The Ethics of Hiring Domestic Workers and Household Help

The Ethics of Hiring Domestic Workers and Household Help

As a Filipino, I find it very hard to write about the ethics of hiring domestic workers and household help. This type of work has been very much embedded in the Filipino culture and psyche, so much so that it is considered “invisible“. You know it is there – my family had household help as I was growing up, but I never honestly thought about it much. I think this is also the case for most Filipino families, and as reports from international organisations reflect, even for people and families in different parts of the world.

In a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), domestic work is considered “neither a formal or informal occupation”, and oftentimes seen as unskilled work. Yet, these domestic helpers work for long hours, sometimes with no extra pay. And herein lies the danger – this can actually lead to abuse and slavery.

A domestic worker at a rally for her rights in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Photo: ILO/ Shaison P. Ouseph.

I remember a personal account by Alex Tizon, titled “My Family’s Slave“. He talked about his Lola (a Filipino word referring to grandmother but in his case is more of an endearment for the person who raised him). Lola’s name is Eudocia Tomas Pulido, and she was gifted to his mother by his grandfather when their family moved to the United States. Lola was never chained but her work started before everyone woke up and only ended when everyone was asleep. She was never paid but did everything around the house.

I thought that Lola‘s story was a thing of the past when people were more dismissive of the rights and welfare of domestic helpers. But just a month ago, I got to read another story of slavery.

Modern-day slavery

An Australian couple recently made headlines for treating a Filipino woman as a slave. In her sworn statement, the victim recounted, “I did not know when I came that I would have to work 24 hours a day. I did not get paid for my work.” The initial agreement was that the victim would go to Rockdale, a suburb south of Sydney to be the McAleers maid and the nanny to their children. The couple agreed to pay double the rate of her salary in the Philippines (which was 10,000 pesos or $267 a month) and advised that she would also receive a monthly allowance of $100.

The woman — who cannot be named for legal reasons – lived with the couple’s family and took care of their children. In addition to the babysitting and the household chores, she was also asked to work at the family’s grocery store for six to seven days a week. Not only was she treated like a slave, but the couple threatened her life as well as her the lives of her family members if she dared to escape. Anti-Slavery Australia came to her rescue and brought her case to court. The McAleers pleaded guilty to the charges, facing a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison. They have also offered the victim $70,000 as compensation.

The plight of domestic workers and household helpers

The plight of this Filipino woman in Australia as well as Lola’s are not isolated incidents. According to international organisation Human Rights Watch, domestic workers are “among the most exploited and abused workers in the world.” They receive way below the minimum wage while working often 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Working conditions that are illegal in many parts of the world. Domestic workers often do not get enough rest and proper compensation for the time and services they provide. Some are even subjected to physical, sexual, mental, and other forms of abuse. Many do not have formal work contracts nor are they aware of their rights and avenues for legal counsel.

Hong Kong is home to thousands of domestic helpers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka and many congregate on their one day off a week. Photo: Rex Pe.

The Care Economy

The ILO reports that one in 25 women workers all over the world is a domestic worker or household helper. There are around 67 million domestic workers worldwide and 80% of them are women. Their tasks usually include house cleaning, cooking, taking care of their employer’s kids, washing and ironing clothes, gardening, and looking after the elderly. This can be a full-time or part-time job and they can live with their employers or not. Some migrant domestic workers work in foreign countries.

The services that they provide have economic and social significance. For example, the women in the families that domestic helpers serve are able to engage in full-time work as they have someone to manage the household. These workers also offer support to the families they care for and companionship for the elderly. Migrant domestic workers are able to help their own countries through the remittances that they send to their families back home.

Unfortunately, the majority of them are part of the informal economy or are unregistered members of the workforce. In the case of the exploited worker in Sydney for instance, only an informal agreement with her Australian employers was in place; no formal employment contract stipulating job requirements and remuneration was ever signed. Informal work arrangements are convenient and more affordable since no accreditation certificates or agency fees need to be paid, however the worker isn’t covered by labor laws and the risk of exploitation and working in slavery-like conditions is high.

Benefits and compensation

Let’s take a look at the minimum wage for domestic workers in different countries and other forms of compensation. In Metro Manila, household helpers are paid a minimum of $100 monthly. Employers are also asked to pay for their government contributions so these workers can access different social services. Philippine Republic Act 10361, known as the Domestic Workers Act, aims to protect the welfare of these workers.

In Hong Kong, there is a minimum allowance wage for household helpers. Employers are required to pay at least HKD 4,630 (USD $600) per month aside from food allowances. In Singapore, the average salary for domestic workers depends on their experience and nationality. It could range between SGD 450 to SGD 570 (about $300-400) per month. They are also entitled to annual salary raises. In Germany, the average hourly rate is EUR 10 (about $12). In the US, the minimum hourly rate for domestic workers is $12.01 per hour. They are paid by the number of hours worked and they also receive bonuses, increases, and commissions.

Skills training programme for domestic workers in Indonesia. Photo: ILO Jakarta (2016).

Gaps in labour and employment laws

It should be noted that the benefits and compensation outlined above are offered only to those who have valid employment contracts with their employers. Unfortunately, a high percentage of them do not; of the 67 million domestic workers all over the world, around 50 million of them are in informal employment. This is where the problems arise. Without formal contracts, workers are more vulnerable to abuse, suffer from poor working conditions to downright slave-like conditions. They are not protected by government laws and they cannot join unions to fight for their work rights. Less than 10% of them have retirement plans and health insurance coverage. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “domestic workers, who are almost all women and mostly women of color, face poverty at much higher rates and are paid significantly less than comparable workers.”

Formalising the care economy

To bring dignity and protect domestic workers in the essential work that they provide to millions of families around the world, formalising the work they do is crucial. Aside from receiving proper benefits, compensation, and protection, domestic workers would be on par with other laborers and included in the formal economy.

Advocating for domestic helpers are international organizations such as the ILO, Human Rights Watch, and Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO) who give a voice to these workers and fight for their rights. “All workers should have equal economic opportunities, rights, and protection” WIEGO states on its website.

In 2011, ILO headed the Domestic Workers Convention in 2011. In this international treaty, they presented global standards for the protection and welfare of domestic workers in the hopes that UN member nations will abide by them.

“The new standard covers all domestic workers and provides for special measures to protect those workers who, because of their young age or nationality or live-in status, may be exposed to additional risks,” ILO stated. Some of the provisions in the treaty include reasonable working hours with at least one whole day of rest per week, paying workers in cash with a wage that is on par with other workers, and having clear terms of employment set out. The workers should also be allowed to exercise their right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. To ensure these standards are met, governments and social partners will need to work together to ensure the ethical recruitment of domestic workers.

Empowering domestic workers

The challenges faced by this hardworking group highlights how society gives little importance to the work that they do. It is therefore crucial to educate people about the value of domestic work and its integral role in society. As Policy Advisor at the International Trade Union Confederation Marieke Koning said, “Governments need to pro-actively promote positive public perceptions of domestic workers and raise awareness of the positive social and economic contributions of domestic workers, while combating discriminatory attitudes and gaps in rights and protections – in law and in practice.”

Their valuable services make other types of work possible. Until such time when people realise their worth, dignity and humanity, the fight for the welfare of millions of domestic workers around the world continues.

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Cover image by ILO/J. Aliling.

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