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Domestic workers hold placards as union leader Vorn Pov speaks in front of the Ministry of Labour
Domestic workers hold placards as union leader Vorn Pov speaks in front of the Ministry of Labour in Phnom Penh yesterday during a rally to mark Domestic Workers Day and to call for better working conditions. Heng Chivoan

Protecting domestic workers

Two months ago, a 23-year-old domestic worker from a little-known Indonesian city was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was recognised alongside presidents and pop stars for what she didn’t do: Erwiana didn’t stay silent.

Yesterday we commemorated Domestic Workers Day, and at the International Labour Organization we reflected on the contributions of women like Erwiana. Since she returned from Hong Kong to her home in Indonesia, Erwiana has been campaigning for the rights of domestic workers. During her eight months on the job 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 $9 in her pocket.

Erwiana began campaigning for domestic workers just like her, many of them migrant women and most of them still vulnerable in their workplaces across the globe. There are more than 20 million domestic workers in the Asia-Pacific region alone – that’s the same as 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 the average wage; some earn less than a fifth.

Despite the risks, domestic work is a fast-growing sector. 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. Over 80 per cent of these workers are women.

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Cambodian women migrate to neighbouring Thailand and other countries in the region for domestic work. Currently, the royal government of Cambodia is negotiating reopening channels for domestic workers to migrate to Malaysia, and a pilot program sending domestic workers to Singapore is ongoing. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the governments of Cambodia and Malaysia is being developed.

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 family and that increase the GDP and development potential of their countries. Domestic workers enable members of their employers’ households to work by reducing the time needed for cleaning, cooking, shopping and family tasks.

We need to realise the benefits that domestic work – and migration for domestic work – can offer, and this can only be achieved if these women are in safe and profitable work. A binding Protocol on Forced Labour was passed just days ago at the International Labour Conference. It includes new provisions that aim to increase compensation to victims of forced labour. The protocol recognises that profits should rightfully go to the workers and their families instead of lining the pockets of recruitment companies that charge excessive or fraudulent fees, or to exploitative employers who profit from forced labour.

The ILO recently estimated that over $8 billion in profits is made each year from domestic workers 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.

This misconception has slowed the process of recognising domestic workers’ rights, in international law and in our own homes. On June 16, 2011, the first convention recognising the rights of domestic workers was adopted. Today, we commemorate that moment when the international community finally and positively stated that “domestic work is work”.

So far, 14 countries have agreed to enshrine basic rights for domestic workers by ratifying ILO Convention No 189. On the anniversary of its adoption, I call on all governments to consider ratification of the convention and inclusion of domestic workers in the general protections provided by the labour law. I urge that the MoU being developed between the Malaysian and Cambodia governments reflect the rights enshrined in Convention No 189.

You don’t need to wait for your government to act to improve the lives of domestic workers. If you employ a domestic worker, have a conversation with her about ways to implement the convention in your own home. Recognise 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 age for work 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, freedom of movement and payment in cash. Respect your domestic worker’s right to privacy and make sure she has a lockable bedroom if she lives in your home.

I admire Erwiana’s courage. She stood up and fought for her rights and dignity as a human being, and for the rights of other domestic workers like her. Erwiana shouldn’t stand alone. Stand with her by protecting the rights of domestic workers in your home and your community. Call on your government to ratify the convention 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?

Yoshiteru Uramoto is the ILO regional director for Asia and the Pacific.



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