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Kaisa Ka (Unity of Women for Freedom)

On November 1, 2011

On October 24, 2011 the Philippines played host to the three-day Asia Regional Conference on “Advocacy towards the Ratification and Implementation of ILO Convention 189 on Domestic Workers”. With an estimated 100 million domestic workers worldwide, international labor standards that ensure the safety and fair treatment of household workers are critically overdue. Domestic workers are suffering immensely as a result of their lack of basic rights and protections. ILO Convention 189 is an historic piece of legislation, an international bill of rights, that aims to better the conditions under which domestic workers live and work.

ILO Convention 189 must be ratified by two states before it can be enforced. Uruguay and the Philippines have committed to sponsoring the convention and seeing it through to full ratification. During last week’s conference, representatives of the Philippine government publicly guaranteed ratification of the convention before its first anniversary next June 2012. While the push is commendable, the Philippine government’s definition of domestic work as decent labor betrays the very cause that it purports to advance.

The Philippines is a society with a five hundred-year-old tradition of household slaves. Diehard notions about the “God-given” role of women impact the gender contours of domestic work. If you are a woman, then ipso facto, your labor is done inside the home, is part of nature, and has little or no value. In the Philippines and across the globe, women statistically dominate work that is servile in character.

Women represent 84.5% of the 1.9 million domestic workers in the Philippines. Domestic work accounts for 11% of women’s total wage employment in the country. The average domestic worker earns between $1.50 to $4.50 per day, or 50% of the minimum wage for non-agricultural workers in the National Capital Region of the Philippines, for 24 hours of work. One-third of domestic workers in the Philippines are live-in workers and female live-in workers work 5.2 hours longer per week than their male counterparts. Current labor laws allow child domestic work, and 10% of all domestic workers in the Philippines are 15 to 18- years-old. Of these minors, 93% are girls.

As domestic workers, women are treated as commodities who are to be shipped and sold by “sending countries” to “receiving countries”. The Philippine government actively encourages the export of its citizens as a means of national income. Urban areas of Metro Manila, Cebu, Davao and Cagayan de Oro are honeycombed with illegal recruiters, who operate with scant fear of legal consequence despite the existence of government regulations. According to 2010 POEA data, the Philippine government handled 1,648 cases of illegal recruitment but it only acted on and resolved 283.

Each day, 3,897 Filipinos leave to work overseas. Forty percent of these Filipinos will work as domestic workers. Abroad, migrant workers live in legal limbo with little recourse against abuse. Domestic workers in particular endure terrifying working conditions and can be punished for completely subjective offenses by both their employers and host states. Death is often considered the only “opt out clause”. The average death toll for domestic workers in Lebanon is one per week. The situation is beyond characterization.

Kaisa Ka, a grassroots-based women’s rights organization in the Philippines, organizes in the communities from which domestic workers are recruited and advocates for the full ratification of the ILO Convention 189: Decent Work for Domestic Workers. While the organization calls for international standards that guarantee human rights for all domestic workers and the visibility and valuation of women's reproductive work, it does not accept the notion that “domestic work is work”. Kaisa Ka argues that conditions under which household labor is performed can be made “decent” but the assertion that this form of labor is and can be fundamentally decent work is a denial of objective reality.

According to Kaisa Ka, no amount of sanitizing will transform domestic servitude into “decent work” if dignity and freedom are to be part of that definition. No number of conventions, regulatory mechanisms, or euphemistic disguises will alter the fundamentally oppressive nature of household work. Filipino women, even those with post-graduate level educations, resort to becoming domestic workers because they cannot find jobs at home due to lack of national industry, genuine land reform and development of women as a productive force, criminally substandard wages, gender discrimination, and neoliberal policies such as contractualization.

For most, if not all, Filipino women, domestic work will never be a fulfilling job even under the best circumstances: the work itself is drudgery wherein one’s entire existence revolves around catering to other’s needs before one’s own and performing repetitive, numbing tasks that the employers themselves do not wish or would not deign to carry out. Domestic work is a last option due to a lack of alternative opportunities.

Furthermore, domestic work is a problematic, feudal form of subjugation that perpetuates both the asymmetric division of labor and the patriarchal household. As long as one woman serves another woman, as long as one woman can achieve her life goals because another woman’s are abandoned, patriarchy will stand and genuine liberation for women will remain unfulfilled.

Speaking truth to power, Kaisa Ka and its members have experienced the humiliation of hierarchy and maintain that domestic work is inherently hierarchical, relying on a class of socially, politically and economically powerless people---economic refugees--- to meet its labor demands. Thus, the organization believes that domestic work will never guarantee women mutual respect, enlarged choices, and freedom from coercion.

In this sense, ILO Convention 189 is the equivalent of putting a bandaid on a bullet wound: it is necessary but insufficient and does not seek to address the root cause of the problem of women’s exclusion from the formal economy. Following the conference, the Kaisa Ka issued a formal invitation to those in attendance who maintain that domestic work is a viable career option to produce at least one young girl who aspires to scrub someone else’s soiled underwear, carry someone else’s shopping bags around a mall, and raise someone else’s children at the neglect of her own, when she is grown up. Would those who practice and defend the employment of domestic workers under philanthropic pretenses (“We’re actually helping them because otherwise they would have no work at all.”) wish their daughters to be maids and nannies?

We must view Kaisa Ka’s call for the transformation of the political economy a reminder to all human rights advocates that the solution is not to formalize domestic work but to eradicate it as a form of gendered labor. Household work should be a responsibility shared by the entire family, irrespective of gender, and with the help of government assistance, for example, in the form of free, quality childcare. The true liberation of women will not be realized until feudal labor relations are abolished.

This article was contributed to by Khara Jabola.