Published yesterday: Recognition of Domestic Workers (Daily Star)

This is a piece I worked on for the past few weeks, in reaction to the International Labor Organization‘s convention for protecting domestic workers what took place over the summer. I was especially interested by the fact that countries like the United Kingdom and Malaysia both abstained from voting on a convention that directly works to protect basic human rights for the millions of house helpers out in the world. The convention is a milestone especially for women, who make up 80% of domestic workers worldwide. With research based on media reactions, the Human Rights Watch, and local sources, I looked at what the conventions means, and also in relation to Bangladesh.

The article was written for the purpose of International Migrants Day for the Daily Star.

Read this month’s Forum magazine found anywhere in Dhaka, or online, or below.

Recognition of Domestic Workers:
Responses to the ILO’s Convention on
Protecting the World’s 100 Million

With International Migrants Day in the offing,
OLINDA HASSAN examines the plight of domestic workers abroad.esh.

Domestic workers who travel abroad for employment are also a form of migrant laborers, currently populating in the millions for Bangladeshis, concentrated in the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia. Bangladeshi domestic workers abroad, like migrant laborers, have also been subject to human rights violations over the years, both as an employee and an ethnic minority in the host country. However, while migrant laborers have some loose form of protection laws, domestic workers have largely been ignored in this respect.

Domestic workers from Bangladesh are mostly rural women and even children, many with dependents back home. The difficulty in calculating protective measures for domestic workers lies in the fact that they are severely isolated in the homes of the employers. For example, while many migrant laborers have the ability to live with fellow workers from their industry, domestic workers are far singular and divided. They are subject to double discrimination, first for their gender and then for their immigrant status directly linked to employers whom they are dangerously dependent on for all aspects of their livelihood.

On June 16 of this year, a remarkable breakthrough came when the International Labor Organization (ILO) signed the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. It is the first of its kind to establish standards for domestic workers abroad, such as those from Bangladesh. The three years that it took the ILO for the convention’s development included resisting amendments, convincing international participants, and developing crucial legal bindings, such as limited working hours, family visitation rights, fair wages and preventative measures for forced confinement, trafficking and sexual harassment, to name a few. Despite early reservations, Bangladesh later supported the convention.

However, is the ILO convention a real breakthrough, or will it merely serve as recognition of exploited domestic workers worldwide?

During the ILO contentions, the European Union expressed the most concern and advocated lowering provisions for flexibility. This puts a light on the “peculiarity” of domestic work in Europe. Over 90% of domestic workers in Europe are women, and the employers are mainly women themselves. They are the same women who have historically taken pride in their gender equality and advancement, like most other women in advanced societies. However, the employers complicate this notion of gender equality when they employ, and in many cases, abuse the rights of the women hired for their households. It is a complex paradox in which the lines of gender equality are clearly blurred along social classe and ethnicity (Gallotti, Maria, The Gender Dimension of Domestic Work in Western Europe).

Most would not even consider that there is an issue with domestic workers in Europe, home of some of the strongest global human rights organisations. A majority of migrant domestic workers are undocumented in Europe and have largely been invisible in the media. In most parts of Europe (e.g. Germany, Netherlands), domestic workers do not qualify for immigration as they are categorised under unskilled labour. Many households will bring female workers from Asia as tourists and then keep them undocumented in order to make the position of the workers binding to the household. And since domestic work is unregulated, abuse and human rights violations are rampant. The new ILO convention addresses the complexity of migration statuses and the dangerous dependencies that are created between employers and vulnerable workers. The United Kingdom is one of several countries that abstained from voting on the new convention.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also abstained from voting on the ILO convention. The three members are also among the largest exchangers of international domestic work. Almost 30% of the migrant labour forces in Malaysia are from Bangladesh, and a significant number of women are involved in domestic work. Talat Mahmud Khan, the Labour Counsellor at the Bangladesh High Commission, once described Bangladeshi workers as hardworking, multi dimensional, “obedient”, and undemanding of a high salary. In 2009, when almost 70,000 Bangladeshi workers were brought to Malaysia, women were technically forbidden to work as domestic workers. However, irregular evaluation has continued the employment of Bangladeshi women in Malaysian homes.

