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The Filipino Kasambahay’s long struggle against invisibility

With more than one million domestic workers in the Philippines there is massive potential for collective action. From small beginnings huge strides have already been made.

"Decent Work for Domestic Workers in the Philippines: Vilma Gallenero." ILO/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While the Philippines is renowned for exporting domestic labour around the world, the practice of hiring help is common in the Philippines as well, especially in wealthy households and for full-time working couples. In fact, the practice of having ‘house helpers’ or ‘kasambahay’ – the Filipino term for domestic worker derived from the words kasama (companion or someone you rely on) and bahay (house) – has been prevalent for as long as we can remember.

In the past, poor families would send their young children to work in wealthy households as a method for repaying debts, in exchange for their children’s education, or as a means to obtain in-kind or cash payments. Later on, poor families in the provinces allowed their children – mostly the girls, but some boys as well – to be recruited as domestic helpers in Manila. With time, the terms ‘maid’, ‘boy’, ‘tsimay’ (a Filipino slang word for house helper but with derogatory connotations), or ‘house helpers’ began to take on derogatory meanings.

Domestic work was – and continues to be – considered as one of the lowest forms of work, reserved for ‘provincial’ girls from the Visayan regions. The term ‘inday’ is precisely used to describe girls who trekked to urban Manila in search for better work as maids. Indays are commonly depicted in TV soap operas as being uneducated, provincial, and loud. Today, in light of enduring forms of discrimination and difficult work conditions, domestic workers in the Philippines are finding their voices as workers and organising to break stereotypes and push for policies that protect domestic workers nationwide.

The potential power of millions

While it is difficult to determine the exact number of Filipino domestic workers abroad, official statistics from 2015 indicate that one-third of 2.4 million overseas Filipino workers were unskilled labourers; a category that includes domestic workers, cleaners, and manufacturing labourers. In the Philippines, the government only started recording data on the number of workers in private households as part of the wage and salary workers category in its 2004-2005 Labor Force Surveys. Government estimates for 2017 put the number of local domestic workers at 1.2 million, but other estimates range from 600,000 to 2.5 million. Numbers aside, it is important to recognise that Filipino domestic workers both abroad and in the Philippines experience abusive work conditions, low wages, and human rights violations.

Domestic workers in the Philippines continue to be under-paid, receive low salaries and no days off, and lack social benefits.

The Philippines has been sending domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Singapore since the 1980s, but it was only in the 1990s that attention was finally given to the conditions of domestic workers. This was mostly due to high profile tales of abuse against Filipino domestic workers abroad, such as the Flor Contemplacion and Sarah Balabagan stories, which mobilised other migrant workers, NGOs, religious groups, and Philippine embassies to work towards defending and protecting the rights of Filipino domestic workers.

Given the number of Filipino domestic workers in the country and abroad, it is no wonder that the Philippines was at the forefront of campaigns for the rights of migrant domestic workers, the ratification of the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention (C189), and the adoption of a national law for domestic workers or the Kasambahay Law.

Historically, domestic labour was unregulated because it was perceived as being lowly and non-work. House helpers and domestic workers were not protected by labour laws and did not have access to social benefits. Today, the perception and non-recognition of domestic work persists: domestic workers in the Philippines continue to be under-paid, receive low salaries and no days off, and lack social benefits. Additionally, many domestic workers find themselves in situations of debt bondage, are juridically unrepresented (and thus invisible), and experience bad working and living conditions (most domestic workers don’t have private rooms and are exposed to hazardous chemicals, to name a few examples).

Building a movement

These problems motivated many of us to organise as domestic workers. We quickly realised that the situation of domestic workers is a unique case in the Philippines. The conditions listed above pushed the Labor Education and Research Network (LEARN) – a labour NGO engaged in workers’ education, research and networking since 1986 – to work with domestic workers on self-organisation and empowerment. As current and former staff of LEARN, we, the authors, were involved in different campaigns on domestic work issues.

Without funding, LEARN in cooperation with its affiliate trade unions and organisations began discussing the unique and differing conditions of domestic workers in Manila, the Philippine capital. When Himaya Montenegro, an author of this piece and a former domestic worker herself, was hired as a teacher at a kindergarten supported by LEARN, the members of the network became more aware of the differing conditions and aspirations of domestic workers in the Philippines. Among these are child domestic workers striving to finish education while doing unpaid domestic work in exchange for school tuition; student domestic workers that have stopped their schooling and remain unpaid by their employers; and domestic workers – especially elderly workers – without social protection.

