An interview with the International Domestic Workers Federation, winner of this year’s Bishop Tji Justice and Peace Award
Published: March 18, 2017
Translated by Kang Yieun
The number of domestic workers is estimated to be 67 million worldwide, 80% of which are women. One in five of these domestic workers are migrant workers. Domestic workers provide labor services such as housekeeping, care of children and elderly dependents, and aid for the sick. In many countries, however, they are not recognized as workers, and often toil in poor work environments.
Although no official statistics exist, it is estimated that about 300,000 individuals work as domestic workers in Korea. Domestic workers in Korea, however, are not protected under the Labor Standards Act (LSA), as Article 11(1) leaves domestic workers out of its scope.
According to “A Survey on the Condition of the Human Rights of Domestic Workers in the Informal Sector”, published by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in November 2015, domestic workers frequently could not reach an agreement with their employers about their job description, breaks, payment for treatment in case of injury, etc.. Workers were also having difficulties due to sudden firings and late payments.
In January, the National Human Rights Commission recommended that the Labor Standards Act be applied to domestic workers. The Commission specified in its “Recommendation on the Protection of Labor and Social Security Rights of Domestic Workers in the Informal Sector” that the government should a) redact Article 11(1), which excludes “domestic employees” from the LSA, b) make laws that accommodate the characteristics of domestic work, which is not easily covered by the LSA, and c) ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
|From left, acting Asia Pacific Coordinator Peng Choi, titular Asia Pacific executive committee member Phobsuk Gasing, and President Myrtle Witbooi of IDWF, who won the 20th Bishop Tji Justice and Peace Award on March 14. © Ilda|
“The Labor Standards Act should be applied to domestic workers in Korea”
Founded in 2013, the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) is a labor union of domestic workers across the globe. Its founding members numbered 250,000, but the number of members has doubled over the past five years. By now, 500,000 domestic workers from 47 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe have joined. The National House Managers Cooperative is the member organization from Korea.
Your correspondent met the President of IDWF, Ms. Myrtle Witbooi, and a titular member of the IDWF Asia Pacific executive committee, Ms. Phobsuk Gasing, on March 14. It was the day IDWF was awarded the 20th Bishop Tji Justice and Peace Award.
(The Bishop Tji Award was established to honor the deceased [Korean] bishop Tji Haksoon, who devoted his life to the poor and powerless, such as farmers and workers, while resisting the authoritarian dictatorship in the 1970s. It is awarded annually to individuals or organizations dedicated to justice, peace, and human rights.)
Ms. Witbooi was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1947. She became a domestic worker at age 20. Her life is a record of the South African domestic workers’ movement itself, and also of the international domestic workers’ movement.
|The President of IDWF, Myrtle Witbooi |
Her first employers, a white household, were humane, but she had to work 7 days a week and could not leave the house after 6 pm. She could not live with her own family and children, either. Ms. Witbooi painfully recounted how she had to send her month-old daughter to her own mother.
In South Africa under apartheid, domestic workers of color were banned from sea-bathing along with their white employers, “as if people of color would color the sea wrong.”
Ms. Witbooi started to question the exploitation of domestic workers. She organized Sunday meetings with neighborhood domestic workers. Domestic workers who used to belittle themselves as “inferior beings, who merely clean other people’s house” formed solidarity and pride through weekly meetings where they talked about their lives as women. Then they further organized other domestic workers.
This led to the foundation of the South African Domestic Workers’ Union in 1986. When apartheid ended and a new government was democratically elected in 1994, a law protecting domestic workers was introduced as a result of active struggle by domestic workers.
ILO adopts the Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
Ms. Witbooi also serves as Secretary General of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU). SADSAWU is one of the largest labor unions in South Africa. Domestic workers are guaranteed a work environment which is nearly the same as that of other workers.
She also led the formation of the International Domestic Workers Network, which was a base for the foundation of IDWF in 2013. She was also a key player who steered the ILO to adopt the Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers in 2011.
Ms. Phobsuk Gasing, an executive member for the Asia Pacific Region of IDWF, is a Thai domestic worker in Hong Kong. 300,000 domestic workers are working in Hong Kong, half of whom are Indonesian. The rest are mostly from the Philippines. Most of the domestic workers in Hong Kong, therefore, are migrants.
Ms. Gasing is also the chairperson of the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions. This is a federation of several domestic workers’ unions formed based on nationalities such as Thai, Nepali, Filipino, and [mainland] Chinese.
Ms. Witbooi and Ms. Gasing emphasized that “domestic workers are workers who contribute to the national economy, not a mere luxury for rich households.” They also expressed shock at Korean domestic workers not being protected by the Labor Standard Act, and called for the provision of such legislative protection. Below is a conversation with the two.
Q: What are the main issues IDWF focuses its activities on these days?
