Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Let’s write a contract and call me house manager: experiences of a workers’ cooperative

Domestic labourer are not recognised as workers under South Korean law, but worker-led initiatives are transforming the face of how this work is perceived and managed.

Ok-Seop Shim
1 August 2017

Domestic workers protesting in South Korea "We are not maids, we are house managers". / Photo provided by author.

After doing a number of self-employed jobs and as I got older, I decided to change careers. I wanted a job with flexible working hours that would allow me to have more free time to see the world. That’s when I encountered a recruitment and training announcement for house managers. Beginning to work in a sector that was completely foreign to me felt very challenging, but I was confident that I would do great, given my life-long experience in managing my own home.

I was 54 years old when I started working as a house manager, after completing a three-day-long course and two, four-hour-long field training sessions in September 2009. During this training course, I learned about the work of National House Managers Cooperative (NHMC), and felt encouraged by their message of working with pride and dignity.

The NHMC was established in 2004, as an economic network both for and by domestic workers. Built on the voluntary engagement of members with the principles of cooperation and unity and operating through a membership fee, the NHMC promotes the true spirit of a workers’ cooperative by creating a participatory and self-governing body of house managers. The NHMC has around 400 members nationwide and 10 branches.

Out with the maid, in with the house manager

My children had never been ashamed of my work; they were always proud of their working mom. However, when I started to work as a domestic worker, they strongly urged me to stop. I think it was because they had a long-standing prejudice against domestic workers. The NHMC has promoted the use of the term “house manager”, but in reality, we are still generally referred to as maids, domestic servants, or nannies. There is a long road ahead of us to improve social awareness about domestic workers and to bring people to acknowledge our work as ‘decent’ in Korean society.

Against this backdrop, the NHMC carried out the campaign “Call Us House Managers” as an effort to create a better social understanding of domestic workers. While publicly pushing back against labels that degrade domestic workers, this campaign advocates for the social recognition of domestic work as decent work by emphasising domestic workers’ professional expertise.

After I was elected as the head of the NHMC’s Incheon Branch in 2011, I stopped working as a house manager. I am currently in charge of organising the branch, which entails placing and managing jobs for house manager members, and to ensure and maintain their employment stability. In addition, we work to defend the fundamental rights of domestic workers in the workplace. If a client demands that a house manager member does excessive work, or treats her unfairly – for example by accusing her of stealing something without any legitimate grounds – the branch office addresses the issue on behalf of the member. If necessary, especially when a client persistently ignores or disregards house managers, the branch may decide to stop providing services to that client.

We are not superwomen.

The most frequent complaints I receive are excessive demands by clients. Members of the NHMC are skilled workers trying to provide the most satisfactory service by working faithfully for a pre-determined set of working hours by contract. However, many clients nevertheless complain and demand even more work within fewer hours. We are not superwomen. Nevertheless, clients often blame house managers for failing to complete tasks without recognising that what they were asking for was unreasonable. In such cases, emotional labour is required to respond to the client, which difficult and challenging for house managers.

Due to the lack of social recognition and support for domestic work services, many newly-trained house managers leave the field for other jobs soon after they begin to work. In addition, many of us often get injured while scrambling to finish large amounts of work in limited periods of time.

Self-protection and standardised work

In 2013, the NHMC conducted a study in partnership with professional researchers on the health conditions of domestic workers in order to address these difficulties and improve working conditions accordingly. The research results showed that musculoskeletal system diseases and work-related stress were very common for domestic workers. The prevalence of depressive disorders among domestic workers was also higher than that of Korean women in general.

Recognising the urgent need to improve social awareness and relevant laws and regulations for domestic work services, the NHMC developed a manual on domestic work services in 2014. This manual was then used as a basis for creating a standardised work contract for NHMC members. These terms include provisions setting out the duties of the client, the fundamental rights of domestic workers, as well as basic information about the detailed service offerings, hours, spaces, and payment.

Typically, contracts have not been common in the domestic work services sector. The NHMC thus carried out a campaign to sign work contracts. We offered a workshop on the significance of signing work contracts once a month for almost a year. However, it was difficult to persuade clients to sign contracts, as many refused on the grounds that they had never had problems in the absence of contracts in the past.

