“They really think domestic workers are nobody”

Domestic workers, even those legally allowed to work in a country, often find themselves exempt from the same labour protections enjoyed by other workers. Why? Prejudice.

Elizabeth Tang Neil Howard
1 February 2018

I'm Elizabeth Tang. I'm from Hong Kong, and I'm the general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation, the global federation of all the domestic workers in the world. We organise domestic workers everywhere, even in countries where it is very difficult for domestic workers to do that.

We also train domestic workers to become leaders, and we now see a young generation speaking up and taking domestic workers to meet governments, to meet employers, to negotiate for their rights. For example, in March 2017 three domestic workers' leaders went with me to the United Nations to talk to government ministers about the need for laws that give social protections to domestic workers.

Some of the refugees coming to Europe today will also work as domestic workers, because that will be the only job possible for them. We have to make sure that they will be protected.

Neil Howard (oD): And what are your hopes are for the movement in the coming few years?

Elizabeth: First and foremost is that domestic workers must be treated as workers. This is still not the case in many parts of the world. [In some places] domestic workers do not have minimum wage protections, yet work every day in a week without rest days. This is absolutely unacceptable and has to be changed.

As you know, many domestic workers are migrants, so they are invisible. Nobody really cares about their situations. Some of the refugees coming to Europe today will also work as domestic workers, because that will be the only job possible for them. We have to make sure that they will be protected, and that is why I.D.W.F. is calling on governments to protect all domestic workers, no matter they are locals, they are migrants, or they are refugees.

Neil (oD): Can you tell me a little bit more about the importance of the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 189 – the Domestic Workers Convention – for your organisation and your struggle?

Elizabeth: Convention 189 is international law adopted in 2011. It sets the minimum standard for all domestic workers, no matter who they are, no matter where they are. Governments must make sure that they have this minimum protection, these minimum rights. Unfortunately, after five years, only 24 countries in the world have adopted this convention. Italy has done it, which is excellent, but many countries still have not. It is very important that government recognise there is an international standard.


♒ ♒ ♒ ♒./flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Neil (oD): Why do you think so few governments have ratified this very important convention?

Elizabeth: Because they really think domestic workers are nobody. They work at home. They cook. They wash clothes. They clean the floor. To them this work has no value. Anybody can do it. You know my mother did it, my wives, my daughter. So that's why it's still in many people's minds that this work is of no value. Domestic workers really have no skills. Why should we pay them? Domestic work is really easy. Why we should allow them to have a rest day? This is still the mentality, the perception of many people.

Then, of course, many politicians are also employers of domestic workers. They also have this selfish concern. So we really have to push the government, but we also have to tell people everywhere in the community that the people who work for them at home, who cook, who wash, who clean, for them – they should be also treated as workers.

Neil (oD): So this is a struggle as much for recognition as for rights?

Elizabeth: Yes, exactly.

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