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Domestic Workers In ASEAN Share Agonising Experience Of Forced Labour

During a panel discussion organised by ILO, domestic workers described their heartbreak and torment at not being able to go home for a parent’s funeral and finding out much later about the death of their child.

(From left to right): Anna Olsen, Liezl Galdo, Istriyanti, and Kyun Par. Screengrab from launch of Skilled To Care, Forced To Work at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Bangkok on June 15, 2023.

KUALA LUMPUR, July 17 – Liezl Galdo had been employed as a domestic worker for six years in Kuwait when she received word that her father had passed away. However, she was not allowed to return to the Philippines to attend his funeral.

Now working in Sibu, Sarawak, Liezl said that not being able return to her native country when her father died was the hardest pain she’s ever had to bear. Her voice breaks a little as she said: “Even after 13 years, the pain is still here because, you know, it’s your parent! When you lose a parent, it’s really, really sad.”

 Liezl was speaking at a panel discussion held to commemorate the launch of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) report on migrant domestic workers in ASEAN titled Skilled To Care, Forced To Work last June 15.

Her painful ordeal has inspired Liezl to channel her sorrow and heartache towards helping other domestic workers through her role as a leader and organiser with AMMPO.

AMMPO is a grassroots group of Filipino migrant domestic workers that offers support to Filipino domestic workers in Malaysia and mobilises them to work towards improving their working conditions in the country through advocacy, capacity building,  policy changes, and legal means.  

“This is why I’m involved in organising migrant domestic workers,” said Liezl. “So they don’t have to experience what I’ve experienced.”

Unfortunately, Istryanti, a fellow domestic worker from Central Java, Indonesia, who has been working in Singapore for over 12 years also had to go through the loss of a family member while employed. She only found out about it 18 months after the fact. The family member she lost was her own child who was still an infant when she left.

Istriyanti first came to work in Singapore for the first time in 2011, leaving behind an eight-month-old baby. “I was not lucky in getting an employer because I suffered abuse for two years and four months. My employers always slapped my face,” she said.

“I never contacted my family because they never gave me the chance to call my family and I also didn’t have any days off because the contract already said that, so I just followed the rules.

“It was very painful for me,” said Istriyanti in a voice shaking with emotion, “because sometimes I cannot believe my baby has passed away already. Until 18 months already, (then) I just knew about that.

“I still continued to work with my employer at the time because I really needed to earn money for my family but of course my spirit is no more because my baby has died already.”

As her employer’s abusive behaviour towards her intensified, Istriyanti sought assistance from the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) in Singapore where she is now a volunteer. She is also a community organiser who often arranges volleyball tournaments for migrant workers in Singapore.

Managing Employers’ Emotions To Get Off Day

While Kyun Par was able to avoid physical abuse throughout her 30-year career as a domestic worker, the migrant worker from Myanmar who is now working in Thailand said she has been on the receiving end of verbal abuse.

Kyun Par began her career as a domestic worker when she was just 17-years-old. At that age, she was excited to go out on off days like other domestic workers did. The problem was she had to get permission from her employers for off days.

“One thing that still strikes me, I used to look at my employers (to see) if they are happy, just to ask if I can get the day off. If they are happy, I will go into the room to ask if I can have tomorrow off,” said Kyun Par, who added that she had to gauge her employer’s expression to get an off day once every three months.

“If they are watching a sad movie, I will not go into the room to ask for the day off because I know they will say: ‘I’m now in a bad mood, I’m not going to let you go.’”

“None of us should have to manage our employer’s emotions to ask for some fundamental rights at work,” said Anna Olsen, technical specialist for ILO’s TRIANGLE in ASEAN programme, who moderated the discussion.

Almost 30% Of Migrant Domestic Workers in Malaysia Working Under Forced Labour

Skilled to care, forced to work details the results of ILO’s study to fully comprehend the lived experiences of migrant domestic workers in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

The study, which involved 1,201 migrant domestic workers from the three countries, found that employment of migrant domestic workers is largely informal, with migrant domestic workers not covered by full labour law provisions or protections.

 Evidence of forced labour was also discovered across all three countries, with 29 per cent of surveyed migrant domestic workers in Malaysia reporting conditions meeting the ILO’s statistical definition of forced labour.

In Singapore, seven per cent of surveyed workers, and in Thailand, four per cent of surveyed workers were found to have been employed under forced labour conditions.   