Injustices mainly result from the fact that domestic workers are not recognised as workers by law and their labour rights are therefore not secured.

A written contract is essential for reminding the client of his/her obligation to not demand too much work from domestic workers, while supporting the client’s right to compensation from an insurance agency if necessary. As more clients become aware of the importance of written contracts, the number of signed contracts has increased. At present, a third of the clients who use our services sign contracts, which are signed by the client, the house manager, and the NHMC branch office.

According to the Labour Standards Act, created more than 60 years ago immediately after Korean War in 1953, domestic workers are not recognised as workers protected by law because they work in the private homes of individuals. A result is that, according to estimates from domestic worker organisations, there are around 300,000 domestic workers in Korea that experience extremely poor working conditions and job insecurity, with nowhere to turn for unpaid wages; unfair treatment; and work-related injuries. Most of these injustices mainly result from the fact that domestic workers are not recognised as workers by law and their labour rights are therefore not secured.

The risks of unrecognised work

Many house managers in Korea are middle-aged women that are very good at their job and eager to work. However, their long years of experience often leave them with a variety of musculoskeletal system disorders, such as pains in their knuckles, arms, legs, or back. Work-related injuries are also not rare. However, domestic workers are not eligible for occupational health and safety insurance, as they are not recognised as workers by law.

About 16 months ago, a house manager member broke her wrist while cleaning the upper part of a wall in a client’s bathroom. She climbed up on the top of a toilet to reach the wall and fell down from the toilet. With no help available, she went to a hospital alone and got a surgery. She had to pay for her medical expenses from her own pocket and could not work for a long time during her recovery. Until today, she cannot work as she still suffers from the aftereffects of the accident. Her client was at home at the time of injury, but did nothing to assist her and took no responsibility for her injury. As she is not a worker by law, she cannot claim any form of compensation from occupational health and safety insurance.

The non-recognition of domestic labour also results in frequent unfair dismissals. In many cases, clients announce the termination of a contract without any prior notice. A sudden termination of a contract from a regular client suddenly leaves the house manager without job. But neither the clients nor the legal system account for the difficulties and economic insecurity of domestic workers who helplessly have to wait for new employment.

Another difficulty faced by many domestic workers is that there is no channel through which to obtain remedies if a client refuses to pay for work. Some keep postponing payments, by saying that they don’t have the money. Others refuse to pay, by saying that the provided service is not satisfactory. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Employment and Labour does not accept complaints for overdue wages from domestic workers, because they are not workers by law.

To make matters worse, big conglomerates armed with large amounts of capital and advanced technology, like smart phone apps, have competitively entered the domestic work service market to take advantage of these gaps in labour law. They develop platforms where domestic workers and clients can interact directly, without the need for intermediary agencies (apart from the platform itself). Their interest is to earn profit, so they prioritise hyper-productivity at the expense of fair working conditions for domestic workers. For example, the hourly wage is lower and service hours are shorter, while domestic workers still bear similarly heavy workloads. This further threatens the improvement of working conditions and decent job creation for domestic workers.

The relevant labour laws, including the Labour Standards Act, should be revised to guarantee labour rights and provide employment and occupational health and safety insurance protection for domestic workers.

The NHMC has been active in raising social awareness on domestic workers by carrying out different campaigns including the “Call Us House Managers” and “My Fair Home” campaigns. It has also promoted improving laws and institutions to protect the labour rights of domestic workers. As a result, in 2014, the Korean government promised to develop a policy to protect domestic workers, which has yet to materialise. However, we did not give up. We developed a bill to protect domestic workers’ human rights and labour rights for ourselves and sent the bill to a number of supportive lawmakers. Finally, in early February 2016, the draft bill “the Act on the Employment Improvement of Domestic Workers” was presented to the National Assembly (The Republic of Korea’s legislative body), but failed to pass by the end of the 19th National Assembly. The NHMC is preparing the legislation of the act again in the 20th National Assembly.

The Korean government should ratify the ILO Convention 189 – the Domestic Workers Convention – immediately. It should further develop effective policies guaranteeing the fundamental rights and improving the situations of domestic workers, who remain vulnerable in this insecure labour market.

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