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(Migrant domestic) work and (in)security -- Blueboard by Carmel V. Abao




Jasmin worked with several employers at least three of whom were "legal"
IN 1997, 20-year-old Jasmin Singuan left her hometown of Compostela Valley in Mindanao to seek greener pastures abroad. A single mother to a 13-month-old baby at the time, her aim then was to feed and sustain an entire household: her daughter, three siblings, an ailing father and a mother who served as the sole family provider. Jasmin was able to achieve this by working as a domestic worker in Singapore and Hong Kong -- but not without numerous risks and dangers.

In Singapore, Jasmin worked with several employers at least three of whom were "legal." She had standard working contracts with these employers but there was hardly anything "standard" about her work. At one point, she had a Singaporean employer who was then a recent-divorcee so Jasmin’s work entailed bringing her employer’s child from his house to that of his ex-wife, his aunt and his father. Jasmin, thus, had to clean and take care of four households. One contract, one employer, four work places.

Jasmin, along with six other Filipino domestic workers, ended up in a "shelter"
Given the burden of providing for a family of six back home, not to mention back-breaking 24/7 household work in a foreign country, Jasmin succumbed to the attraction of "higher" pay as a part-time domestic worker. This arrangement, brokered by an "agency," yielded S$50/hour. This was, however, a breach of contract and a violation of Singaporean law. When the Singaporean Ministry of Manpower discovered this arrangement, Jasmin, along with six other Filipino domestic workers, ended up in a "shelter" and stayed there until their cases were resolved.

Jasmin stayed in one section of the shelter designated for migrants with "cases" (e.g. illegal migrants, prostituted women, abused workers). At that time, there were 118 migrants held there, mostly Filipinos, and, a few Indians and Sri Lankans. Jasmin was released after six months after she went through a court hearing (without a lawyer), issued a written apology where she claimed her "misdeeds," and, paid the penalty of S$2,000 or about ₱67,000 (her only other option was a two-week stay in a Singaporean jail). Through all this, Jasmin was assisted by the Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a Singaporean-based nongovernment organization (NGO), and the Migrant Forum Asia (MFA), a coalition of Asian NGOs. These NGOs, she says, taught her about her rights as a migrant worker and how to assert these rights.

Jasmin was sent back to the Philippines where she didn’t stay for very long given her resolve to work again as a domestic worker abroad
After the ordeal, Jasmin was sent back to the Philippines where she didn’t stay for very long given her resolve to work again as a domestic worker abroad. Since July 2011, she has become part of the 140,000-strong Filipino domestic work force in Hong Kong. She is now also an active member of the Progressive Labor Union of Domestic Workers-Hong Kong (PLUDW-HK) and has been doing her share to help fellow Filipino domestic workers claim rights and entitlements as migrants, as workers and as women.

Jasmin’s experience in migrant domestic work fits the definition of "precarious work" perfectly. According to the Global Union Research Network, precarious work is "characterized by atypical employment contracts, limited or no social benefits and statutory entitlements, high degrees of job insecurity, low job tenure, low wages and high risks of occupational injury and disease. From a worker’s point of view, precarious work is related to uncertain, unpredictable and risky employment."

Precarious work is considered a "decent work deficit." As adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that has both labor and employers as its constituency, the "decent work agenda" includes guaranteeing rights at work, creating jobs, extending social protection and promoting social dialogue. Central to this agenda is the well-being of workers. Jasmin’s story illustrates how this agenda has yet to be realized on the ground. Evidently, despite agreements at the international level, decent work is still not the norm.

racist stereotypes intersect with issues of citizenship, and result in a racist hierarchy which uses skin color, religion, and nationality to construct some women as being more suitable for domestic works
There is another narrative in this story, one about race and gender. Writing about "the global politics of domestic labour" in her book Doing the Dirty Work?, Bridget Anderson asserts that "racist stereotypes intersect with issues of citizenship, and result in a racist hierarchy which uses skin color, religion, and nationality to construct some women as being more suitable for domestic works than others." For Anderson, the "slavery" of domestic work lies in the fact that it is the worker’s "personhood," "rather than her labor power," that "the employer is attempting to buy" and "that the worker is thereby cast as unequal in the exchange."

The story is particularly instructive also because Jasmin works for middle-class people (not big capitalists) who, like her, are part of the struggling labor force, and who are, at times, even migrants like her. Addressing Jasmin’s "dilemma" -- to work despite risks? -- thus requires that (i) reproductive work such as domestic work be deemed just as crucial to societal development as productive work, and that (ii) unequal partnerships within homes be resolved in a manner other than the superficial (convenient) resolution of passing on housework to "some other woman" who will do the "dirty work" for low pay.

That security of migrant domestic work remains elusive should be the concern of everyone -- of states and societies, governments and citizens, in both sending and receiving countries. The ILO Convention 189 or the "Domestic Workers Convention 2011" is a step in the right direction because it recognizes that domestic work is work. The raising of the status of domestic work is expected to transform the conditions of inequality in home-work places and thereby reduce inequalities in the larger societies.

States will have to intervene
States will have to intervene not just to protect migrant domestic workers but also to provide families with support systems needed to sustain homes and care for their children and elderly while sustaining livelihoods. Transnational NGOs, trade unions and women’s movements will have to continue to be active in framing and addressing issues and concerns related to migrant domestic work. A substantive shift in the mindset of citizens will also be necessary. In this case, social transformation, literally, will have to begin at home.


Carmel V. Abao is a full-time faculty member of the political science department of the Ateneo de Manila University and is the co-convenor of the department’s Working Group on Migration.



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