Decent work for domestic workers: A way out of sustainable poverty

By Niña Corpuz

Thirteen-year-old Lica de Guzman sang at the makeshift stage at the Place des Nations, during a gathering to commemorate Domestic Workers’ Rights. De Guzman had a very impressive voice. In fact, she had just signed a contract with Universal Records in London, and her first album will be released later this year. De Guzman’s Filipino parents, Joy and Nicanor, have been working as domestic helpers in Geneva for the past 20 years.

International artist Phil Collins awarded De Guzman a scholarship through his Little Dreams Foundation (LDF) when she was 8 years old. The LDF selects talented children throughout the world and trains them in the arts.

De Guzman may be on her way to international stardom, but on this day, she sang to celebrate the solidarity of domestic workers. For her, this is a cause that is close to home.

“I’m proud to be the daughter of domestic helpers,” she announced on stage. De Guzman’s Filipino parents, Joy and Nicanor, have been working as domestic helpers in Geneva for the past 20 years. “Domestic workers should be treated well and with respect. They work hard to support their families and that’s a very good thing,” said De Guzman.

 While De Guzman’s parents are fortunate to have a good employer, many domestic workers around the world aren’t as lucky.  Stories of domestic workers being abused are rampant. Many of them are poorly paid or not paid at all, work excessively long hours, and are subject to verbal, physical and even sexual abuse.

RP chairs Committee on Domestic Workers
The plight of domestic workers has not gone unnoticed by the international community. For the first time, the adoption of a new convention on domestic workers was discussed at the 99th session of the International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva from June 2 to 18, 2010.

The Philippines chaired the Committee on Domestic Workers with Philippine Labor Undersecretary Lourdes Trasmonte, acting as the chairperson.

“I’m so inspired by what we are doing here, it’s not only for the Philippines but all throughout the world that we are putting international labor standards for our domestic workers,” said Trasmonte.

Undersecretary Rosalinda Baldoz (now Labor Secretary), chair of the Philippine delegation to the ILO-ILC said it was a positive development for the country to be chosen to chair the committee.

“We are known to be a model for labor-sending countries because of the system of protection we have in place for our domestic workers, starting from pre-employment, on-site employment and post-employment. We are the only ones with a very comprehensive protection system for overseas Filipino workers, especially women domestic workers,” said Baldoz.

Baldoz added that in 2008, the Philippines cut the deployment of domestic workers by 50%, from 120,000 to about 60,000 due to tighter regulations.

ILC 2010 tackles stronger protection for domestic workers
After a week of discussions in the ILC, majority of the members agreed to adopt standards concerning decent work for domestic workers, and that these standards should take the form of a convention supplemented by a recommendation.

“There was a long debate between workers and employers groups on whether it should be a convention. In the end, we agreed that for the convention to be ratified by other countries, it must be doable, practical, and reasonable,” Trasmonte said.

Philippine workers’ representative to the ILC and President of the Federation of Free Workers, Atty. Jose Sonny Matula, believed this to be a historic development.

“For me, it is historic that the committee on domestic workers has decided for these standards to be adopted as a convention rather than a recommendation. A convention is legally binding while a recommendation is not obligatory, it’s just mere guidelines,” Matula said.

International Labour Standards are legal instruments drawn up by the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) constituents (governments, employers and workers) setting out basic principles and rights at work. The instruments are either conventions that are legally binding international treaties that may be ratified by member states, or recommendations that serve as non-binding guidelines.

The instruments go through a “double discussion” or must be tackled at 2 succeeding conferences to give conference participants time to examine the instrument and make comments on it.

The proposal for a convention supplemented by a recommendation concerning decent work for domestic workers, having made it through the first round of discussions, has been included in the agenda of the 100th ILC in 2011 for second discussion and adoption. A two-thirds majority vote of the ILO’s constituents is required for a standard to be adopted.

If the convention is adopted, ILO member-states will have to present this to their national competent authority for the enactment of relevant legislation or other action, including ratification.

After ratifying the convention, a country will be legally obliged to ensure compliance. The new convention would set out employment rights of domestic workers. It would recognize that domestic work is “work,” not informal labor, and that domestic workers deserve the same employment rights as any other worker.

Effects on countries like the Philippines
For a country like the Philippines that sends domestic workers abroad, having a domestic workers’ convention is a breakthrough because this means international standards would be set.

According to the Visayan Forum Foundation Inc. (VFFI), a non-government organization that promotes the welfare of domestic workers, the adoption of a convention means half the battle has been won.

“Other countries may look up to us for our leadership in migrant protection, but when it comes to our own domestic helpers, we are not doing anything. Hopefully, with this convention, our government will prioritize the Batas Kasambahay Bill,” said Cecille Oebanda, president of VFFI and adviser to the Philippine workers’ representative to the ILC.

The Batas Kasambahay bill aims to uplift and give decency to the lives of domestic workers’ by setting standards for their labor rights in the Philippines.

The bill includes provisions for increasing the minimum wage of domestic workers from P800 a month – as stated in the Labor Code – to P3,000 a month, social protection, weekly days-off and other basic employment rights enjoyed by any other worker.

Oebanda stressed the importance of ratification “otherwise it won’t mean anything.” She hoped that once the domestic workers’ convention is adopted by the ILC, many countries would ratify it. including the Philippines.

A better future
According to Oebanda, domestic work that doesn’t lead to the improvement in the life of the worker is akin to slavery.

“Will they remain domestic workers their whole lives? This is sustainable poverty, meaning, there’s no way they can have a better future if you take into consideration their low salary and working conditions,” Oebanda pointed out.

Oebanda also called on the Philippine government to prioritize addressing domestic migration. According to her, local domestic workers have reached 2 million. Many of them leave their families to become domestic workers in the cities due to the lack of opportunities in the rural areas.

“If government is really serious about acting on an anti-poverty program, I think we have to start with domestic workers because they are really very vulnerable to sustainable poverty,” added Oebanda.

The Filipino Dream
At the Place des Nations, De Guzman finished her performance to resounding applause. She may be on her way to stardom, and yet, her parents will go back to work at their employer’s home.

According to De Guzman, while many Filipinos dream of going abroad for a better life, there are also families like hers that dream of a better life back home. While she knows her family has been blessed, she also knows that her parents are wishing for the day that they can work – and live – in the land where they were born.

(ABS-CBN News)

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