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LABOUR: Migrant Domestic Workers’ Rights Next on ILO’s Agenda

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jan 28 2010 (IPS) - Po Po has been enduring long hours of hard work, poor pay and abuse within the confines of her employer’s home for the past seven years. Poverty forced her to leave her family in eastern Burma and abandon a university education to work as a domestic helper in Thailand.

“There is constant uncertainty about a domestic work,” said the 25-year-old in an interview with IPS. “In my last job, I worked for 11 hours a day, but I had to be available for 24 hours if my employer needed me.”

Po Po is one of scores of domestic helpers in Thailand who stand to gain from the combined efforts of migrant rights advocates and the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations tripartite body, to raise the profile of domestic workers this year.

In June, the ILO’s International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva will break new ground by placing domestic work on its agenda.

“The discussion at the ILC will be the first time an international instrument to provide social protection to domestic workers will have been formally considered,” said Thetis Mangahas, regional migration specialist at the ILO’s Asia-Pacific office, at the launch on Thursday of a book about their rights.

“If enough member states agree to the idea, a convention and/or recommendation could be ready for adoption by the following year.”

“Here in Thailand there are half a million workers in households, and this is a conservative estimate,” added Mangahas during the launch of ‘Domestic Work – Decent Work’. “Most of them are women.”

“Migrant domestic workers are the most vulnerable,” she said. “They are a hidden workforce and that is no excuse for abuse.”

“Many men are also domestic workers,” she added. “These people work as maids, nannies, drivers, security guards and gardeners. They look after our children, they often care for our elderly family members; they are often the first to rise in the morning and often the last to go to bed.”

Thai trade unions are echoing such views in the national push to secure rights for the frequently abused domestic workers. “Currently, the protection domestic workers face is that they don’t have protection,” said Surat Chanwanpen, vice president of the Labour Congress of Thailand. “We need to get domestic workers to enjoy the same rights as those working in industry.”

The challenge to help these female domestic workers is complex because of the nature and arrangement of their work, Ananthachai Uthaipattanacheep, a labour ministry official, conceded during the launch of the ILO guide. “Protecting domestic workers is different from protecting general workers or industrial workers, because most of them live with their employers.”

The Thai government took a significant step to help this vulnerable labour force late last year by endorsing the views of rights groups that domestic workers should be covered by the same social protection net as other workers in this South-east Asian nation.

“Many domestic workers do not know their rights, so they don’t know when they are being abused and what they should do,” said Po Po.

Among these rights are fair pay, safe work, rest time and privacy, the ILO’s guidebook notes. “In return for your labour, you have a right to expect – and receive – fair pay and decent working conditions. You also have a right to keep in touch with your family and friends and that includes the right to leave the house and visit other people and places during your off time.”

Elsewhere in Thailand are similar efforts to improve the conditions of migrant domestic workers.

A soon-to-be-launched community radio station in Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Burma border, aims to fill an information black hole faced by migrant workers from military-ruled Burma, many of whom have no legal papers and are victims of abuse.

The new station, FM 102.5, has a line-up of awareness-raising and entertainment progammes in Burmese and Karen, two of the languages used by the tens of thousands of migrant workers who have fled their homes for a job in Thailand.

This station, according to the non-governmental Migrant Action Programme (MAP), will continue the same MAP-supported community radio station that has been broadcasting in Chiang Mai, a northern Thai city, for over a year and a half.

“The community radio stations are particularly useful for the domestic workers among the migrant workers in Thailand,” said Kanchana Di-ut, a programme officer at the Chiang Mai-based MAP. “Because they, more than other migrant workers, are often cut away from the outside community by the nature of their work, inside people’s homes.”

“They can listen to the station and learn about news regarding migrant workers’ rights that they are not getting,” Kanchana added. “Domestic workers are the unseen and forgotten workers.”

Chiang Mai’s FM 99 community radio station tries to engage the predominantly female domestic workers through a two-hour weekly programme on late Friday mornings, said Kanchana. “It is a mix of a call-in show, where the migrant workers can say if they need information, listen to the latest news about the situation domestic workers face and some songs and entertainment.”

MAP’s community radio stations are but one way groups committed to helping Thailand’s estimated 1.5 million migrant workers have risen to the challenge. Most of these workers are from Burma, or Myanmar, a junta-ruled country they fled due to conflict or a crumbling economy.

Domestic workers from South-east Asia account for a substantial slice of the estimated three million migrant workers from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam and Burma who have crossed borders into more affluent places like Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

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