Domestic workers

Study highlights forced labour amongst migrant domestic workers in Southeast Asia

Survey by International Labour Organization (ILO) of migrant domestic workers in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand points to poor working conditions, yet also highlights the skilled nature of domestic work.

Press release | Bangkok, Thailand | 15 June 2023
BANGKOK, Thailand (ILO News) - Denial of labour and social protection rights to migrant domestic workers is leading to exploitation and forced labour in key Southeast Asian employment markets according to a new report issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Findings also highlight the skills required for work carried out by domestic workers and calls for this to be recognized in pay and regulated hours, like any other job.

The study is based on interviews with 1,201 domestic workers between July and September 2022 in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Findings indicate that 29 per cent of surveyed migrant domestic workers in Malaysia were in conditions meeting the ILO’s statistical definition of forced labour; as were 7 per cent of surveyed workers in Singapore and 4 per cent in Thailand. Indicators of involuntariness include not being able to quit your job, having to stay in the job longer than agreed, and being made to work without overtime pay, among others.

A domestic worker making up a bed. © ILO
Long hours and low wages are the norm for migrant domestic workers in all countries surveyed. In all three countries on average domestic workers surveyed worked hours well in excess of those legislated for other workers. When adjusted for the internationally standard working week, none of the respondent domestic workers from the study earned the minimum wage.

“Domestic work is one of the most important tasks in our society, and yet provided with the least protection. This can no longer be accepted,” said Anna Engblom, Chief Technical Adviser of ILO’s TRIANGLE in ASEAN programme which produced the study.

The study challenges the narrative that domestic work is unskilled or low skilled. Domestic workers were found to be regularly doing medium-skilled tasks, especially when providing care work. These were classified as International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO) Skills Level 2 which require more technical skills and good transversal skills including communication and the ability to speak the local language. However, these skill levels are neither recognized in domestic workers’ pay nor other working conditions.

A domestic worker cleaning dishes and looking after a child. © ILO/J. Aliling
Additional findings highlight the relatively low enrollment rates amongst migrant domestic workers in social security schemes, a situation which can amplify the isolation of workers and their vulnerability to forced labour practices. Various states also restrict domestic workers’ ability to organize or collectively bargain, with legal and social obstacles still preventing domestic workers from forming, and sometimes joining, trade unions in the study countries.

“Domestic workers need to be recognized as the skilled employees that they are in terms of pay and employment conditions. The skilled nature of their work should also be reflected in migration pathways. All too often migrant domestic workers are locked into restrictive employment patterns. By allowing them the opportunities to change employers or negotiate better working conditions, as other skilled migrants can, they would be far less likely to suffer exploitation,” Ms Engblom added.

Recommendations made by the study include the ratification and implementation of ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), Forced Labour Convention, 1929 (No. 29), and the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 to ensure that domestic workers enjoy rights at least equal to those of other workers, in law and in practice. Instances of forced labour should result in criminal charges and policies changed to prevent its occurrence. Skills recognition opportunities for domestic workers should also be explored and migration pathways should be appropriately flexible, accessible and rights-based.

Skilled to care; forced to work? Recognizing the skills profiles of migrant domestic workers in ASEAN amid forced labour and exploitation was produced by the ILO as part of the TRIANGLE in ASEAN programme, which is funded by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Global Affairs Canada (GAC).

For further information please contact:

Steve Needham
Senior Communications Officer
ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
Tel.: +66 836066628