Domestic work is work

Carmel V. Abao
Why do many people still not get this?

Mary Jane Veloso got screwed on her way to work. She left home and kin to search for work and ended up in a foreign jail where she now awaits another life-or-death verdict for allegedly smuggling illegal drugs.       

When and how did work become so terrifying? Isn’t work just about applying for and landing a job based on one’s skills and getting paid accordingly?    

For those applying for work in companies and offices, the process may be straightforward:  hand in your CV, put your best foot forward during the job interview and then wait for that call. Applying and working for households, however, is a different, more complex matter. 

Many societies, including and perhaps, especially ours, still refuse to see and understand the complexity of having homes as workplaces. Not a few still view domestic workers as “katulong lang” (just helpers).   

Now, imagine being a “katulong lang” in some foreign land!

The Mary Jane Veloso story and the recent “yaya meals” controversy should prod us to question why so many among us still resist acknowledging domestic work as work and domestic workers as workers. 

The home as private

We all grew up being told by our parents not to talk to strangers much less allow strangers to enter our homes. The home is private – for family only. Unlike typical workplaces that thrive on impersonal, transactional relationships, families are bound by kinship and intimate affinities. Thus, when non-family members enter, work and live in our homes, conflicts, if not complications often arise.   

Domestic workers, however, are hardly strangers that simply enter homes uninvited: they are actually demanded by households. They fill the demand to sustain families, and thereby, economies and societies.  

In Hong Kong, for example, the increase in the number of domestic workers can be directly linked to the country’s emergence in the 1980s as a “global city” (to use the sociologist Saskia Sassen’s term) and an important hub for corporate travel and international tourism.  

The demand for hired domestic work, especially for childcare, grew exponentially as more and more couples/parents became part of Hong Kong’s expanding labor market. Hong Kong then even had to import labor to meet the increased demand for domestic work. According to the Asian Migrant Centre (AMC), in the ’70s, there were only 2,000 Filipino workers in Hong Kong, equivalent to roughly 10% of the 20,959 legally registered foreign workers. By the year 2000, the number of domestic workers in Hong Kong ballooned to 202,900, 73% of whom were Filipinos,  23% Indonesian,  3% Thai and 1% other nationalities. To date, there are 340,000 domestic workers in Hongkong, 290,000 or 85% of whom are migrant workers. Of these, 120,000 or 41% are Filipinos.   

Worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are 52.6 million domestic workers, representing an increase of more than 19 million since the mid-1990s. Domestic work is thus largely about the demand and supply for a particular kind of labor.  

Who does what in the home is often a source of conflict among couples and families:  who will cook the meals, wash the dishes, clean the house, do the laundry, take care of the kids, feed the pets, water the plants?  The hiring of domestic workers, is in fact, often the easy way out for households experiencing conflicts over division of work within the home.    

And there lies a very basic problem.

Many of us still view domestic work as a “bother” or a distraction from the “real work” of having professions and earning incomes. This view springs from an even more fundamental notion that there is a “natural” divide between productive and reproductive work. The work that produces goods and services is the only type of work that can be considered “productive.” The work that nurtures people and reproduces societies is unproductive and therefore should not be considered as “work.”  

Because it is not work, it is not supposed to be valuated in the same way that “productive” work is valuated; that is, it is not to be compensated as much or accorded the same rights.  

Because of these views, domestic workers end up doing all the housework, for very meager pay.   Just check out your neighborhood and you are likely to still find domestic workers who work 24/7, are given “separate” meals and provided very shabby living conditions.    

Needless to say, domestic workers are among the lowest paid of workers. The legislated minimum wage of P2,500.00 a month can hardly be considered as just compensation or decent pay given the volume of work and level of difficulty that domestic work entails. Even with the law stipulating that meals, lodging and social security benefits be provided on top of the minimum wage, the fact of the matter is, P2,500.00/month roughly translates to less than P100/day. It is hard to believe that cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids are worth only that.    

Simply put, domestic workers are often taken for granted, even abused.  Hard as it may be to believe, nowadays, one can still find even the most devout of Catholics or the most progressive of Leftists treating their domestic workers as slaves, not as workers.   

Racist, elitist, sexist

As it is, the typical employee-employer relationship already suggests an unequal relationship: the employer is the boss and the employee has to follow the boss. In the case of work within homes, the inequality could be worse: the employer is the master and the domestic worker is the servant.  Some have called this relationship as one between a “professonal class” and a “serving class.”

This explains the controversy over the “yaya meals.” Separating meals on the basis of one’s occupation is, no doubt, a blatant display of elitism. It sends the message that domestic workers do not deserve to partake of the same (read: expensive) meals as their employers. Sadly, this kind of elitism is not limited only to those among the economic elite. Even some among the middle class employers look down on and maltreat their domestic workers. 

There is also a gender and not just a class angle to the domestic work narrative.

The productive-reproductive divide mentioned above has always carried a gender divide:  the men go to work while the women keep house. The post-war phenomenon of women entering the productive sphere en masse broke this divide to some extent as women came to be treated as befitting of participation in the labor force. But it did not break the artificial divide entirely and in fact created new problems. Women now have to do both work outside the home and within the home. In the ’70s, this phenomenon, hitherto considered “a problem without a name” became known as “double burden.”

Moreover, because women’s participation in the labor force is viewed as merely supplemental to men’s participation, women are paid less for the same kind of work.    

