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It’s Time To Solve The Domestic Work Paradox (Skilled, Essential, But Undervalued) – Anna Engblom

Despite performing a huge range of skilled tasks around the home, domestic workers’ efforts often go unrecognised in terms of pay and working conditions.

Domestic workers from the Philippines arriving in Malaysia. Photo from Domestic Worker in Malaysia Facebook post dated December 29, 2022.

Every person — mainly women — who has spent time at home cooking, cleaning, looking after children, gardening, doing laundry, managing the household, or caring for the elderly or disabled will tell you that it is tiring and emotionally draining work.

They will also tell you that it is skilled work. Consider what it takes to cook a dinner for six with multiple dietary needs, look after a baby or take care of elderly parents.

Domestic work exists in a space between a service that was ‘traditionally’ unpaid and the booming care sector that — especially post-Covid — is considered essential. In this grey area, the skills needed to perform domestic work, including providing care within the home, are often denied and almost always undervalued.

As a result, most domestic workers across the ASEAN region — the vast majority of whom are women and migrants — are considered ‘unskilled’ workers.

Migration regimes and the conditions of work in the sector reflect this, with those arriving to work as domestic workers consequently receiving poor pay and benefits.

A recent study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) looks specifically at migrant domestic workers’ skills and working conditions. Mapping of domestic workers’ skills had never been tackled in Southeast Asia. 

The study compared the tasks that domestic workers perform in homes against the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO) and found that almost all domestic workers are operating at a medium skill level, far higher than ‘unskilled’.

In addition, the study found that migrant domestic workers are using key transferable skills — skills that can be used in a wide variety of work settings and are not particular to domestic or care work — including speaking the local language, clear communication, and managing their or others’ emotions.

Across the region, skills training for domestic workers is not, however, consistent or comprehensive. It rarely recognises the variations in the levels of work that are actually present, expected and required in the sector. 

Few employers consider it a necessary requirement and many domestic workers continue to be hired without the requisite skills for the work. At the same time, many others have skills that go unrecognised and inadequately compensated.

Skills recognition opportunities for domestic workers that consider years of experience and transferable skills should be available, with this recognition reflected in pay and working conditions. 

Accessible and flexible migration pathways could also go a long way to making domestic work less risky and more attractive. This would make a huge difference to the lives and livelihoods of millions of workers across the region.

Change is certainly needed. The research also, sadly, found that domestic workers are still suffering from some of the worst working conditions, including chronic underpayment and forced labour.

It estimated forced labour rates among migrant domestic workers at 29 per cent in Malaysia, 7 per cent in Singapore, and 4 per cent in Thailand.

And thus, the paradox. Domestic work allows society to function, yet is still considered unworthy of the same protections offered in other jobs.

Domestic work is ‘essential’, but the complexity of the work remains unseen. Domestic work frees other workers to go to work, yet domestic workers’ skills are the least recognised.

On June 16, 2011, the ILO adopted the Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) which acknowledged in international law that domestic work should be protected equally to other kinds of work.

This means minimum wage, maximum hours, overtime pay, holidays, access to social protection, and more.

Domestic work can and should be a source of empowerment and dignity. This Domestic Workers Day, the ILO calls for all employers of domestic workers and governments to recognise the skills and the contribution domestic workers make to families and economies alike.

Domestic workers are integral to our societies, and it is time that in return, they receive the recognition and support they need and have always deserved.

Anna Engblom is the chief technical adviser of ILO’s TRIANGLE in ASEAN programme. TRIANGLE in ASEAN is a partnership between the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Global Affairs Canada (GAC), and the ILO. TRIANGLE in ASEAN delivers technical assistance and support with the overall goal of maximising the contribution of labour migration to equitable, inclusive and stable growth in ASEAN.   

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Ova.

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