a factory or another more conventional workplace. A great deal of innovation and creativity is required,” she explained.

Things are already changing for the better in several countries, including Chile, where a bill on domestic workers has been recently tabled before Congress, as well as in the US state of New York, which became the first state in US history to pass such legislation in 2010.

The Philippines is about to enact a new law establishing minimum labour protection for Filipino domestic workers based on the provisions of Convention 189.

“This is progress that we need to build on. Raising awareness among domestic workers, their employers and governments is part of it,” said Tomei.

For Bulfa, ILO Convention 189 is an instrument that offers domestic workers a chance to work under better conditions and a better life. “I hope that employers no longer abuse domestic workers. I hope they allow them to rest because they are also human beings with rights,” she said.