Domestic work itself has become a casualty and has been further relegated simply as cumbersome work.  

Recently, a Singaporean advertisement exhibited quite starkly this productive-reproductive/ male-female divide. The ad called for yayas to be given a day off each week and for mothers to stay home more often. It sends the right message because domestic workers do indeed deserve their days off. The justification for said message, however, is evidently misplaced. There is something seriously wrong with pitting women against women.  

Where are the men? And where is the State? Does it not take a village to raise a child? 

Moreover, the ad neglects to mention that many of the migrant yayas, including perhaps those shown in the ad, are also mothers. So, who takes care of their children while they are away?  Local domestic workers or female relatives. According to some authors most notably the Filipino scholar Rhacel Parrenas who has written extensively on the subject, there is now an “international division of caretaking.”  

In the Philippine case, three groups are said to be part of this new international division of labor:  (i) middle class women in receiving countries demanding for domestic workers, (ii) migrant Filipina domestic workers meeting said demand – now estimated to reach 1.5 million; and (iii) Filipina domestic workers in the Philippines who are too poor to migrate. Obviously, the latter group is the most vulnerable of the lot. 

Still according to the ILO, women account for 83% of all domestic workers and outnumber male domestic workers in all countries and in all regions.    

Asia Pacific, the largest employer among the regions,  has approximately 21.5 million domestic workers,  81% of whom are women. In the Philippines, there are 1.9 million domestic workers and domestic work accounts for 12 percent of total female employment in the country.  

All this must compel us to rethink how we view work, especially domestic work. It should alarm us that human capital – education, skills – is no longer enough as a requirement for work. One has to be of a certain race (colored), a certain class (poor) and a certain gender (female).   

Societal and individual solutions

How families are to be sustained is not a matter only for individual families. It shouldn’t also be the burden primarily of women. The state and society must be part of the configuration. 

The Philippine state has taken steps in the right direction. It pushed for the adoption of ILO Convention 189 or the Domestic Workers’ Convention, 2011. No less than POEA Administrator Hans Cacdac facilitated the historic adoption of this Convention. The Philippine government soon after ratified the Convention and in 

2013, the Philippine Congress passed the “Kasambahay Law.” Said Convention and statutory law now form part of the labor relations system governing the employment of domestic workers. They frame and regulate wages, working and living conditions, and, contracts between employers and domestic workers. Previously, there were no labor standards for domestic workers.   

Since the Convention and the law are fairly new, there is much to be desired in terms of implementation. For example, according to PAG-IBIG, only 23,000 of the 1.9 million domestic workers are PAG-IBIG members despite the provision in the Kasambahay Law that membership is mandatory.    

How, indeed, is compliance to be monitored when homes are deemed private and thereby outside the purview of state regulation? Enforcement of domestic work laws is certainly not as simple as sending labor inspectors to companies and offices. The government will have to find more innovative ways to ensure that labor standards for domestic work are followed. Perhaps, homeowners’ associations can be tapped for this purpose.   

The role of self-help groups and trade unions should also be recognized. Very recently, the United Domestic Workers of the Philippines (UNITED), the first-ever Filipino national trade union of domestic workers,  was officially launched. This is an encouraging development as obviously, one way to protect domestic workers is to organize them and empower them to help themselves. 

UNITED could also serve as the platform by which domestic workers can negotiate with employers and government for more effective policy formulation and implementation.   It could probably also help stop the diaspora of our domestic workers. The biggest challenge to UNITED is not only to organize new unions but to present a new kind of unionism, one that will genuinely represent and mobilize workers who are,  to a very large extent, “invisible” and highly mobile.  

Other social institutions also have to make certain adjustments. Schools have to teach kids to pick up after themselves. Workplaces have to provide space for childcare and be more cognizant that workers too are parents and/or have families to take care of.   In this regard, the implementation of the Solo Parent Act of 2000 which provides for more parental leaves and other benefits is crucial.  

While the solutions are clearly societal, the “personal/individual” still comes into the picture.  After all, what we do in our own homes will either help reinforce or transform current societal practices. In this case, change, literally, begins at home.    

Choose your ‘elite’ well

I, myself, struggle with how best to become part of the solution rather than the problem.   

At home, I tell the little one that yaya is there to help her only with things that she still cannot do by herself. I make sure that our kasambahay is compensated more than the legislated minimum (which, as mentioned, is ridiculously small), given the proper social security and health care entitlements, enjoys a day off per week and an annual two-week leave, eats meals with us and doesn’t do all the housework for all of us.  But to make this possible, I too have to work hard so I can pay her enough (and so I could get that automatic, high-powered washing machine;  I find handwashing all the laundry quite oppressive!). And there is always that struggle to get all family members, myself included, to share in household chores. There is also that struggle to work less, or at least, more efficiently, so that I can spend more time at home.   

In my political science classes, I tell my students to “choose your elite well” during elections (given that options are often all elite), that is, to not vote for candidates who obviously have relied on yayas all their lives. How, for example, can one expect a candidate to deliver water once in government, if,  in all of his life, to get water, he only had to say “yaya, water please?”    

More importantly, I tell my students to please not be that kind of elite or to not be elitist at all and that, in fact, an egalitarian society is not only more humane, it is actually “more fun” and “more chill.”

We all have to do our little bit to bring this modern-day slavery to an end. This madness must stop in this generation. –