Migrant Domestic Workers Need Equal Access to Social Security

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189). However, a recently published report titled “Skilled to care, forced to work?” reveals a different reality in the ASEAN region: many migrant domestic workers have not obtained adequate protection and access to social security. 

The study was carried out by Rapid Asia in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand (as migrant domestic workers’ three destination countries) between July and September 2022. Surveying 1,201 migrant women domestic workers and 610 private households employers, the data collection was also supported by in-depth interviews with some workers and employers and structured interviews with representatives of government, employers’ organizations, domestic worker associations and civil society.

The study reveals that migrant domestic workers face numerous challenges due to their vulnerable bargaining position. Despite their work requiring technical skills,  good transversal and attitudinal skills, and higher educational standards, these workers are still labelled as unskilled workers. They endure irregular and long working hours, receive inadequate compensation, and some even fall victim to forced labour.

According to the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO-08), the surveyed workers have performed work classified as ISCO Skill Level 2. Their work as domestic housekeepers, childcare workers, and home-based personal care workers requires considerable expertise and skills. However, many employers fail to recognize and treat their skills as skilled workers.

Working arrangements in the sector exhibit various irregularities. While workers in Singapore tend to have similar work profiles and formal employment, those in Malaysia and Thailand experience diverse employment conditions. Those employed through agencies benefit from social protection, unlike those directly employed by households. Furthermore, many household-employed workers face excessively long work hours and receive wages below the minimum requirement. The chart below illustrates the disadvantaged position of women migrant domestic workers.

The poor working conditions, limited access to labour rights, and inadequate social protection for migrant domestic workers clearly indicate their vulnerability to forced labour. The report reveals alarming statistics, with 29 per cent of workers in Malaysia, 7 per cent in Singapore, and 4 per cent in Thailand reporting such conditions.
This report serves as a wake-up call, emphasizing that the lack of professional recognition, lack of decent working conditions, underpayment, and the prevalence of forced labour among migrant domestic workers in Southeast Asia cannot be justified. As a result, it is imperative for the three countries to prioritize and implement at least four critical changes to address these issues:

  1. The countries should promptly ratify and effectively implement the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011, ensuring that domestic workers are granted rights equal to those of other workers, both in law and practice.
  2. Ratification and implementation of the Forced Labour Convention of 1929 and the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 are crucial. Urgent action is required to suppress forced labour among domestic workers effectively and sustainably.
  3. It is essential to establish formalized opportunities for skills recognition for domestic workers, considering their years of experience and transversal skills.
  4. The countries need to establish regular migration pathways for domestic workers that acknowledge the skilled nature of their work in terms of employment conditions. These pathways should not bind workers exclusively to individual employers.

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About the authors:  Daniel Lindgren is the Founder of Rapid Asia Co., Ltd., a management consultancy firm based in Bangkok specializing in evaluations for programs, projects, social marketing campaigns and other social development initiatives. Israr Ardiansyah is an independent consultant working with Rapid Asia.