Much remains to be done to build domestic workers’ resilience, even since the adoption of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 189 (C189), the first global treaty establishing minimum labour standards for domestic workers, on 16 June 2011.
To mark the exact 11th anniversary of this landmark win, affiliates and partners of the ITUC-Asia Pacific and the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF) came together online to celebrate the vigour of domestic workers’ leadership, share stories of their gains and struggles, and discuss ways forward in building caring economies and making the trade union movement more inclusive.
“This is precisely what we in the ITUC-Asia Pacific are working on so far — putting all people at the centre of our priorities and securing them a space to lead and demonstrate their indisputable capacity to transform their lives and others’,” ITUC-Asia Pacific General Secretary Shoya Yoshida said, “particularly those who have been bearing the heaviest burden of patriarchy and inequalities, those who haven’t been counted in yet to the trade movement, those who remain invisible, excluded, and marginalised.”
Accounting for the majority of the world’s domestic workers, the Asia-Pacific region has seen millions of them bear the heavier brunt of work during COVID-19 lockdowns, often under extended hours and exploitative working conditions and with unclear terms of employment and fewer protections from ill-treatment by employers.
“We’ve shown how strong we are as domestic workers. We’ve decided to stand up when it’s time to raise our voices because the one thing they cannot take away from us is our voices,” said IDWF President Myrtle Witbooi, lamenting policymakers’ inadequate response to domestic workers’ concerns, especially during the pandemic. “We will make sure that they don’t make any more decisions without hearing the voice of domestic workers, the vulnerable workers, the workers that have been exploited all these years.”
In a conversation moderated by Anna Tuvera, the ITUC-Asia Pacific Director for Gender Equality Activities, several leaders of domestic workers’ groups from across the region explored the various facets of domestic work, including the stereotypes and misconceptions about them and their aspirations for an inclusive and equal world of work.
Fish Ip, the regional coordinator (Asia) for IDWF, co-facilitated the event and talked with Marry Renee Rose Cayabyab of the Domestic Caretakers Union (DCU) – Taiwan, whose suite of woodcut-printed T-shirts called “Dine with the Boss” was featured, among other artworks, in a virtual gallery showcasing the stories of migrant domestic caretakers.
Even though they did not have formal training as artists, Cayabyab said, they found creative production as an empowering avenue to raise awareness about their vulnerabilities and hopes, such as for social safety net benefits, higher wages, fair employee-employer relationships, a guaranteed weekly day of rest, and other labour rights that many of them are still denied.
“This movement and our sisters together have been fighting for the recognition of domestic workers’ work, for inclusion and regulatory systems, laws recognising the rights of domestic workers, and access to social security,” said Raina Bhattacharya, Programme Officer for Asia of the IDWF. These issues “translate into the lived experiences of our sisters … and, in these, we see that the power of domestic workers manifests as resistance, as resilience,” she added.
The pandemic’s devastating impacts have also foregrounded the essential role of domestic workers in bolstering the care economy, which has long suffered chronic underinvestment and systematic undervaluing.
“When we’re talking about the care agenda, it is also about decent work for all domestic workers, including those who are working in the informal economy,” Marieke Koning, ITUC policy advisor on gender equality and domestic work issues. “It’s about the right to quality public care and health services. And that also implies an agenda where we need to ensure support for all domestic workers.”
As it stands, however, the slow ratification and adoption of C189 in most country-level legislation and its poor implementation have left many domestic workers still largely excluded from the scope of regulations and social protection laws on par with those for other labour categories. In particular, women who predominantly work in the sector stand to lose the most if they continue to be afforded no dignity of safe and decent work.
“As we make C189 work, together we’ll try to make C190 also work, and we’re going to say, ‘No more gender-based violence, no more abuse behind closed doors!’” Witbooi said, referring to the ILO Convention No. 190 on Violence and Harassment, a legal instrument that has so far come into force in only seven countries. “And we are going to make sure that governments take note of us.”
The ITUC-Asia Pacific’s #RatifyC190 campaign remains a priority advocacy target alongside its pilot #InvestInCare activities, as reaffirmed at the 23rd Women’s Committee meeting in April. Yoshiko Norimatsu, who chairs the committee, lauded the women willing to make these crucial changes happen and start these long-overdue conversations about equity, visibility, and inclusive unionism.
“To join the movement, to join a union and get information, makes us powerful,” Norimatsu said. “And so we need to [attract] much more people, like domestic workers, into the union and give them the right information, and that will make our movement stronger.”