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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Chin

Today is International Domestic Workers Day: Does Anyone Care?

Just in case it slips our collective minds, here's a reminder - June 16th is International Domestic Workers Day.

It's been over a decade since the day came into being. Here's why we should care.

Because -

Domestic work is work and domestic workers, like other workers, are entitled to decent work.

Because -

International Domestic Workers Day celebrates the International Labour Organization's adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), a treaty agreed in Geneva by ILO government, worker and employer delegates to offer specific protection to domestic workers by laying down specific rights and principles and stating a series of measures needed for decent work to be a reality for domestic workers.

Because -

What's not to like about the treaty?

The treaty affirms the promotion and protection of the human rights of all domestic workers, including the fundamental principles and rights for (1) freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, (2) elimination of all forms of forced compulsory labour, (3) abolition of child labour, and (4) elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. It calls for effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence, and for fair terms of employment and decent living conditions.

With regard to fair terms of employment, the Treaty addresses the communication of terms and conditions of employment to domestic workers in a transparent manner, the regulation of work hours (including weekly rest periods of at least 24 consecutive hours) and the manner in which salaries should be paid. In particular the Treaty notes that fees charged for employment agents are not to be deducted from a domestic worker's pay.

For the convention to work, it needs to be actionable. This means ILO member countries formally ratify the Treaty to signify commitment to implementing Treaty obligations and to report periodically to ILO on measures being taken. After ratification, ILO would expect committing countries to extend or adapt existing laws and develop new measures for domestic workers.

Domestic Workers Recommendation 201, which was also adopted at the ILO Conference in 2011 provide practical guidance regarding possible legal measures and policies to be implemented.

Because -

It's been nearly 11 years and we've done pretty much sod-all as a world, and as Singapore.

Despite such laudable goals, only 35 countries out of the 183 ILO member countries have ratified the treaty so far. Despite having more than a quarter million migrant domestic workers in Singapore, we are not one of the ratifiers.

The situation is shameful.

For an excellent summary of where Singapore was at in 2020 (and probably largely unchanged in the last two COVID affected years), please read the 2020 International Domestic Worker's Day Statement by Singapore's Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) here.

Please also refer to their June 2021 Report on Overcharging and Deceptive Practices in the Domestic Worker Recruitment Process here, and their August 2021 statement on new measures for the Well Being of Migrant Domestic Workers here.

Reports and statements aside there's the anecdotal evidence: trafficked youngsters, bonded labour, debts owed to employment agents, domestic workers who are beaten, starved and sexually abused, others who are made to sleep in bomb shelters or under the staircase, those who have their mobile phones taken away from them, those who've never had a day off... The list goes on.

We can't deny we haven't come far enough. Not in the world. Not in Singapore.

Because -

It's time to be pushed into action!

Let's begin at home and consider what working conditions are like for the domestic workers we hire. Are they fairly paid, adequately housed, and given proper days off? Could we be doing better.

Let's hold our employment agents to account. Let's be clear to agents the working conditions we will offer, no matter what they suggest. Let's say we will pay all recruitment fees and not make deductions for recruitment fees from our helper's salaries.

Let's support those who advocate decent work for domestic workers. For a start, why not contact HOME here to see how you can help.

Let's hold our government into account. Ask questions. For example - Why aren't domestic workers covered by our employment act? Why aren't domestic worker's rest days monitored? Why are agents being allowed to enforce loan repayment deductions on workers instead of employers, in effect turning domestic workers into bonded labourers for at least the frist six months of their contracts? Why is the Foreign Workers Levy going into an anonymous government fund instead of into a pension plan for domestic workers... And so on.

What else would you want to ask? Do share.


Audrey Chin is an award-winning Singaporean writer whose work explores the intersections of culture, faith and gender. She believes in the imponderables including love, god and ghosts AND she's an omnivore when it comes to books.

Her latest book, The Ash House is about the plight of poor women in rich houses and features two foreign domestic workers. Proceeds from sales will be shared with HOME.

You can read about Audrey's first introduction to HOME through her friend Karien Van Ditzhuijzen here, and buy The Ash House here.

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1 Comment

Tammy Goesch
Jun 15, 2022

Audrey, you are one of my heroes. Thank you for speaking up! You are what the Germans call "klein, aber oh ho" - which translates roughly as "small, but wow!" You repeatedly inspire me to use my voice and privilege to increase the world's kindness and justice quotients.


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