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THAILAND: Sweeping Support Sought for Domestic Workers’ Rights

Sutthida Malikaew

BANGKOK, Aug 25 2010 (IPS) - “My male employer was a womaniser and he liked to touch me and told me not to tell his wife. I felt so uncomfortable,” says Chompoo, who was just 15 years old when she served – and suffered abuse – as a domestic worker here in the Thai capital.

“So I told my mom that I don’t want to work in this house anymore and I quit without salary,” says Chompoo, who originates from Tavoy, a south- eastern city in Burma.

Now 20, Chompoo (her nickname) works as a waitress on a dinner cruise but recalls full well her ordeal as a domestic worker. Chompoo says she had to wake up at five in the morning to do all the household chores, and could only rest very late at night, after everyone in her employer’s family had gone to bed.

Even then, Chompoo could hardly rest. Her room was a little more than a makeshift bed under the stairs, where Chompoo spent sleepless nights worrying about her employer’s sexual advances.

For her part, Suchin, who hails from Nakorn Sawan province, about 210 km north of Bangkok, says she left her job at one household some 30 years ago, after her boss’ son had tried to touch her body and hug her from the back.

Chompoo’s and Suchin’s stories were just some of those migrant and Thai domestic workers shared at a discussion here ahead of the International Day of Solidarity With Domestic Workers, which falls on Aug. 28.

They talked about difficulties such as very long hours of work, inadequate rest areas and lack of access to health services, not to mention risks like sexual harassment and other forms of abuse.

They sought protection of their rights and inclusion in the scope of Thailand’s labour laws, including regulations on days off, appropriate working hours and minimum wages.

According to data collected by the Kasikorn Research Centre in 2007, there are some 400,000 workers in private households in Thailand, including some 225,000 Thai domestic workers and 150,000 foreigners.

But domestic workers only have a ministerial regulation they hope to fall back on as Thailand’s 1998 Labour Protection Act, the main law that spells out basic benefits from minimum wages to rest days and leaves, does not include them.

But even this regulation by the labour department has yet to be issued, which is why activists at the seminar urged officials to make haste on it. Its issuance has been stalled for five years, a delay that is not unusual in the bureaucracy.

Without minimum-wage protection, wages for domestic workers in Thailand are open to negotiation, and range from 111 to 190 U.S. dollars a month, depending on experience.

Pongsak Plengsaeng, an advisor to Thailand’s Labour Minister Paitoon Kaewthong, says the draft of the ministerial regulation on the protection of domestic workers’ rights will be sent to the cabinet for consideration and approval this year.

If approved, Pongsak says, domestic workers will at least get the minimum legal protection, access to medical treatment and education, and be covered by minimum-wage requirements. This would entitle them to a wage of 6.5 dollars a day in the capital Bangkok, and from 4.8 to 6.5 dollars a day in other provinces.

Thailand’s national health insurance scheme does cover all Thai nationals, and registered migrant workers who have health insurance can pay 30 baht (96 cents) per visit. But whether domestic workers get to avail of these – or even leave the home – often depends on individual employers.

For instance, Suchin, who is now 51 and owns her own business, but still performs household chores whenever one of her former employers, a professor, requests her help. Suchin says three migrant domestic workers in the same household she works in do not receive the same decent treatment she gets.

“Once, (one of the domestic workers) a girl from Laos was very sick. I asked my boss to take her to the hospital but she said that the worker had to go by herself,” says Suchin, adding that the three workers sleep in the kitchen, in front of the gas stove.

“I took her to the nearest health centre in the Sukhumvit area (in downtown Bangkok) and asked my boss for the medication fee that she needed to pay. But my boss said she will deduct it from the girl’s wage, which was only 3,500 baht (111 dollars) a month,” Suchin adds.

Indeed, Ratchadaporn Kaewsanit, a member of the labour subcommittee in Thailand’s House of Representatives, cast doubt on whether laws alone can protect domestic workers. While she notes that the ministerial regulation on domestic work will be a step forward, Ratchadaporn says the bigger challenge is to change the mindset of employers.

“It is not difficult to issue the law but (the difficulty is) to really provide protection for domestic workers,” she explains. “Concerning sexual harassment, it happens under the power relationship, where the bosses have in their mindset that they own the domestic worker so they can do everything with them.”

“This is happening under a patriarchal society, where it is accepted that males can do such a thing. Therefore, an attitude change is needed,” says Ratchadaporn.

Indeed, one Burmese worker told the seminar, it would be difficult for her to escape from her employer’s house to lodge a police report. And even if she does reach the police, she says, they might reject well the charges she would want to file.

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