Lighting a torch for empowerment - "We matter," say Filipino domestic workers

Domestic workers in the Philippines are being given a voice by SUMAPI, the only workers' organization in the country for this sector. Ricardo R. Casco of ILODOMWORK reports on its progress.

MANILA, Philippines – 2.5 million Filipino households rely on domestic workers to provide relief to families coping with the conflicting interests of career and family responsibilities. Filipina domestic workers are now also employed in households in some 70 countries around the world, and their importance is increasing with the changing patterns of family life and work. Yet the contribution of domestic work has continued to be undervalued, and the struggle to free it from child labour continues.

Milaluna Tibubos (Mila) tells her story:

"I grew up with 12 siblings in a very remote yet peaceful town in Iloilo. At a very young age, I was confronted with the ugly reality of poverty and how it affected my family. I was well aware that my parents could not support me in achieving my aspiration of finishing school. Like many young girls, I wanted to be educated and earn a college degree. That was all I could think about then, but I was fully aware of my family's economic condition. Sometimes we could not eat because there was nothing to cook, nor was there any money to buy food in the market. So I turned to my teachers, thinking that they could help me. My teachers in elementary school encouraged me to go to their homes and be their domestic worker. They promised me that later on they would help me obtain my high school and college education."

So began Mila's long journey on the path to empowerment – but things did not initially turn out the way she expected.

"I began working when I was 9 years old so that I could support my studies and my family despite the arduous tasks I did. In one of my first jobs, I had to care for two toddlers aged 2 and 5 years old; I was still a child and I did not know how to take care of the children. My employer would hit me if I did something wrong. I was barely receiving any salary, only one peso per day. At times, I would skip classes on the instruction of my teacher-employer to go home and take care of her children."

Today Mila is the elected head of Samahang Ugnayan ng mga Manggagawang Pangtahanan sa Pilipinas (SUMAPI), the lone domestic worker organization in the Philippines. Benefiting from the ILO's Regional Project on Mobilizing Action for the Protection of Domestic Workers from Forced Labour and Trafficking (ILO-DOMWORK), SUMAPI is preparing itself this year for institutional independence after years of nurture from the Visayan Forum Foundation, Inc. (VFFI), a staunch supporter of domestic workers' rights and welfare.

SUMAPI was organized by VFFI as a non-stock, non-profit, people's organization working for the protection of migrant children and women working in the local market. Starting in Manila in 1995, it later expanded its activities to the provinces of Davao, Bacolod, Batangas, Iloilo and Cebu. It now has an estimated membership of 8,000 domestic workers and is currently made up of 21 core groups providing services in parks, schools, communities, and parishes.

Like Mila, SUMAPI's core leaders today are composed of successfully rehabilitated domestic workers who have availed themselves of VFFI's Psychosocial Programme and educational assistance under the IPEC Programme. Having "walked the talk" and survived a painful past as child domestic workers, they have earned their credibility in speaking for their rights and interests; they understand how to build an important role for the sector.

Low pay, low status

While domestic work has become a highly sought-after service, compensation for it as defined by present legislated standards in the Philippines is not commensurate.

In narrating her travails as an impoverished child domestic worker, Mila describes the meagre income she earned out of the sacrifices she went through in her fervent desire to finish college. "I transferred from one employer to another – I had 11 employers in all in 7 years. I sought work outside my province, far away from my family, in a place hardly familiar to me, and where I had no one to go to in case of problems. I had little or almost no communication with my family; worse, I worked in a household where I slept at the nipa hut (a native makeshift dwelling) located outside the main house. I would sleep there without pillows, without blankets, and without other essential amenities. I was fed with leftover food; my work entailed the entire household chores. I went through the ordeal of being hit, my hair was pulled by the daughter of my employer and I was even slapped, not only by my employer but also by other members of the family. Out of these 11 employers, only one employer paid me 500 pesos (US$10) a month; others just gave me 25 pesos, 2 pesos or sometimes nothing, especially when they provided me with the opportunity to go to school."

Even household employers of stature in society, such as Mila's teacher-employers, can be guilty of abuses; a distorted view of domestic service allows these practices to be perpetuated. In many cultures the engagement of domestic services is relegated to the level of "domestic helpers or household servants". These helpers and servants are not treated as workers deserving labour law coverage and standards of protection.

In addition, recruiters of domestic workers for overseas employment tend to usurp the profits of this high-demand market. Because the job content of domestic work is perceived to require very low skill levels, and as more poor countries join the pool of suppliers, local wages and compensation are continuing to deteriorate.

As abroad, so at home

The Philippines Department of Labor and Employment has recently announced publicly that it will vigorously promote the skills training and knowledge orientation of its overseas domestic workers, acknowledging the growing number of incidences of trafficking, forced labour and human rights abuses among them. And consistent with the need to implement the provisions of the Philippine Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act (Republic Act 8042) of 1995, which provides that the possession of skill-based competence is key to protection of vulnerable workers, the ILO has extended support to the Philippines for the development of a skills training, knowledge orientation, testing and certification system for domestic workers. This facility, managed by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), promises to empower the overseas domestic sector with leverage as they seek to preserve their relatively higher compensation and earn a professional stature in the global market.

But while such orientation and training serves to protect domestic workers working abroad and make them more competitive, there is much yet to be done in promoting the use of such facilities in the local market.

There is a desire among local domestic workers to upgrade government regulations and services for them in parallel with the programmes for those abroad. They are pursuing an omnibus law for domestic workers, Batas Kasambahay (Magna Carta for Household Workers, House Bill No. 1606), just as migrant workers have RA 8042.

Being mostly unschooled and uninformed, they want to have access to a worker orientation and skills training programme. They want to see recruitment agencies operating in the local market made more responsible and assume specific obligations. When these are provided at home, they argue, the government will strengthen its moral ground in negotiating for better terms and conditions for migrant workers.

In the struggle for empowerment, Mila has shepherded SUMAPI this year into an intensive schedule of capacity-building sessions on visioning, strategic and operational planning, principles of human and labour rights, organizing, resource mobilization, financial management, outreach services and entrepreneurship, under the guidance of the Federation of Free Workers and the ILO. "I am confident that we have bloomed with this mission to prevent present and future generations of domestic workers from experiencing the lost childhood we had to bear," says Mila. "The things done for us – both big and small – by different social partners mobilized by the ILO in the past few years can spark us and generations to come into a real state of empowerment. We have the numbers, and we matter to families and individuals. Ours is a big voice."

Local initiatives for skills and social protection

Apart from ILO support for the updating of Philippine rules and regulations governing private recruitment and placement agencies operating in the local market, a number of initiatives from NGOs and local government units have captured ILO attention. In December 2004 the Quezon City government introduced a local ordinance calling for the registration and social security coverage of domestic workers and the mobilization of a Kasambahay desk and hotline programme. This initiative led to the development of an expanded local ordinance model. In February 2006, Makati City passed its own local ordinance.

"There is no better way to implement service initiatives on the ground than when you have the Barangay (local government unit) and the homeowners' associations working together," says Constancia Lichauco, Barangay Captain of Belair, an elite residential village in Makati. Belair is now in its 11th year of implementing its Kabalikat sa Tahahan (partner at home) programme (KST) – a three-month training programme in skills, knowledge and values for domestic workers that takes place every Wednesday afternoon. The Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) has adopted the KST programme as a basis for its employer-awareness campaign and the formulation of its Code of Ethics in the Employment of Domestic Workers.