Four years ago this month, I visited the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh while investigating mistreatment of migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. It was a sobering way to spend March 8, International Women’s Day. I remember the embassy officials’ frustration both at the abuses these workers suffered and their struggles to get redress.
My interviews in the preceding months produced a grim catalogue of abuses: Haima G., 17, trafficked into domestic servitude and raped by her employer; Christina M., who climbed out a window to escape employers who had refused to pay her and threatened to kill her; and Amihan F., whose employers made her sleep on the floor and kept her hungry.
I would not have dreamed then that just a few years later, governments around the world would be making commitments to defend domestic workers’ rights. But last June, the International Labor Organization, including governments, trade unions, and employers’ organizations, adopted the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, the first global labor standards for the estimated 50 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide.
My colleagues and I at Human Rights Watch have been investigating abuses against child domestic workers and migrant domestic workers for more than a decade. In Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and in many other countries, domestic workers are excluded from basic labor protections guaranteed to other workers. These can include a minimum age for workers, limits to working hours and a weekly day of rest.
The Philippines played a key leadership role in developing the convention, chairing two years of negotiations. Hans Cacdac, recently appointed director of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, earned widespread praise for his skillful chairing of the final negotiations in 2011. Now the Philippines has the opportunity to be a global leader by being the first country to ratify, and therefore become legally bound by, this groundbreaking treaty.
This convention is a landmark both for overturning generations of discrimination against primarily female workers and for achieving a remarkable consensus among countries of the global South and North. Given the large number of domestic workers who are international migrants, and the highly sensitive nature of negotiations over international migration, the broad support for the convention from migrant-receiving countries across North America, Europe and the Middle East was a huge political success. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar) originally opposed a legally binding convention, but ultimately supported it strongly and voted yes.
The convention has particular resonance for the Philippines, which has millions of domestic workers both at home and abroad. The convention extends protections to domestic workers equivalent to those for other workers. It also requires governments to set a minimum age for domestic work and to ensure that work does not interfere with the education of children in domestic work who meet the minimum age.
The convention also contains detailed requirements for governments to regulate private employment agencies, investigate complaints, and prohibit deducting recruitment fees from domestic workers’ salaries. These provisions, if signed on to by migrant-receiving states, would go far in protecting the rights of the Philippines’ female migrant domestic workers. The convention also stipulates that migrant domestic workers must receive a written contract that is enforceable in the country of employment and says governments should strengthen international cooperation.
While the Philippines has been a vocal advocate for its domestic workers abroad, it has yet to adopt pending national legislation protecting domestic workers at home. The Domestic Workers Act (“Kasambahay” bill) would raise the minimum wage for domestic workers, require a written contract, extend social security, and improve protection from violence and abuse.
Although President Aquino has listed the Domestic Workers Act as one of his administration’s priority bills, it is unlikely to be discussed during the current legislative session. Congress should make every effort to adopt these long overdue protections when the next session begins in May.
The government should move quickly both to adopt national legislation and to ratify the ILO Convention. There is a fast-closing window to earn the distinction of being the first country to ratify the convention by the first anniversary of its adoption, on June 16. More than two dozen countries around the world are currently considering improvements to their laws on domestic work and initiating national processes for ratifying the convention.
The Philippines has much to gain by supporting this important treaty. Many governments that host Philippine migrant domestic workers—but fail to include them in local labor laws—will feel increasing pressure to support the convention’s provisions as the ratifications grow. And the Philippines should match its international commitments by adopting strong national legislation and setting an example of how to treat domestic workers with respect and dignity at home.
That will give us all something to truly celebrate for the next International Women’s Day.