How and Why We Need to Include Migrant Domestic Workers in Conversations about Development Justice
Katelyn Davis, Research and Advocacy Intern, Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants
Private households, which encompass domestic workers, employ approximately 21.5 million people in the Asia Pacific region, according to a recent publication about domestic work by the International Labor Organisation. This is the highest number of private household workers worldwide, and four in five people employed in this sector are women (ILO, 2013). The Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are the three major sending countries of female migrant workers. Women account for 60 to 80 percent of all outward labor migration in these countries. Destination countries vary based on nationality, but the vast majority of these domestic workers travel to Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (ILO, 2013).
Outward female migration to the private household sector began about three decades ago, but skyrocketed over the past ten years. These women experience both “push” and “pull” factors. The Philippines, for instance, began a labor export policy under the Marcos dictatorship to relieve local unemployment. The government actively pursued overseas labor markets for its citizens to enter into, rather than investing in economic development in the Philippines, thus institutionalising forced labor migration. Following the “successful” model of the Philippines, several other low income countries in Asia developed their own labor export policy over the past two decades, for example, Indonesia. The lack of employment combined with low wages in sending countries creates a situation which forces women to leave their families and children to find employment abroad.
Rising incomes in destination countries created a demand for domestic workers. Additionally, the governments of some destination countries actively pursued the importation of female household workers to “allow” local women to enter the formal labor force.
Chronic problems in sending countries of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty coupled with labor export policy have created a situation of underdevelopment in these countries. Underdevelopment contains distinct gender elements based on a women’s position in society and her role as the traditional caregiver. Traditional models of “development,” which focus only on the economy, have largely ignored women and failed to understand the challenges that they face. Many efforts of so-called development in fact led to the feminisation of underdevelopment. Thus, discussions and programs of development justice must not only focus on women but understand how systems of oppression affect them.
Female migrant workers employed in the private household sector face systemic discrimination across nationalities and destination countries although the laws and “severity” of discrimination varies according to each factor (nationality and destination). In all destination countries, female domestic workers face long working hours, low wages, minimum or nonexistent labor protections, and emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Many destination countries require domestic workers to live with their employers, so called “live-in” policies, thus exacerbating the previously mentioned conditions.
The treatment of migrant domestic workers reflects the way that society perceives and values migrant domestic workers in the host countries. Laws and policies then institutionalize and justify this treatment allowing societies to rationalize their own behavior towards women. Examining the conditions of migrant domestic workers in the Asia Pacific and Middle East in relation to local women shows a need to locate FDWs within the framework of development politics. Female FDWs suffer from the same patriarchal social conventions and state institutions as their local female counterparts, but in addition to gender discrimination, most of these women face racial discrimination as locals view them as “inferior” and “deserving” of the work conditions that they find. Development justice for all women means an end to the social conditions that create, sustain and justify discriminatory and abusive state policies towards all women.
A framework of development justice with the inclusion of migrant domestic workers means an end to men using violence as a way to exert their control over women, a reorientation of traditional concepts of “women’s work,” and an end to to state control over female bodies.
Across the world, men control women with violence or the threat of violence in various forms. This violence includes physical violence (hitting, slapping, punching, kicking), sexual violence through rape including marital rape and gang rape, emotional and psychological violence and systemic state violence such as “honor” killings, acid attacks and female genital mutilation. FDWs experience a variety of forms of violence committed against them. A survey in 2013 by the Mission for Migrants Workers in Hong Kong found that 58% of domestic workers in Hong Kong experience verbal abuse, 18% face physical abuse and 6% suffer from sexual abuse (Mission for Migrants Workers, 2013). Repeated cases of violence directed towards FDWs shows that these cases are not “isolated” incidents but rather systemic in nature. Addressing this systemic violence means including FDWs into the conversation about violence against women and addressing issues of racial discrimination.
