Domestic workers: Silent no more

It is time to acknowledge the importance of domestic workers as valuable members of society.

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was named as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world [Getty Image]

Two months ago, a 23-year-old domestic worker from a little-known Indonesian city was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was recognised alongside presidents and pop stars for what she didn’t do – Erwiana didn’t stay silent.

Today is International Domestic Workers Day, and at the International Labour Organisation we are reflecting on the contributions of women such as Erwiana. Since she returned from Hong Kong to her home in Indonesia, Erwiana has been campaigning for the rights of domestic workers. During her eight months on the job in Hong Kong, Erwiana was violently abused by her employer, and when her injuries prevented her from continuing to work, she was sent home with just $9 in her pocket. Erwiana began campaigning for domestic workers just like herself, many of them migrant women, most of them still vulnerable in their workplaces across the globe.

In many countries, domestic workers aren’t protected by the general labour laws, and are excluded from receiving the minimum wage. On average, domestic workers earn less than half of average wages; some earn less than a fifth.

There are over 20 million domestic workers in the Asia Pacific region alone – that’s equivalent to Sri Lanka’s population – but because these workers are often hidden in private homes – workplaces that remain unregulated – they are especially vulnerable to abuse. In many countries, domestic workers aren’t protected by the general labour laws, and are excluded from receiving the minimum wage. On average, domestic workers earn less than half of average wages; some earn less than a fifth.

Fast-growing sector

Despite the risks, domestic work is a fast-growing sector. There are 19 million more domestic workers today than there were in the mid-1990s – that’s a 30 percent increase in less than 20 years. Over 80 percent of these workers are women.

The world needs these women. Domestic workers contribute significantly to their home communities, sending remittances that are regularly spent on the education and health needs of their families and increasing the gross domestic product and development potential of their countries. Domestic workers enable their employers to go to work by reducing the time needed for cleaning, cooking, shopping and family tasks.

We need to realise the benefits that domestic work and migration for domestic work can offer, and this can only be achieved if these women are in safe and profitable work. The International Labour Organisation recently estimated that over $8bn is saved each year from not paying or underpaying domestic workers in forced labour. These profits should rightfully go to the workers and their families, but instead line the pockets of fraudulent recruitment companies and exploitative employers.

This is in part because many people still see domestic work as a woman’s unpaid familial duty, or a job for a lower class or caste of women, instead of as productive work for wages. This misconception has slowed the process of recognising domestic workers’ rights, in international law and in our own homes. On June 16, 2011, the first convention recognising the rights of domestic workers was adopted. Today, we commemorate that moment when the international community finally and positively stated that “domestic work is work”.

Basic rights

So far, 14 countries have agreed to enshrine basic rights for domestic workers by ratifying ILO Convention number 189. On the anniversary of its adoption, we call on all governments to consider ratification of the convention and the inclusion of domestic workers in the general protections provided by labour laws.

But no one needs to wait for governments to act to improve conditions for domestic workers. Everyone needs to speak out about the rights of domestic workers until they receive a full day of rest each week, reasonable working hours and fair wages respecting the minimum wage. Support networks and associations of domestic workers with your time (even online) or through donations. If you are a domestic worker, learn about your rights and talk to your employer. If you employ a domestic worker, have a conversation about ways to implement recommended working standards in your own home.

Erwiana’s courage is admirable. She stood up and fought for her rights and dignity as a human being, and for the rights of other domestic workers like her. Erwiana shouldn’t stand alone. Stand with her by protecting the rights of domestic workers in your home and your community. Call on your government to ratify the convention and ensure that women have safe and profitable access to these much-needed jobs. If we don’t acknowledge domestic workers as the valuable members of society that they are and protect them fully under the law, how many more cases like Erwiana’s will there be?

Yoshiteru Uramoto is Regional Director of the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.