The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


International Labour Conference 2011 – To Be or Not to Be A Significant Milestone for Domestic Workers

Posted in NTS Plus by NTSblog on January 5, 2011
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Human rights violations experienced by female migrant domestic workers are well-documented in news reports. A significant contributory factor is the lack of labour protections, as reflected in concerns expressed by domestic workers – unregulated work hours and conditions, non-payment of wages and the work place as a place of residence. The nature of live-in domestic work excludes female domestic workers’ their reproductive rights. Strict conditions on mobility and personal space impact on the ability of domestic workers to maintain ties with their trans-national families. The lack of labour protection sustains unequal power-relations between employer and employee, underpinning increased instances of physical conflict. This year offers an opportunity to assess if the Southeast Asian region is committed to protecting the rights of domestic workers. At the International Labour Conference in June 2011, an International Convention and, or Supplementary Recommendations to extend labour standards and social protection to domestic workers all around the world may be adopted. It will be seen through the role regional countries play in furthering international standard – setting on the regulation of domestic work, their commitment to addressing the rights concerns of domestic workers.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), domestic work is an important sector of employment in East and Southeast Asia. Worryingly, child exploitation in this sector is gaining prominence (pp. 28).  It appears that Brunei Darussalam, Singapore and Malaysia are destination countries, while the other Southeast Asian countries are mainly sending nations with internal and international migration of mostly women. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) reports that domestic workers from Indonesia and Philippines make up 96 percent of the population in Hong Kong and 90 percent of the population in Singapore. Hence, the role of migrant domestic workers in sustaining the region’s economy should not be under-estimated.

The economic importance of migrant domestic workers to the region is witnessed through remittances obtained by sending countries. Remittances attributable to migrant labour was the region’s saving grace during the recent financial crisis. According to the World Bank, labour exporting economies – the Philippines and Indonesia – were amongst the top 20 recipients of remittance in 2009. Post-financial crisis data reveals remittances from those employed abroad offered better security than official development aid linked to the MDGs.

The leap forward this June, to adopting regulations for domestic workers can be a milestone. This progression will bring regulation of the precarious nature of domestic work into the public sphere, within the auspices of State responsibility. It appears from current consultations that governments of Southeast Asian destination states are apprehensive of the binding-nature of regulations, preferring the prospective instrument to be a Recommendation rather than a Convention. However, it is the substance rather than the effect of regulations that matters. Regulations by the ILO would be a result of the most inclusive international decision-making process – tripartite decision-making – and instrumental as models and targets for national labour laws. They can provide a framework for trade unions, civil society and non-governmental organisations to support changes in policy, law and practice. Therefore, it is more important that inclusive debates on the issues are undertaken by all sides, within sending and receiving countries.

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