Bangkok, Thailand – Suay Ing was nine when she was first employed as a domestic worker, cleaning for a family and sleeping in their laundry room in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai for $10 a month.
The eldest of four children of migrant construction workers from Myanmar, Ing was 14 when she was trafficked to Bangkok by a broker who promised her a job and abandoned her.
Hungry and with no identification papers or money, the unkempt child finally found a noodle shop owner willing to hire her for 3,000 baht ($100) a month in exchange for working 12-hour shifts with three days off a month.
Over the next 14 years, he taught her to manage the shop, but also beat her, docked her pay, and even denied her food.
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“Even if my staff did anything wrong, I had to take responsibility for it. He would say, ‘How do you want to be punished? Do you want to be slapped? Do you want me to take your salary?'” recalled Ing, now 31.
Two years ago, she plucked up the courage to leave her abusive boss, turning again to domestic work, but this time – armed with greater knowledge of her rights – she got decent pay, days off and reasonable hours.
Over time, Ing began sharing her experiences with other domestic workers and she now offers advice on how to find safe, fair employment with the Network of Migrant Domestic Workers.
“I tell domestic workers to ask about their days off, about whether or not they will have their salaries cut if they go home,” Ing said in a voice that speaks to her determination to keep others from suffering hardship.
“If the domestic workers ask these questions, then the employers know they can’t take advantage of them.”
Used and abused
Asia is home to 41 percent of the estimated 53 million domestic workers worldwide, most of them women who enjoy few rights, work excessively long days, and earn far below the minimum wage, rights groups say.
Under Thai law, domestic workers are entitled to at least one day off per week. Labourers have a right to an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage of 300 baht ($10) a day, but these do not apply to domestic work, which is not considered formal work.
The MAP Foundation, a migrant rights group based in Chiang Mai, said most domestic workers it had surveyed are paid between 4,300 baht and 5,000 baht ($130-$150) a month and work up to 14 hours a day.
“Thai society does not see domestic work as work, so the person doing housework is not a worker,” said Poonsap Tulaphan, director of the Foundation for Labour and Employment Promotion.
The Myanmar domestic workers’ labour woes in Thailand reflect a wider problem across Asia.
Many migrant domestic workers come from the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, and work in neighbouring countries as well as the Middle East.
Occasionally, cases of violence make the headlines, such as the 7-year-old girl from Myanmar who was enslaved for five years in Thailand, or the Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose employer in Hong Kong was found guilty in February on charges including grievous bodily harm.
Abuse and exploitation in the Middle East has been so extreme that Indonesia recently barred domestic workers from working in 21 countries, media reports said.
Activists say travel bans will only push women to migrate through illegal channels, putting them at greater risk of abuse.
The best fix is to persuade governments to protect their citizens’ rights, said Elizabeth Tang, general secretary for the Hong Kong-based International Domestic Workers Federation.
She said Asians have traditionally hired domestic workers from indigenous or ethnic minority groups, lower castes or poor families, and believe they are doing them a favour by doing so.
“Employers tend to think, ‘You’re so poor. If I don’t give you work in my house, you will probably die, you will have nothing to eat.’ These kinds of attitudes are deep rooted,” Tang said.
Governments also need to tackle unscrupulous agencies that lure women into domestic work abroad and charge exorbitant fees amounting to six months of wages, Tang said.
With poverty at home, many women have no choice but to pay, putting homes and property up as collateral to pay broker fees.
“In Cambodia and Indonesia, they have no rights at all and earn about $30 to $60 a month. This is the main reason they have to leave their countries and go abroad, even if they don’t know what will happen to them … because what they earn at home will get them nowhere,” Tang said.
Organised and informed
Many migrant domestic workers land in their new countries of employment unable to speak English or the local language, and with no friends, family or money.
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Organised networks – such as the ones the Filipinas, Indonesians, and Thais have set up in Hong Kong – have helped to give women support and information to protect themselves.
In Thailand, for example, the Network of Migrant Domestic Workers said about 15 of its 75 Burmese members have at least one day off each week. About 80 percent work with Westerners, who tend to pay more.
Now they are trying to expand their network to assist women who are younger, unable to speak Thai or English, and are more vulnerable.
“We are domestic workers, too, we aren’t doctors, we aren’t lawyers. If they need help, we have to learn, too, what rights we have, how we can access those rights and be ready to help others,” said Champa, who belongs to the Network of Migrant Domestic Workers, and gave just one name.
“I have worked as a domestic worker for 20 years, but I never cared about rights because I never met anyone who told me that I have rights… I just wanted money and thought I had to work to earn money. But … then I learned my rights.”
A version of this story first appeared on the Thomson Reuters Foundation news service