A few domestic worker organisers, including Himaya, went to gated neighbourhoods, urban poor areas, and schools (where domestic workers often wait for their young charges) with LEARN researchers to conduct one-on-one interviews with domestic workers. These interviews helped domestic workers network and had a snowball effect, with domestic workers referring their domestic worker friends and acquaintances to each other and to LEARN. We then did house to house visits to create personal relationships with and among domestic workers.

After these conversations and discussions with domestic workers, we decided that addressing the economic concerns of domestic workers – primarily due to low wages – was a priority, so we formed a community savings cooperative for domestic workers. The purpose was to help domestic workers avoid debt bondage and to provide them with a mutual aid programme for solidarity and support. Besides this mutual-help initiative, we also offered regular discussions and short seminars on domestic worker rights and social protection.

From a diffuse network to UNITED

United Domestic Workers of the Philippines (UNITED) was created in 2012, after the ILO Technical Working Group on Domestic Work was formed and the ILO Convention 189 on domestic work was adopted and ratified in the Philippines. We grew from a small, informal group of 73 domestic workers in 2012 to an official organisation of 273 members in April 2015. In 2014, we obtained financial support from the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF), and in 2016 we were able to register UNITED as a workers’ organisation at the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment. Today, we have over 1,053 members from different regions of the Philippines.

We grew from a small, informal group of 73 domestic workers in 2012 to an official organisation of 273 members in April 2015.

The purpose of UNITED is to organise domestic workers in the Philippines under a democratic national union in order to empower them to claim their rights as workers and to help them enhance their skills and knowledge in organising. Aside from a membership fee of Php50.00 (€1), members also pay Php30.00 (€0.55) in monthly dues. There are currently 347 due-paying members in the 22 local chapters, which gives us hope for the sustainability of the organisation in the future.  

UNITED also helps mediate conflicts between domestic workers and their employers by conducting forums for domestic workers to discuss issues with their employers to ease any potential misunderstandings between both parties. In most cases, UNITED negotiates individually with household employers on behalf of their members. In special cases, UNITED may rescue abused Kasambahays and refer them to lawyers, appropriate law enforcement agents, and government agencies.

The state recognises and supports UNITED in its organising work and education for domestic workers. At municipal and city levels, UNITED organises events to celebrate Kasambahay Day and assemblies to offer government programmes like scholarships and healthcare to Kasambahays. In Muntinlupa City, for example, the city mayor’s office and the gender and development office sponsor UNITED’s scholarship and skills training programmes. Recently, the Pag-IBIG Fund and UNITED began negotiations for a Memorandum of Agreement to register all Kasambahays, and especially UNITED members, for housing and credit programmes.

UNITED raises public awareness through basic orientation seminars, ‘know-your-rights’ sessions, social media outreach, and broadcasted interviews. With the help of LEARN, UNITED is participating in proposing amendments to the Kasambahay Law on certain provisions that are vague and provide no sanctions against the violations of domestic workers’ rights. In the future, we are planning to develop a collective bargaining negotiation framework with homeowners associations that would require employers to provide spaces or meeting places in their villages for UNITED’s organising work and for domestic workers to celebrate holidays like International Domestic Workers day and Kasambahay Day.

UNITED is also currently engaged in different mobilising efforts to support other workers’ issues and campaigns for voters’ registration for the upcoming Barangay elections. Barangays are the smallest political unit in the Philippines, where community leaders are elected on a regular basis. UNITED continues to be a member of the Technical Working Group on Domestic Work with the ILO, employers, NGOs, and trade unions. We are also connected to feminist groups, migrant workers’ organisations, and especially other organisations affiliated with the IDWF.

There are still many challenges faced by domestic workers in the Philippines. One of the major problems remains the low salary of domestic workers, which leads to economic hardships. Other problems include social and political issues of disempowerment, a lack of enforcement of national law, and the reluctance of employers to register domestic workers in mandatory government programmes such as in the social security system. Furthermore, there is a fundamental lack of recognition of domestic workers as workers and the invisibility of child domestic workers. UNITED will continue to work towards overcoming these challenges for the benefit of domestic workers in the country, both now and in the future.

About the authors

Himaya Montenegro is currently programme staff of the Labor Education and Research Network (LEARN) and organiser of UNITED, the domestic workers’ union in the Philippines. Himaya is a former domestic worker who continued her studies as a daycare teacher sponsored by LEARN. She was then recruited in LEARN as the lead organiser for domestic workers in the Philippines.

Verna Dinah Q. Viajar is a former trade union education programme coordinator of LEARN from 1991 to 1998. As a student activist in late 1980s from the University of the Philippines, she has worked with the labour movement since then. She took her MA under the Global Labour University programme in Germany and is currently finishing her PhD dissertation on migrant domestic workers in Malaysia at the University of Kassel, Germany.


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