Female Migrant Domestic Workers: A Sad Story Largely Unknown.

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 28 2011 (IPS) - Migrant domestic workers often toil under difficult and abusive conditions out of sight of the world’s eyes. “Individual migrant domestic worker have virtually no possibility to negotiate for better working conditions before moving to the country of employment,” Martin Oelz, International Labour Organization’s legal specialist in the Conditions of Work and Employment Programme told IPS.

“Being heavily dependent on the services of recruitment brokers and agencies, indebtedness due to agency fees and other migration costs, a lack of information or misleading information on the working conditions in the country of employment, and immigration arrangements that bind the workers to a specific employer, all contribute to placing migrant domestic workers in situations of vulnerability to exploitation and abuse,” Oelz explained.

Nisha Varia, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division and author of the report ‘Slow Reform: Protection of Migrant Domestic Workers in Asia and the Middle East’, enumerated the kind of abuses female migrant domestic workers can suffer. She was speaking at a panel discussion focusing on ‘Good Practices on Protections for Domestic Workers’.

These women, often prohibited from joining or forming unions by their employers, can also be verbally or sexually abused, and at times even beaten, Varia said. Also, they are often not allowed any rest or leisure time by their employers, putting them under great stress.

Opening an e-discussion on this issue sponsored by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the European Commission-U.N. Joint Migration and Development Initiative (JMDI), Maya Gurung, a Nepalese former domestic worker in the Middle East decided to share her story in order to help other women.

“I had to take care of a big, three-storey house with five family members and many relatives who would stay there,” she said, adding, “My main duties were cleaning, washing and ironing clothes, preparing food and taking care of children from early in the morning to late at night – 5am to 1am.”

Migrant domestic workers are often isolated in private households – and not allowed to leave the house. Employers often take the migrant’s passport, creating dependency on the employer that further increases vulnerability.

Varia explained that migrant domestic workers are vulnerable due to many factors, including unfamiliarity with the local language and lack of knowledge of local laws.

There are 112 million migrant domestic workers worldwide—and the international community has only recently begun to notice them, and more importantly, the lack of effective national labour laws protecting them. In addition to “increasing public awareness about any reform” and employers and migrant workers knowledge of their rights, Varia suggests “to train the appropriate authorities on how to identify such cases and try to investigate them and follow up,” in order to better protect migrant domestic workers.

While she pointed out to IPS the importance of creating unions to strengthen a migrant domestic workers movement, more apt to protect their rights, she also stressed the difficulty to do so in places where domestic workers rights are not yet recognised.

“(Because) there has been a huge increase of the number of migrant domestic workers in the last twenty years (in the Middle East and Persian Gulf countries), it is a much newer issue to really be looking at the different human rights abuses and risks involved for domestic workers” than in Latin America, she told IPS.

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990 and entered into force in 2003, does not explicitly mention domestic workers, partly because of their invisibility and the nature of their tasks.

“(Since) the tasks performed by domestic workers mirror work traditionally performed by women in their own households and families, (domestic work) is perceived as not requiring any sort of formally acquired skills or qualifications,” Oelz underlined , giving it as a reason why “domestic work continues to be undervalued and underpaid” and has not been taken into account for a long time.

Following countless discussions held between the main stakeholders, namely governments, workers and employers’ organisations, for three years as part of a preparatory process, an ILO Convention for Domestic Workers should finally be agreed on at the next ILO Conference, planned to take place June 1-17 in Geneva.

“At its 100th Session this June, the ILO Conference thus has a historic opportunity to create global standards and guidance as a timely and needed reference for on-going and future initiatives at the national level,” Oelz concluded. The Philippine’s Magna Carta, a great accomplishment?

After languishing for a decade, the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in the Philippines has finally been signed in 2008, under the name of the Magna Carta of Women, thus underlining the solemnity of the act.

During the panel on “Good Practices”, Emmeline Verzosa, executive director of the Philippine Commission on Women, pointed out how the Magna Carta of Women asks every employer to establish a contract with the employee, guaranteeing minimum wage, day-offs, social security, etc. Agreements, protecting migrant workers, between the Philippines and the host countries have flourished too.

But according to Gina Esguerra, Secretary-General of Migrante International – an active defender of the rights and welfare of Overseas Filipinos Workers (OFWs)-, “policies and agreements help but by experience host countries tend to violate and disregard the agreement.”

In Saudi Arabia for instance, where more than 14% of the 968,000 female OFWs migrated to in 2008, “we have an agreement … that the wage of domestic workers should be US$400, … but in reality the wages sometimes even get as low as US$150, or worst (they have) no wage at all,” she told IPS, before adding that it may not be forgotten that the OFWs often experience physical and/or sexual abuses.

Though Migrante International provides information, education and training to migrant workers, and guides them to embassies or to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration when their human rights are violated, Esguerra told IPS the genuine solution to protect them has to come from the government. “The Philippine government should have the political will to address the root causes of forced migration instead of promoting labour export,” she said.

Especially since “there are more hazards in working abroad, the jobs being given to Filipinos are what we call the 3D jobs– dirty, dangerous, difficult jobs,” she explained. Before highlighting one of the main reasons for labour migration, “if it weren’t for the desperate economic condition in the Philippines the OFWs would not risk their lives working in a country the culture, the laws they are not so familiar with.”

She went on criticising the Philippines economy, emphasising that “the Philippines is heavily OFW-remittance-dependent, thus, putting into primary consideration first OFW deployment/importation over protection and much-needed basic services.” Then bitterly concluded, “The present Aquino administration, for instance, has no clear and concrete programs for job generation, wage hikes and land reform here in the Philippines – the majority of OFWs come from the worker and farmer sectors – and (thus) continues to facilitate the deployment of OFWs en masse.”

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