“It is an added instrument, a tool and a weapon. But it is not the answer to migrant workers’ problems.” – United Filipinos in Hongkong
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — When the International Labor Organization passed its landmark treaty for the protection of domestic household workers, the Philippine government hailed it as a “great victory.” But for progressive groups advocating for the rights and welfare of Filipino domestic helpers abroad, the struggle has a long way to go.
“The resolution, if ratified, would respond to a lot of issues that migrant domestic workers are confronting,” Eman Villanueva, secretary general of United Filipinos in Hongkong, said, “But in the end, the key in addressing their concerns still lies on the strength of the migrant workers’ movement.”
Labor Undersecretary Danilo Cruz said earlier in an Inquirer report that the ILO treaty would provide a “mantle of protection” for Filipino domestic helpers, where, in Hongkong alone, Villanueva said, there are about 138,000.
“No one can deny that the (ILO treaty) is significant and timely. In fact, it is already long overdue,” Villanueva said, “The content is for the protection of domestic helpers, particularly migrant workers because they are more vulnerable to abuses since they are in a foreign land.”
Yet, with about 300 Filipino organizations in Hongkong, where 80 to 100 are affiliated with progressive groups like Unifil, the struggle of domestic helpers persists.
For one, Villanueva said, the low salaries of domestic helpers remains one of their biggest concerns. “Domestic helpers are excluded from the minimum wage and, thus, are not treated as part of the labor force,” he said.
The salary of domestic helpers is based on the minimum allowable wage, which, Villanueva said, is lower than its rate 13 years ago. “In 1998, domestic helpers were earning HK$3,860 but now they are only earning HK$3,740. If we consider the value of the money, the disparity of today’s salary and that of a decade ago would definitely become even wider.
If salary rates of domestic helpers would be based on Hongkong’s minimum wage, they should earn $28 per hour, which, according to Villanueva, is what their employers do not want to happen. “There is a thin line between rest and work hours when one lives with their employer which means that they work for 12 to 16 hours a day or practically “on call” for 24 hours.
The problem of low salaries is aggravated by the high fees that recruitment agencies collect from applicants despite the no placement fee policy for Filipinos applying as domestic helpers abroad. To earn, recruitment agencies impose expensive fees on their mandatory trainings and assessment under former president Gloria Arroyo’s Supermaid program. The said program continues up to date, which Villanueva said, shows that “President Benigno S. Aquino III still proceeded with the crooked ways set by Arroyo and dubbed it as the ‘straight and narrow path.'”
Another concern that domestic helpers in Hongkong are confronting are cases of abuses. “The verbal abuse is the most common form of abuse and it is not illegal,” Villanueva said, adding that for as long as it is not in any way discriminatory, which, in that case would violate Hongkong laws. “They would just cry about it,” he said.
Physical abuse among domestic helpers also remain as a constant problem. “One common abuse that domestic helpers experience is when their teenage ward would punch them. How would they file charges against a minor?” he said.
“They have bruises and they would just endure it.” This year alone, more than 10 Filipino domestic helpers went to Unifil’s office complaining that they were victims of abuse.
Villanueva said that they, too, are helping other nationalities who are victims of either abuses or being underpaid. “The number of Indonesians working as domestic helper has increased over the years. Indonesia is also intensifying their labor export. As a result, even minors, who carry fraudulent documents, are able to work as domestic helpers.”
“They were not informed of their rights. They sign contracts that they do not understand. Because of this, no one complains despite their exploitative working conditions,” Villanueva said.
Advancing migrants rights
If China will ratify the ILO treaty on the protection of domestic helpers, it would address a lot of issues confronting them. Villanueva said that, for one, it would address long working hours. “The international standard is eight hours of work everyday. Beyond this, domestic helpers are entitled to overtime pay.”
“It would change a situation that is very abusive and exploitative. Rest is very important so one could work for another day,” Villanueva said.
Aside from this, the domestic helpers would also be entitled to form a union. The treaty, if ratified, would give labor unions the right to represent those who have disputes before labor tribunals. “So workers are not left to defend themselves,” Villanueva said. The right to a collective bargaining agreement is also one of the benefits that domestic helpers would be able to enjoy.
Human rights violations, including any form of violence and discrimination, is also “touched” in the first paragraphs of the treaty. It cited several United Nations conventions such as the universal declaration of human rights and the rights of migrant workers and their families.
Villanueva was in Geneva, Switzerland representing Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union to lobby for migrants rights during the ILO convention. He said that they appealed to countries to assert the rights of their constituents. Yet, despite winning the hearts of many countries at the ILO, he doubts if a lot of countries would ratify the convention. Even if it is ratified, the problem would be the implementation.
He said that he finds it hard to imagine how the treaty would be implemented in the Philippines since it also concerns domestic helpers in the country. “We are fond of ratifying almost all resolutions passed in the United Nations. But was it ever implemented?” he said.
As for Hongkong, Villanueva said, they are not expecting China to ratify the treaty. But, he added, it would become useful in their advocacy in promoting the rights of migrant workers. “It is an added instrument, a tool and a weapon. But it is not the answer to migrant workers’ problems.”