Asia must protect ‘invisible workforce’ in homes to curb slavery, says UN

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A file photo shows a group of domestic workers during the weekend in Hong Kong. Wiki Commons CC BY SA

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Millions of domestic workers in Asia who are at risk of abuse and slavery have no legal recognition, the United Nations labour agency has warned, urging reforms at a meeting last week to protect the world’s “largest invisible workforce”.

From nannies to cleaners, Asia-Pacific has one of the largest shares of the world’s 67 million domestic workers, most of them women from impoverished families in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) voiced concerns that more than 60 percent of domestic workers in Asia are denied any protection as most countries do not see them as formal workers.

The issue was under the spotlight as officials from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) gathered in the Philippines on Wednesday for a two-day meeting to discuss “decent work” for domestic workers.

“It is time for all employers of domestic workers to recognise that domestic workers are neither servants nor ‘members of the family’, but workers that should have the same rights as other workers,” the ILO’s Asia-Pacific head Tomoko Nishimoto said in a statement.

A lack of recognition means domestic workers are not covered under protections such as social security or the minimum wage.

Working excessive hours, being underpaid and trapped in debt bondage are common in domestic work, the top sector where forced labour exploitation has been found.

Of the world’s estimated 40.3 million victims of modern slavery last year, about 25 million were in forced labour.

Anna Engblom, an ILO expert, said the fact domestic helpers work in isolation made their  situation more vulnerable. She said legal recognition would be key to tackling slavery.

“If you work in a factory, you have other workers who face the similar situation. Here it is just one worker,” she said.

Lita Anggraini from the Indonesia’s National Network for Domestic Workers Advocacy said progress had been slow in the region, with domestic workers having nowhere to seek redress in cases of abuse.

“The Philippines is the only country in Asean which has ratified a UN convention to recognise domestic workers’ rights. We have been pushing for recognition in Indonesia for 13 years and we are still waiting,” she said.

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