Domestic workers can organize anywhere

In Asia the main priority for domestic workers is still to be recognized as workers.

Elizabeth Tang is secretary general of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) based in Hong Kong. Ahead of International Domestic Workers’ Day on 16 June she spoke about the challenges to organizing domestic workers, this year’s campaign against gender-based violence, and IDWF’s vision for the region.

What is this year’s campaign goal?

Elizabeth Tang: Our main goal this year is to build momentum in our gender-based violence campaign. This includes seeing the adoption of the new ILO convention on ending violence and harassment in the world of work [link], as well as comprehensive campaign plans in at least five countries. In many countries labour laws exclude domestic workers or are in practice not applied to them, denying them access to remedy.

Why did you choose this focus?

Tang: Women make up most workers in this sector. Many have low levels of formal education and are often members of communities that are historically marginalized by colonization, race, caste, or ethnicity. As women workers, they are vulnerable to further forms of exploitation through sexual abuse or gender-based violence. Since 2017 we have been campaigning to raise awareness and advocating for a change in policy. Discussions are under way on an ILO convention at the International Labour Conference in Geneva this month. We have mobilized some 30 leaders at all levels of the IDWF—our Executive Committee members and those from our affiliates in various regions, including our President Myrtle Witbooi—to work closely with the International Trade Union Confederation at this conference. On 16 June, International Domestic Workers’ Day, our affiliates everywhere will organize actions to call on their governments to support the ILO convention.

IDWF is still a young organization but has grown quickly. What are the upcoming challenges? 

Tang: Thanks to many dedicated members, domestic workers are joining our unions everywhere, even in places where they are not considered workers. We are proof that workers can organize anywhere. Despite this growth, we are still lacking power to achieve change. Governments are extremely resistant to legal reform that would recognize domestic workers and protect their rights – especially migrants. In recent years, there has been an increase in the restrictions on freedom of expression, religious sectarianism, hostility towards migrants and authoritarian politics. These are new and huge challenges to all workers who struggle for the goal of freedom, rights and dignity. Domestic workers, who often occupy the lower social strata, face a long and winding road ahead.

What are your priorities in the region and how will you address them?

Tang: In Asia, there are more than 21 million domestic workers. We have countries of origin and of destination for tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers. In general Asia is behind other regions in guaranteeing domestic workers the basic work-related rights and protections that other workers have, related to working time, minimum wages and maternity protection [link]. Therefore, our top priority in the region is to achieve the ratification of the 2011 ILO Domestic Workers Convention, also known as C189. To do this, we focus on working at national level with our affiliates, taking into consideration their specific contexts, issues and needs.

The current campaign to end gender-based violence allows us to support our affiliates to reach out to more domestic workers, mobilize them for visibility and voice and finally to connect with other workers in the labour movement. 

What aspects of the future of work are of particular concern for domestic workers?

Tang: Care work is crucial in this region considering the ageing societies, expanding migration flows, changing families, women’s secondary status in labour markets and gaps in social policies. Domestic workers are a pillar of the care workforce, providing both direct and indirect care in households.

The rising demand for paid care work is likely to present both a risk for domestic workers if their working conditions are neglected further, but also an opportunity if working conditions are improved. The future depends on adequate care policies. The IDWF has a very important role and responsibility in this. Finally, one must not forget that domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, often have their own obligations towards care work. These care needs must be considered in the framing of the overall care policies.


For more information on the work of FES in Asia <link about contact external-link>contact the Singapore-based FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia.

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