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Home: a black hole for workers’ rights

Why are governments and populations so resistant to treating cleaners and carers as workers?

My name is Fish Ip, and I'm the regional coordinator for Asia for the International Domestic Workers Federation. I used to be a union organiser for local and migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, and in all I’ve worked with domestic workers for almost 20 years.

As the IDWF regional coordinator, we try as much as possible to assist our affiliate domestic workers, organisations, and unions. If they can form a union then we assist them in doing so, and then support them to organise and advocate to change the law.

In Asia, we still have a lot of challenges. Not all workers can form a union recognised by the government, and we still have not only labour exploitation but severe human rights exploitation – domestic workers being locked at home or being beaten up or raped, for example.

Many also do not enjoy any holidays, which raises the questions of how to organise them and how to reach out. How can leaders get them to know their rights, get them to be assertive, get them to come to the union, get them to be visible in the community and also to the government of the country? We still have a lot to do to change the law and to make it possible for domestic workers to come out – to not be locked inside the home but to come out and to assert their voice.

Working at home is to be on standby 24 hours a day for whoever in the family calls on you to do something.

Neil Howard (oD): And what would be necessary to improve working conditions for domestic workers in your region?

Fish: Very basic, basic human rights. To have the freedom of moving around, to have holidays. Once you are locked in, you are like in jail. You work every day. Working at home is to be on standby 24 hours a day for whoever in the family calls on you to do something. We have domestic workers who cannot sleep or just sleep two, three hours per day.

The problem is that, for employers, once you are not being monitored, and once you have nobody watching you from outside, you will abuse your authority. This is why domestic workers face such physical abuse – because nobody watches what the employers in private households do.

So we must open this understanding. Working in a private household is not that private. Once someone hires a worker, the employer need to be watched to make sure that they follow the law. That they are not abusing their authority. The government should be able to reach into the homes to monitor the situation

Once everyone is being watched, like on the street, they will behave. We need domestic workers to have holidays. Everybody needs to have eight hours sleep. Everybody needs to have some rest every week. These are just normal human rights, but we are not enjoying them. So this must be changed.

Neil (oD): Can you tell me why the government does not currently watch the workers, watch the employers, and enforce these rights?

Fish: We still have too much traditional thinking in our heads. Many people, including government officials, are employers of domestic workers. They still feel that these women or girls or boys, they are someone from the poor country. They have they feeling that ‘I'm accommodating them, I'm giving them food, I’m helping them.’ They still have this kind of feeling.

All of them say, ‘I'm a good employer’, even though they are abusing their workers. This patriarchal, traditional thinking is still so much in our mind. This is so strong that they don't feel domestic workers are workers. They feel domestic workers are like a younger brother, younger sister, or girls from our relatives, or from somewhere. They feel like they’re accommodating them. ‘I'm giving them salary. They have a place to sleep. They have food to eat. So we are treating them well’. Yet sometimes they are only giving them accommodation.

Neil (oD): There's a lack of recognition.

Fish: It's a lack of recognition on domestic workers as workers. They see see them as somebody whom they are assisting.

Neil (oD): So could you also tell us a little bit about why the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 189 on domestic workers is so important when it comes to recognition, or when it comes to rights?

Fish: The convention on domestic workers is important, first, because it makes up an an international norm. One which says, ‘domestic workers are workers. Domestic workers should enjoy equal rights with other types of workers’. This was really for the first time, in 2011, that such a message was asserted internationally. So when we tell employers and everybody that we should have our rights, we can use this convention to say: ‘this is an international norm, recognised internationally, and adopted at the International Labor Conference by employers, governments and workers' unions. If you are not following them, then you are not recognising these international norms. We should catch up. We should not lag behind. We should not be so backward in our old traditional thinking.’

This convention also works to bring everybody together to discuss the issue of domestic workers, including unions and governments. So once we can get people to come together, we can discuss the entire law. Employers will say, ‘Oh my worker is this, is that. She does not understand our requirements or our demands’. We can discuss. No worries. We can discuss how we should be behaved, how we can respect each other, how we can recognise each other's rights. We can discuss.

Andy Magee/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

So, the convention brings the opportunity for people to come and discuss, and also it helps to bring in and document best practices within national law and policy. So many governments still are saying that, ‘we cannot make the law and policy, there is this problem and that problem…’ But we are demonstrating that there are countries who have increased protections for domestic workers, and that through protecting domestic workers' rights governments can it can ensure the economic equality and human rights equality for the country. So it's good for the country.

Neil (oD): That it’s good for everybody.

Fish: Yes, for everybody. So we can demonstrate best practices. The other thing, and also the most important, is using the convention to bring up the voices and visibility of domestic workers. To allow domestic workers to speak out for themselves and to make use of this convention as a tool. With a convention, with an international standard, they can be more confident when speaking with the government, when speaking with their employers. This is something to start with. We can start the conversation. Let's start.

About the authors

Fish Ip is currently the regional coordinator (Asia) for IDWF. She started to be a union organiser for domestic workers in 1999. She is the founding organiser for HKDWGU and FADWU. 

Neil Howard is an academic activist and Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.

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