Asia is on track to become one of the “oldest” regions in the world in the next few decades. According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the number of older persons in Asia-Pacific is expected to increase from an estimated 548 million in 2019, to nearly 1.3 billion by 2050. By then, one in four people in the region is expected to be over 60 years old. Thailand, following Japan and South Korea, is the third most rapidly ageing country in Asia. If this trend continues, by 2031, Thailand will join Japan, Hong Kong (China), Korea and New Zealand, in societies where more than one in five people will be 65 years or older.
This demographic transition combined with an increase of women in the workforce increases the demand for home-based care and domestic work. We have seen that as societies develop and women enter the formal workforce, they are less likely to perform “traditional” care roles. However, rather than other family members sharing the care responsibilities, many ageing societies will look to migrants to fill the domestic work gap. Singapore is illustrative of this trend, where, already in 2012, a national survey found that among persons aged 75 and over, 50 percent were dependent on migrant care workers, including domestic workers, for their daily care.
Today, June 16, is globally recognised as International Domestic Workers’ Day. Domestic work—“work performed in or for a household or households”— is among the most vital for functioning of households and society as a whole. It is also one of the lowest paid jobs and, at the same time, with long and unpredictable working hours.
Around 67 million people work as domestic workers around the world. Almost 10 million work in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The growing demand for domestic services is considered to be one of the main triggers of the feminisation of labour migration. In fact, domestic workers make up nearly 20 percent of all migrant workers in the Asean region. The vast majority of those, 83 percent, are women.
Domestic workers make a critical contribution to families, societies and economies across the world. Still, migrant domestic workers are disproportionately exposed to abuse compared to other workers due to gaps in national labour and employment legislation, the relative isolation of their workplace and a high degree of informality. Furthermore, just as care work is seen as women’s work, there is also a certain tolerance for exploitation and abuse towards women domestic workers in patriarchal societies.
During recent years, frequent media reports of cases of severe abuse of migrant domestic workers have brought increased attention to the need to increase protection for this group of workers. We know that gender-based migration bans and restrictions on migration for domestic work put in place by some countries in the name of protection have proven to be counterproductive. Women will continue to migrate, but are forced to do so through irregular channels, thereby increasing their vulnerability even further.
In most Asean member states, labour laws do not apply fully to domestic workers. This leaves workers without protection provided to other workers such as social security, minimum wage and regulation of working hours. Exclusion from legal protection also increases the risk of labour exploitation and violence without recourse to access to justice.
Until today, only one Asean member state, the Philippines, has ratified the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) convention on Domestic Workers (No. 189). The Convention recognises domestic work as work, and addresses the particular vulnerability of migrant domestic workers.
During the last years, some positive developments have been seen in the region. In 2017, at the 10th Asean Forum on Migrant Labour held in Manila, Philippines, the 10 Asean member states adopted a strong set of recommendations calling for the recognition of domestic workers as workers in Asean.
In 2018, the Thai government began to take concrete steps to better protect the rights of domestic workers. Assisted by the ILO, Thailand is currently engaging in an exercise to align its legislative framework with the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers. In April this year, the Myanmar government announced that it will lift the 2014 ban on domestic workers going to Singapore, Hong Kong (China), Macau (China), and Thailand.
These are welcome initiatives. But more needs to be done.
With the growing demand for domestic workers, laws and policies in Asean need to provide the same protection for domestic workers as they do for all other workers. Countries of origin and destination have a shared responsibility in developing and implementing gender-responsive, fair and effective labour migration policies for migrant domestic workers.
Domestic work is work. By recognising it as such, we need to grant all domestic workers, including migrant domestic workers, their undeniable right to decent living and working conditions.
Nilim Baruah is International Labour Organization’s Regional Migration Specialist for Asia and the Pacific, and reviews progress on migrant domestic workers’ rights in Asia.
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