Op-Ed: Domestic Workers’ Day
A rapidly aging Asia means a rapidly growing need for domestic workers. But what about their rights?
Mr. NILIM BARUAH, International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Regional Migration Specialist for Asia and the Pacific, reviews progress on migrant domestic workers’ rights in Asia.
ASIA is on track to become one of the oldest regions in the world in the next few decades. According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the number of older persons in Asia-Pacific is expected to increase from an estimated 548 million in 2019, to nearly 1.3 billion by 2050. By then, one in four people in the region is expected to be over 60 years old. Thailand, following Japan and South Korea, is the third most rapidly aging country in Asia. If this trend continues, by 2031, Thailand will join Japan, Hong Kong (China), Korea and New Zealand, in societies where more than one in five people will be 65 years or older.
Domestic workers’ critical contribution to families
This demographic transition combined with an increase of women in the workforce increases the demand for home-based care and domestic work. We have seen that as societies develop and women enter the formal workforce, they are less likely to perform “traditional” care roles. However, rather than other family members sharing the care responsibilities, many aging societies will look to migrants to fill the domestic work gap. Singapore is illustrative of this trend, where, already in 2012, a national survey found that among persons aged 75 and over, 50 percent were dependent on migrant care workers, including domestic workers, for their daily care.
June 16 (a Sunday in 2019) is globally recognized as Domestic Workers’ Day. Domestic work, “work performed in or for a household or households,” is among the most vital for functioning of households and society as a whole. It is also one of the lowest-paid jobs, and at the same time with long and unpredictable working hours.
Around 67 million people work as domestic workers around the world. Almost 10 million work in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The growing demand for domestic services is considered to be one of the main triggers of the feminization of labor migration. In fact, domestic workers make up nearly 20 percent of all migrant workers in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region. The vast majority of those, 83 percent, are women.
Domestic workers make a critical contribution to families, societies and economies across the world. Still, migrant domestic workers are disproportionately exposed to abuse compared to other workers due to gaps in national labor and employment legislation, the relative isolation of their work place and a high degree of informality. Furthermore, just as care work is seen as women’s work, there is also a certain tolerance for exploitation and abuse towards women domestic workers in patriarchal societies.
During recent years, frequent media reports of cases of severe abuse of migrant domestic workers have brought increased attention to the need to increase protection for this group of workers. We know that gender-based migration bans and restrictions on migration for domestic work put in place by some countries in the name of protection have proven to be counterproductive. Women will continue to migrate, but are forced to do so through irregular channels thereby increasing their vulnerability even further.
More needs to be done for domestic workers
In most ASEAN Member States, labor laws do not apply fully to domestic workers. This leaves workers without protection provided to other workers such as social security, minimum wage and regulation of working hours. Exclusion from legal protection also increases the risk of labor exploitation and violence without recourse to access to justice.
Until today, only one ASEAN Member State, the Philippines, has ratified the International Labor Organization’s (ILO’s) Convention on Domestic Workers (No. 189). The Convention recognizes domestic work as work, and addresses the particular vulnerability of migrant domestic workers.
During the last years some positive development has been seen in the region. In 2017, at the 10th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labor held in Manila, Philippines, the 10 ASEAN Member States adopted a strong set of recommendations calling for the recognition of domestic workers as workers in ASEAN.
In 2018, the Thai Government began to take concrete steps to better protect the rights of domestic workers. Assisted by the ILO, Thailand is currently engaging in an exercise to align its legislative framework with the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers. In April this year, the Myanmar Government announced that it will lift the 2014 ban on domestic workers going to Singapore, Hong Kong (China), Macau (China), and Thailand.
These are welcome initiatives. But more needs to be done.
With the growing demand for domestic workers, laws and policies in ASEAN need to provide the same protection for domestic workers as they do for all other workers. Countries of origin and destination have a shared responsibility in developing and implementing gender responsive, fair and effective labor migration policies for migrant domestic workers.
Domestic work is work. By recognizing it as such, we need to grant all domestic workers, including migrant domestic workers, their undeniable right to decent living and working conditions.
The ILO is the only United Nations agency with a constitutional mandate to protect migrant workers, and it does so as part of its overarching goal of achieving decent work for all. In ASEAN, the ILO has a portfolio of interventions focusing on decent working conditions for migrant workers, including:
TRIANGLE in ASEAN works to maximize the contribution of labor migration to an equitable, inclusive and stable growth in ASEAN. It is supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Global Affairs Canada.
Safe and Fair: Realizing women migrant workers’ rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region, is part of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) Spotlight Initiative to eliminate all forms of violence against women. It is implemented through a partnership between the ILO and UN Women with the overriding objective of ensuring that labor migration is safe and fair for all women in the ASEAN region. (ILO Philippines)
Photo of Mr. Nilim Baruah courtesy of Asian Development Bank (ADB)