Interview with Helen O’Reilly: Blogging about migration and domestic helpers

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Feb 11 2009

This interview was conducted with Helen O'Reilly, author of the "Migration and Domestic Helpers" blog. Helen has been actively blogging about migrant workers and their rights for several years and has had first-hand experience with this working in Hong Kong and the Philippines. She is now a student at Yale Law School.

Q. How did you gain interest in migrant workers and their conditions around the world, specifically Asia?

With the support of a fellowship from the Henry Luce Foundation, I moved to the Philippines in 2006 to work at a migrant worker advocacy organization, Visayan Forum Foundation. At the conclusion of the fellowship I moved to Hong Kong, where I lived for another ten months before returning to the US to start law school. During my time in Hong Kong, I worked with domestic workers in need of help due to underpayment of wages, premature termination of the employment contract, passport confiscation, or excessive placement or training fees. As a law student I continue to be interested in why migrant workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and exploring ways to eradicate that vulnerability. I am not an expert, just someone who has been thinking about this issue for a few years. Optimism and a desire for a better life will continue to drive people to move in search of opportunity. The challenge facing countries is how to manage the inflow of semi-skilled and low skilled labor in such a way as to prevent exploitation, manipulation, and extortion, while also protecting the nation’s national and economic security. Legal solutions are not always the speediest way to solve every problem, but I believe their pursuit is the fairest and best way to give the poor a chance to defend themselves from insecurity and discrimination.

Q. Why do you think it's so difficult for migrant workers to gain legal assistance all across Asia but particularly in the Middle East? What would you propose to change this?

My experience is primarily with migrant domestic workers; the vulnerability of this particular group of workers results from a combination of factors: 1) lack of formal legal protection 2) migration debt and 3) limited access to information and resources. The most important global challenge facing advocates for domestic workers – both migrant and local – is to create formal recognition that domestic work is real work. Some countries exclude domestic workers from coverage of labor laws, thus making workers dependent on their employers to ensure the most basic of rights. Without legal recognition that domestic workers are employees -- minimum wage, vacation days, maximum hours of work per day, privacy, freedom of association, etc. – will remain privileges that an employer may chose to extend or deny at will. Working within the private sphere of the household contributes the vulnerability of domestic workers. Even in situations where a migrant domestic worker knows her rights, financial desperation or migration debt may limit her ability to assert those rights. Fear of job termination may compel a worker into accepting a lower salary than promised, working from dawn until late night, or performing extra work duties rather than risk losing her job and legal status.

Q. How do you think it's possible to limit abuse or the potential of abuse to domestic helpers? In many instances domestic helpers have been raped, killed, beaten, denied their salaries, and often they have no awareness on where to go to seek help. How can we change this?

This is a human rights and gender rights issue that deserves more attention than it receives. Limited awareness of the numbers of migrant domestic workers in households all over the world (no legal recognition means no accurate labor statistics) means that the plight of this group is hidden from the public eye. We need country-by-country legal reform to allow migrant domestic workers the right to change employers without necessarily forfeiting her visa. Cultural attitudes also need to change so that employers, neighbors and communities do not tolerate maid abuse or look the other way when it happens. I also believe that advocates must look beyond the promises of states to “protect” workers. Trainings, information and pre-departure orientations are important, but giving workers greater access to information will not automatically solve rampant maid abuse. We also need greater oversight over private recruiters who may over-charge workers, stronger criminal penalties for abusive employers, more publically funded shelters for workers in distress, and visa reform to allow employer-changes without forfeiting the right to work in the country. Empowered workers are their own best advocates. To build the opportunity for empowerment, we must try to reform those state policies that exacerbate vulnerability and facilitate fear and silence.

Q. In your blog you wrote about your experiences in Honk Kong working with Helpers for Domestic Helpers, can you briefly summarize what the organization is about and what you did there? How many similar organizations do you know of?

As of May 2008 there were 251,360 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Filipinos make up the majority of this population followed by Indonesians, while the remainder is made up of Thais, Sri Lankans, Indians and Nepalese. Helpers for Domestic Helpers was founded in the 1980's by a British barrister who saw the need for an organization that could provide free legal support for domestic workers. As the need grew and clients increased through word of mouth, St. John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong provided an office for the group to provide the services. The management of HDH was strengthened in 2001 with the creation of the Board of Management. The Board oversees and provides direction to the activities and programs of HDH, greatly enhancing its services. Today, with one full time manager, a part-time assistant and a team of volunteers, HDH continues to assist distressed domestic workers. The website is http://helpersfordomestichelpers.com/ As a volunteer at HDH, I provided advice and assistance to Filipino domestic workers who sought help or advice. During my time there, I met with some wonderful organizations in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore including: Asian Migrant Centre, (www.asian-migrants.org), Transient Workers Count Too (www.twc2.org.sg), The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (www.home.org.sg), and the Center for Migrant Advocacy (www.pinoy-abroad.net).

Q. What do you think about the fact that there are extremely few of such organizations functioning within the Middle East, despite society's awareness and concern for migrant workers and their rights, and despite millions of migrant and domestic workers here?

The Philippines and Hong Kong have laws that recognize and protect migrant domestic workers. The existence of these laws allows space for non-profit organizations to try to close the gap between what the law promises and what it delivers. Perhaps the lack of formal legal recognition for migrant domestic workers makes it more difficult for organizations to get funding to advocate for migrant rights in the Middle East.

Some people have made the argument that migrant workers are not the responsibility of the host country but rather the responsibility of their home countries. Whose responsibility do you think they are and who should play the bigger role in securing their rights?

I think is the responsibility of both the countries that send and receive migrant labor to ensure that the movement of labor is fair, transparent, and non-exploitive. Governments that utilize and derive economic benefit from migrant work in their economy bear the primary legal obligation to enforce international labor standards. But states alone cannot protect workers; respect for the workers’ rights and dignity starts with employers.

Q. What do you think about the Kafala system in the Gulf?

I am still trying to learn more and understand this system. However, it seems that the current system of sponsorship means that an employer has immense power over a domestic worker because she cannot leave the country or change employers without his consent. This power imbalance between workers and employers and lack of regulation and oversight makes conditions of exploitation much more likely to exist and persist.

Q. Do you plan to launch a career in this field once you're done with law school?
Decent work and just treatment for workers will always be a passion of mine, and I hope to be able to turn this interest into a career.

Q. Why do you think it's important for other people to take action on behalf of migrant workers in their countries? How can people help?

Migrant workers play a central role in driving the economy within the countries that they work. We cannot enjoy the benefits of that economy progress, while ignoring the plight of those that help make it possible. People can help by writing letters to the editor, starting awareness-building groups, and reading and learning more about this issue.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East