Gasing: We have a campaign called “My Fair Home,” which is an effort to improve public perception of domestic workers. This is an international campaign that reaches out to employers in individual households where domestic workers work, urging them to provide fair work environments and labor conditions. Even if local law is absent, employers can still put these practices in place.
|Dominican domestic workers shouting for domestic workers’ rights on the international Human Rights Day, December 10, 2015. © IDWF|
Q: One in five domestic workers worldwide are known to be migrant workers. On top of the lack of legal protection of labor rights, these domestic workers are vulnerable due to their status as migrant workers. What do you make of it? (Migrant workers are banned from domestic work in Korea, except for ethnic Koreans such as Korean Chinese.)
Witbooi: Migrant domestic work is one of the areas IDWF will focus on in the next five years. It is hard to organize migrant workers to form labor unions because they fear deportation. Filing complaints against their employers or raising social issues - these activities may get them deported.
These days, we are supporting activities to organize migrant domestic workers in Arab and Middle Eastern regions. Arab regions have the highest number of migrant domestic workers, who are mainly from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and recently from African countries. The number reaches 1.6 million, but their human rights conditions are the most terrible; there is little representation for these workers, either.
One reason migrant domestic workers fall into poor work environments has to do with intermediary agencies. Many agencies send inexperienced workers abroad without even a minimum education. So these migrant domestic workers are not aware of what can be done even when they are extremely exploited in foreign countries.
Another issue is agent fees. They charge high fees – which is illegal – so the migrant workers cannot keep much of their pay after the fees are deducted. Illegal fees force migrant workers into debt. Agencies confiscate passports and identification documents until the debt is paid off, restricting personal movement. Recently, two agencies were shut down for such illegal fees in Hong Kong.
Q: Tell me more about Hong Kong. You also mentioned that most domestic workers in Hong Kong are migrant workers.
Gasing: Hong Kong law says the fee for an agency shall be 10% of the first month’s earning. However, there are many agencies that charge a lot more for a longer period. It is clearly against the law, but the fine is negligible so the practice has been common.
Last year, migrant domestic workers themselves interviewed other domestic workers about these illegal fees, which resulted in a report last October. The report attracted much attention from the Hong Kong government and journalists. The Labor Department of Hong Kong later set regulations on agencies. Under these regulations, the agencies located in Hong Kong not only should stay away from illegal practices, they also can lose their license if caught doing business with foreign agencies involved in illegal practices. The government also plans to amend the law to increase the fine.
Q: ILO adopted the “Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers” in 2011. Korean domestic workers are demanding the government ratify it, but the government keeps postponing the ratification, citing the need to amend the Labor Standard Act (LSA) first. (23 countries have ratified this convention so far. The Philippines is the only Asian country that has.)
Witbooi: ILO was not aware of domestic workers’ issues for a long time. We campaigned for three years, from 2009 to 2011, to establish international labor standards [for domestic work], which resulted in the “Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers.”
(This convention recommends recognizing domestic workers as workers, guaranteeing them equal rights as other workers, applying the same labor laws of the host county to migrant workers, and making labor contracts in a language migrant workers can understand.)
Ratification of the convention is important, but it is meaningless without local legislation. There are two ways to ratify an international convention: one is to prepare the local law and institutions to the standards of the convention, then ratify it. The other is to ratify it first, then enact a law within 11 months. Most countries go the latter route. The problem is that many are not following up with legislation. The ILO should be monitoring and enforcing the follow-up, but they are not doing it.
South Africa is one country that has not followed up. South African domestic workers now are guaranteed labor conditions almost the same as those of other workers, but are not protected by industrial safety and health codes. To secure workers’ compensation insurance we need employers to contribution financially, but they are refusing. This is why South African domestic workers are demanding that the related law be amended.
|A “Work Like Any Other” campaign postcard. |
Q: What do you think of the conditions of domestic workers in Korea?
Witbooi: The National House Managers Cooperative is the member organization of IDWF from Korea. We are shocked to learn that domestic workers in Korea are not covered by the Labor Standards Act. We wanted to meet Korean lawmakers and government officials in person to urge improvement in the labor conditions of domestic workers, but unfortunately our meeting with the Environment and Labor Committee of the National Assembly got canceled.
(The day this interview was conducted, March 14, the chairman of the committee, Assemblyman Hong Young-pyo of the Together Minjoo Party, canceled the meeting, citing a party workshop.)
It is my understanding that a bill related to domestic workers was discussed in the National Assembly a year ago. (In the 19th National Assembly, Assemblyman Lee In-young of the Together Minjoo Party introduced the “Amendment to Redact the Article Which Excludes Domestic Workers from the Scope of the Labor Standards Act” and the “Bill for Improving Domestic Worker Employment Practices.” The bills, however, were canceled automatically when the term ended.) It is imperative that the Korean legislature and government amend labor laws to protect the labor rights of domestic workers.
Q: You have worked with domestic workers from all over the world. Any words for domestic workers in Korea?
Gasing: Don’t be afraid to speak up. No one will hear it unless you speak up. I was worried of losing my contract by bringing issues up, but now my employer supports my activities.
Witbooi: Stand up and fight for your rights. Once I start, others will support me for sure.
IDWF home page: idwfed.org
Interpreter: Kang Eunji from Korean House for International Solidarity.
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/sub_read.html?uid=7806
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