Forced labour is found when there are indicators that both the work is involuntary and that the worker is under the threat of menace of a penalty, as per ILO.

Indicators of involuntariness include not being able to quit their jobs, having to remain in employment longer than agreed without consent from the worker, and being made to work without overtime pay, among others.

Threats of violence, dismissal or deportation, having identity documents confiscated, and being locked in the workplace or accommodation are some examples of the threats of menace of a penalty.

ILO survey results reveal that in Malaysia, there are high levels of isolation and restriction on migrant domestic workers’ freedoms, including freedom of movement and freedom to change employers.

The report attributes this to a number of factors including lack of labour protections in law, lack of enforcement of existing laws, lack of post arrival orientation, and work permits that bind workers to their employers.

In order to prevent domestic workers from leaving their jobs, employers may resort to locking them in or restricting their movements.

Liezl said she has experienced being locked up inside an employer’s condominium on Sundays and while they travelled overseas. “They locked me inside and didn’t give me the access card. So, how can I go down? Or I can go down but I won’t be able to go up and get back into the condominium.”

Working On “Off Days”

Istriyanti, who has been volunteering with Home since 2014, manages the organisation’s hotline number. She said that in Singapore, most of the cases reported were of mental abuse.

“Not enough food, and no off day. Even (during) off days we still need to cook breakfast, lunch until dinner. We still need to clean the house also.

“(Furthermore,) employers do not give us enough food. For lunch and dinner, they will give only instant noodles and (in the) morning one bread and tea, no coffee.”

Kyun Par agreed that most domestic workers struggle with not having at least one day off. She said that some governments may refer to it as a rest day but “who will believe that the domestic worker will rest in the house of the employers?

“Even on Sundays,the employers still have their children. Even if you are in your room, they will say, ‘can you cook for us?’ They will say, ‘can you take care of the children?’”

Istryanti said the reason she organises volleyball tournaments for her peers is to boost their morale. “To show all of them how important off days are. Because even if we now live in other countries, we can still continue with our activities and hobbies.”

She said such activities can help instil confidence in domestic workers so that they will have the courage to voice out their concerns to their employers.

“Some domestic workers are scared to speak up because of money. They need the money, but they are also scared to speak up about their working (conditions) with the employers.”

Employers also stand to gain when domestic workers are allowed off days, said Kyun Par, adding that on their off days, domestic workers can join organisations to get support from their peers or attend short courses to expand and improve their skills.

“We can refresh our minds and learn some skills. That’s why it is very important and it’s very important for our mental health.”

Overworked And Underpaid

In Malaysia, 80 per cent of migrant domestic workers surveyed said that they worked 48 hours or more per week. Among the three countries though, Malaysia has the highest average number of paid holidays a year at 4.7 days.

However, the study notes that there are a multitude of reports that confirm migrant domestic workers are generally underpaid. In Malaysia, they are excluded from the minimum wage.

Furthermore, across the board salary levels are impacted by the costs and fees workers’ pay to migrate including wage deductions to pay off migration-related loans and other fees that employers take on and then transfer to their workers.

Uncertain Future Without Social Security

Migrant domestic workers are also not accorded access to comprehensive social security, which renders them even more vulnerable to forced labour practices. In Malaysia however, domestic workers are now covered under the Employees’ Social Security Act (Act 4) and Employment Insurance System (Act 800) from June 1, 2021.

Their exclusion from social security creates uncertainty about their futures, said Kyun Par. “If I don’t save money by myself, my future is not guaranteed as I won’t have money.”

She pointed out that domestic work requires physical exertion and effort. “When you get old, you get less chances to get jobs. So, why not let us contribute to social security when we are young, when we can work and earn money so we can contribute?

“But in Thailand, we are not included in the social security so my life after 60, I’m not sure what it will be like.”

Liezl said she hopes all governments will look into providing social service protection to their domestic workers, adding that Malaysia has set the ball rolling with its National Action Plan on Forced Labour (2021 to 2025). 

Under the Action Plan, the government has set as a target to review and consider the adoption of the Minimum Wage Order for domestic workers as part of its strategic goal to improve legal compliance and enforcement related to forced labour by 2025.

“I always ask people: are we domestic workers not human like everyone else?” said Liezl. Even machines operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, will break down. What about us? We are humans and deserve to be treated like a human being.”

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