Khan had assured that the Bangladeshis, despite their increasing population, would not impact Malaysian society as they were “confined” to their work and never went outside of it. The ILO convention seeks to counter this form of abuse in which migrant domestic workers are purposefully kept aside from society, forbidden to travel away from their work. Khan also added that he did not discount the “possibility of a few Bangladeshi youths getting involved with local girls”, addressing the increased concern of the diversifying culture. While Malaysia’s economy demands cheap, obedient laborers from abroad to do under-paid but hard work that the local population stay away from, the idea of integration into the very society laborers must work for is somehow deemed impractical.

Migrant workers in Malaysia by law are protected with regulations on working hours, medical benefits and holidays under the Malaysian Employment Act of 1955. However, the law does not cover domestic workers, with their terms often left solely to the employer, similar to the case of Europe as discussed earlier. Many of these maids have no holidays and shifted to employer’s relatives’ homes to work on the weekends, and must be able to care for children and the elderly, and in practically every aspect of the household, from cleaning, cooking, laundry, babysitting, to car washing. Verbal abuse, sexual harassment, unreasonable working hours and non-negotiable holiday terms have defined the culture of domestic work in Malaysia, the very elements of which the ILO has addressed in its Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Seeing as Asian countries account for over 40% of domestic workers worldwide, the abstained support from Malaysia, as well as Singapore and Thailand, places the ILO convention on a weak point, if efforts for creating environments through proficient policies are to ever take place for domestic workers.

Astoundingly, Bahrain, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, voted for the ratification of the convention. The Gulf region has had a notorious reputation in its treatment of migrant laborers, with some of the worst cases of human rights abuses stemming from many of the countries that have shown support for the convention. There are over 3 million migrant laborers from Bangladesh alone in the Middle East. While the official number for female migrant workers in the region is small, if unofficial numbers are accounted for, the numbers from Bangladesh is considerable enough to raise concern.

With stricter migration laws for women, combined with economic desperation at home, a large inflow of illegal migration by women is still widespread from Bangladesh, many of whom turn to domestic work. A comprehensive survey of the actual number of female migrants from Bangladesh to work as domestic laborers have yet to be conducted, even though field surveys from rural regions of the country prove that the numbers are higher than expected. Further, how members of the Gulf region will actually implement some of the key elements of the convention is yet to be determined. The fact that domestic work has become a cultural aspect of Arab households over the years makes it especially difficult to apply the protection of domestic worker’s very basic rights.

Because over 80% of migrating domestic workers are women, they are discriminated in a multi-fold sense. Not only are many the key breadwinners for their families back home, they are a key element of the enormous influx of remittance that many of the home countries are dependent on. Furthermore, they must also perform the role of a minority woman which in itself is a cause for discrimination in many of the host countries. Finally, while facing the challenges that come by virtue of their gender, female domestic workers must also fulfill cultural roles of a mother and daughter. It is common to see Bangladeshi women traveling abroad for work, leaving behind several children at home whom they must still support fiscally and socially as culturally expected.

The ILO convention is interesting because it seeks to specifically protect domestic workers with guidelines that have already been placed for other laborers. Thus, it becomes widely acknowledged that domestic workers, whether legal or illegally living in a host country, are still deserving of basic rights. While Bangladesh in many ways prohibits sending women abroad to work as domestic help, it has not stopped middle men from hiring rural women under false pretenses. It has also not terminated Bangladeshi women from seeking to work as domestic help once they are abroad out of desperation.

With Bangladesh’s vote of the ILO convention in June 2011, perhaps policy transformations will start to take place both at home and abroad. However, with several key nations showing a lack of support for the convention (e.g. Malaysia, one of the largest intakes of domestic help, to the United Kingdom, which has always advocated global human rights), it is still difficult to conclude how the new protocols will actually take effect. While data on domestic workers are difficult to come across due to the individualised and irregular nature of their services, the abuse that they face as a woman and a worker are irreconcilable. It is an international problem, and thus international support is crucial.

With a history of scarce work opportunities in Bangladesh, women migrating to become domestic workers represent a significant fraction of the national workforce abroad. They also remain the most marginalised. Bangladesh’s economy has the ability to continue to depend on remittances while at the same time, ensuring a safe environment for the workers themselves with practical policies. Instead of waiting to see what neighbouring countries or the most industrial will accept the ILO conventions, policy makers in Bangladesh need to advocate training programmes and screening processes to guide domestic workers. For the thousands of Bangladeshi domestic workers that exist worldwide, the country will need to actually implement ILO policies, and seek the guidance of existing human rights organisations to amply start creating a more sustainable migrant-labour environment.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh.

© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved

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