A reinterpretation of the “traditional” role of women in the household will create a framework of development justice that includes FDWs and addresses social inequalities between men and women. Societies have always conceptualized female household labor as part a women’s “traditional” role in the society and of course, free. This conceptualization explains why minimum wage laws and labor protections exclude domestic workers. The state, run by men and for men, struggles to justify paying for domestic labor, which it understands as being free and part of women’s “natural role.” A spokesman for the Minister of Labor in Bahrain said that “house workers are treated as part of the family. Disputes should be settled internally whenever possible, or else the privacy of the household is desecrated” (Al-Najjar,2004). The state refuses to regulate the domestic labor sector due to its “private nature.” Societies and government need to re-conceptualize domestic labor as formal, paid labor and remove it from a traditional understanding of the “role” of women in the household.
Finally, discussions about development justice must incorporate a path to ending state control over female bodies for all women, including migrant domestic workers. Currently, many destination countries (Hong Kong, Singapore and the Gulf countries) have “live-in” policies that require a FDW to live with her employer. In addition to making the FDW vulnerable to abusive situations, “live-in” policies fundamentally violate the right of the FDW to control her own living situation. Many other destination countries have discriminatory policies specifically applied to FDWs enacted to control her right to self-determination. For instance, Singapore requires FDWs to undergo a medical examination once every six months to “screen for pregnancies and infectious disease” (Ministry of Manpower website, 2013). If a FDW becomes pregnant, she will be deported immediately. Governments must control both local and migrant women’s bodies under the guise of “modesty” and “protection.” Social practices implicitly allow this control by convincing women of their inferiority or their need for protection. State policies then serve to reinforce these practices completing the cycle of oppression.
Collective resistance of women has the power to successfully challenge patriarchal systems of oppression, improve laws towards women, and alter the nature of relationships between men and women. These organisations engage with governments in both sending and receiving countries. Women challenge the systems and policies in their home countries that create the circumstances “pushing” them to migrate. They organize protests, rallies, and petition signings urging the government to address the problems of unemployment and cyclical poverty in their home communities.
There are thousands of organisations of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, and some of them actively fight for and pursue policy changes. Actions of collective resistance by these organizations have successfully challenged and changed several state policies. For example, domestic workers earned several incremental pay increases over the past three years In Hong Kong. Part of the organizing work of migrant domestic workers included the creation of formal trade unions. The government of Hong Kong More officially recognizes these unions as formal trade unions and gives them rights to undertake collective labor action, such as the ability to represent members at Labor Tribunal. This recognition of a formal labor union by the state severely threatens the notion that domestic work does not deserve minimum wage and other labor protections.
The framework for development justice must include a discussion of ending the use of male violence to control women, a reorientation of the traditional concepts of “women’s work,” and an end to state control over female bodies. These discussions, especially in relation to the Asia Pacific region, also should include migrant domestic workers as they represent one of the most marginalized and exploited segments of society. The effects of state and social policies in both sending and receiving countries make FDWs particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Local women also experience the effects of violence against women, traditional social roles, and state control of their bodies. Thus, these domestic workers and local women should join together to struggle for change. Domestic workers can learn from the experiences of local women and vice versa. Through collective struggle, women can successfully challenge the structures, policies, and social conventions that create systems of oppression.
Al-Najjar, Sabika. 2004.
“Women migrant domestic workers in Bahrain” in Gender and Migration in Arab States: the Case of Domestic Workers eds. Simel Esim and Monica Smith. Beirut: International Labor Organization
Government of Singapore. 2013 May 22
“Work permit (migrant domestic worker)” Ministry of Manpower website. Retrieved on 10 November 2013 from http://www.mom.gov.sg/foreign-manpower/passes-visas/work-permit-fdw/inform-mom/Pages/medical-examination.aspx
International Labor Organization. 2013.
Domestic Workers Across the World: Global and Regional Statistics and the Extent of Legal Protection. Geneva: Author
Mission for Migrant Workers. 2013 April.
Live-in Policy: Increases Female FDW’s Vulnerability to Various Types of Abuse. Hong Kong: Author