“We expected the Philippines, as chair of the Committee on Domestic Workers that deliberated on the text of the convention with recommendations, to be the first or one of the first to ratify the convention but so far, it seems that it is not in the list of President Aquino’s priorities.” – Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
A union of Filipino workers s in Hong Kong recently blasted the Benigno Aquino III administration for what it said was the government’s failure to ratify the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Work (ILO Convention No. 189) eight months after it was approved by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
On June 16, 2011, the ILO adopted what it said was a groundbreaking treaty to extend crucial labor protection to domestic workers. The ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers sets the first global standard on working conditions for the estimated 50 to 100 million domestic workers all over the world, majority of whom are girls and women.
Among the 475 votes that were cast, 396 delegates representing governments, workers’ organizations and employers voted for the convention. Only 16 voted against the convention, and 63 abstained. The ILO is the only tripartite organization of the UN: each of its 183 member-states is represented by two government delegates, one employer delegate and one worker delegate, with an independent vote.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the ILO spent three years developing the convention to address the routine exclusion of domestic workers from labor protection guaranteed to other workers, such as weekly days off, limits to hours of work, and a minimum wage.
“Domestic workers face a wide range of grave abuses and labor exploitation, including excessive working hours without rest, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and trafficking,” it said.
In June 2011, the Philippine Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva reported that Labor Undersecretary Hans Cacdac was elected Chairperson of the Committee on Domestic Workers at the 100th Session of the ILO in Geneva.
According to a statement released by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), Cacdac’s election was a reflection of the international community’s recognition of the Philippines’ initiatives in promoting and protecting the rights of overseas workers.
Ambassador Evan P. Garcia also said that it was the Aquino administration’s priority to promote and ensure the humane treatment of its overseas workers, including domestic workers through, among others, international cooperation. He said the Philippines is active in the Committee on Domestic Workers in order to secure the common international objective of realizing decent work conditions for domestic workers, through the recognition of standards and rights for all domestic workers in the world.
Despite this declaration on the part of Philippine officials, however, the vice chairman of the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union (FMWU-HKCTU) Eman Villanueva said the Aquino administration has not showed any intention that it will sign the Convention.
“We expected the Philippines, as chair of the Committee on Domestic Workers that deliberated on the text of the convention with recommendations, to be the first or one of the first to ratify the convention but so far, it seems that it is not in the list of President Aquino’s priorities,” he said.
The FMWU, an affiliate of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), was one of the union delegates to the 100th International Labour Conference (ILC) in June last year where the convention was approved. Its members are Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong.
Protecting domestic workers against abuse
In its introductory text, the new Convention reads that “domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and work, and to other abuses of human rights.”
The Convention defines domestic work as work performed in or for a household or households. The ILO said that while the new instruments cover all domestic workers, they provide for special measures to protect those workers who, because of their young age or nationality or live-in status, may be exposed to additional risks relative to their peers, among others.
Based on the new ILO standards, domestic workers around the world who care for families and households should enjoy the same basic labor rights as those available to other workers. Domestic workers have the right to reasonable hours of work; weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours; a limit on in-kind payment, clear information on terms and conditions of employment; as well as respect for fundamental principles and rights at work including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
In a study the ILO conducted covering 117 countries, the number of domestic workers was placed at around 53 million. It clarified, however, that because domestic labor is often hidden and unregistered, the total number of domestic workers could reach 100 million.
In developing countries, domestic workers comprise at least four to 12 percent of wage employment. Around 83 percent of these workers are women or girls and many are migrant workers.
As for the Philippines, data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) state that in 2010, 96, 583 were deployed overseas under the POEA labor category “Domestic Helpers and Related Household Workers.” Of this figure, 1, 703 were men.
In the meantime, it was also revealed that Hong Kong remains the top destination for Filipino domestic helpers. As of 2010, some 28, 602 Filipinos work there as domestic helpers. Other countries employing Filipinos as household labor are Kuwait employing 21,554; the United Arab Emirates with 13, 184; Saudi Arabia, 11, 582; and Qatar with 9, 937.
In October last year, Sen. Loren Legarda filed Resolution No. 615 calling on the government to ratify the Convention, “bearing in mind the legal and social benefits that would insure the protection for our local and overseas Filipino domestic workers.”
Ratify the convention now
FMWU ‘s Villanueva pointed out that, according to an international network for domestic workers’ rights, the convention can be shelved if it is not ratified by at least two countries a year after its approval.
“We expected that the Philippine government would have been eager to ratify the convention considering the presence of millions of Filipino domestic workers in various countries around the world as well as hundreds of thousands more working in the Philippines. So far, however, all we get is neglect and indifference: the Aquino administration has essentially done nothing beneficial for OFWs since it assumed power almost two years ago,” he said.
Villanueva reported that organizations of migrant domestic workers are lobbying for the ratification of the convention because it contains provisions that can be used to protect the rights of domestic workers who are mostly women.
“Everyday, there are domestic workers who are abused and even meet tragic endings. It is high time that an international agreement be put in place to help protect our rights against these conditions of modern-day slavery that we suffer at work,” he said.
Villanueva’s assertions for the rights of domestic helpers are bolstered by a report made by the United Filipinos in Hong Kong, a group allied with the FMWU.
UNIFIL is currently calling for investigations into the death of a Filipina domestic worker found floating in the waters of Shau Kei Wan last February 5. The body of the OFW identified as Rowena Gloria Gomez, 34, was repatriated to the Philippines on Feb. 25, but as of this writing, the cause of her death has not yet been established.
“We hope that Philippine authorities will pursue a swift investigation of Gomez’s case and exert all effort to assist the bereaved family of our fellow OFW. If foul play is involved, then it is also incumbent on the Philippine government to ensure that justice is had by Gomez and her family,” said Dolores Balladares, UNIFIL chairperson said.
She pointed out that while the Philippine consulate has promised to give Gomez’s kin updates on the investigation, her group is worried that other forms of assistance to the family will be denied from them or will not be immediately received.
“The Aquino government’s record of providing assistance to OFWs and our families leave a lot to be desired. The grief that Gomez’s family surely feels right now should not be compounded with a mediocre service that this government is known for,” she said.
Villanueva said the call for ratification of the ILO Convention 189 will be one of the main demands of the FMWU in the protest action on March 11 in Hong Kong in commemoration of the 101st International Women’s Day. It will also be among the group’s major calls for the upcoming International Labor Day rallies on May 1.
“After decades of campaigning and lobbying, the historic victory of domestic workers including migrant domestic workers may all come to naught. We can’t let this happen,” he said.
Singapore’s new rule favors domestic helpers
In a related development, Migrante International’s chapter in the Middle East recently lauded a new ruling made by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower on mandatory day-offs for foreign domestic workers. The group said migrant-host governments in the Middle-East would do well to impose a similar law.
“We welcome the Singaporean government’s policy shift granting mandatory day off for foreign domestic workers. There are 65,000 Filipino domestic workers in Singapore, and they will benefit from this. The new rule is certainly geared towards humanization of domestic labor and recognition that domestic work is real work,” said Migrante-Middle East regional coordinator John Leonard Monterona.
Monterona said Singapore’s granting of mandatory day off poses a “‘litmus’ test to middle-eastern governments hosting millions of FDWs.”
He pointed out that most of the Gulf Cooperating Council (GCC) member-countries have reservations in recognizing domestic workers’ inalienable rights as a worker and a human being citing ‘customary practices and traditions’.
“Kuwait for example opposes the granting of day-off and the internationally prescribed 8-hour work day of domestic workers,” he said.
On June 9, 2011, an official of Kuwait’s social affairs ministry had been quoted by Al-Qabas newspaper saying the granting of day-off and specific working hours to domestic workers “does not suit the habits, traditions and public ethics of Kuwait”. The Kuwaiti official added a maid during her day-off going to a place unknown to her sponsor is considered an offense to Kuwait’s public ethics.
“It has been known that other GCC countries and non-GCC governments also cited ‘preserving tradition and modesty of maids’ as reasons to restrict domestic workers freedom of movement and giving them day-off, among others,” Monterona said.
Monterona said the rights of domestic workers should not be viewed as a “threat to host-countries tradition and customary laws.”
“This could be harmonized by passing local laws that guarantee domestic workers’ rights while respecting the habits and traditions of the host country,” the Filipino migrant leader said.
Monterona said the view that domestic workers in the Middle East are little more than slaves must be changed.
“This is what the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers had told the host governments including that in the Middle East that domestic workers have rights too, rights that governments must recognize, guarantee and protect,” he said.