Elizabeth was head of the Secretariat for Hong Kong’s largest trade union, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, and made a controversial decision more than two decades ago to help an Indonesian domestic worker at a time when it was politically very difficult to do. While still with the trade union, she pushed for the union and others to help domestic workers organize and to push for enforcement of their labour protection. It wasn’t always easy. As with politicians and household employers, many workers are reluctant to recognize domestic workers as workers. In 2011, she left the trade union to become the International Coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Network. Organizing domestic workers, she believes, is as equally critical as ratification of Convention No. 189 and extending labour law protection. All workers, including domestic workers, she says, should not be made to rely on outside protectors and have to become a power to be reckoned with.
“We have come a long way in Hong Kong. The turning point was 2003 with SARS. It was a bad economy. We need to make a fair playing field. The Federation of Trade Unions and the right wing politicians were calling on the government to send all migrant workers home. It was easy and very sensational and very appealing to the locals. I was in the Confederation of Trade Unions. We were already working with the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union. All the members were domestic workers. We knew about their problems. More than half the problems related to being underpaid. It was common knowledge that you can hire them and give no day off. You could pay them less and not pay their benefits. At that time we formed a proposal to the government and we thought it was like one stone kills two birds. We told the government that Indonesian domestic workers were seriously underpaid and it violated the law and that around half of the Indonesian workers didn’t get it. In a way it’s not fair competition. They were so cheap that local employers would prefer to hire Indonesian workers because they cost nothing and that took away job opportunities for others. With that argument no one could criticize us for protecting migrants rather than locals.
“It worked. The Labour Commissioner flew to Indonesia to discuss with the government there that no one was protecting their domestic workers. Since then, the Labour Department has become more conscience of compliance with the minimum wage for migrant domestic workers. At the trade union, we received reports on persecution cases over employers who didn’t comply on wages. Since then the problem of underpayment has gradually reduced. There are still cases but much fewer.
How to protect against the abuses
“Good legislation, good laws, good social protection measures are still the first steps. In this part of this world, they don’t exist in most countries. Without them, people will not have a sense of right and wrong.
“After Convention No. 189 was adopted, the government in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore did a few things. In Singapore, there is weekly rest legislation now. It’s very weak because it’s still negotiable. In Malaysia there is weekly rest but it’s through the contract and it’s up to the employment agencies to make sure there is the stipulation. Putting the burden of protecting domestic workers on agencies is ridiculous. In Philippines there is a comprehensive domestic law and they have drafted implementing guidelines. In Thailand there is what is called a ministerial regulation that gives a minimum wage, overtime pay and holidays for domestic workers, including sick leave. These are small but necessary steps.
“The third thing is why my organization exists. We believe domestic workers have to have power. As long as they depend on people to protect them, it doesn’t work. Domestic workers have to show they are a power to be reckoned with. Laws won’t be implemented. Others will protect them when there are good opportunities. The demand and pressure have to come from the domestic workers. In the Middle East there are no domestic worker organizations and the governments don’t allow these types of organizations. Where can domestic workers go to talk about their problems?
“Lastly, for domestic workers to have change, we have to have a broad-based alliance, women’s organizations and community groups and trade unions who will support their claims.”
Difficulties with trade unions fighting for domestic workers
Domestic workers are very low in status even among workers, all workers look down on them. We are still not recognizing them. I have spent 25 years doing this, with my trade union, but still the struggle goes on. I have to go to trade unions to convince them to include domestic workers. They say, ‘Our members don’t agree, they ask how can they have wage increase same as they and how can they have a holiday if the domestic worker has the same holiday—how can members have a rest?’”
What should be copied in other countries
“The inclusion of domestic workers under the same labour law is something that should be copied by all governments and it should include the right to organize. There are so many organizations in Hong Kong. It makes a level playing field and ensures equal treatment—they do the same work, maybe work even harder, than local workers.
“I think the minimum argument is that we don’t see any negative consequences. Domestic workers in Hong Kong go out on Sunday and they have their organizations, they march, they have rallies. We don’t see any negative consequences from that. On the other hand, it’s good for the local people. To compare with people in Malaysia or Singapore, I think our children are more used to the concept of equal treatment because of the organization of workers.”
What is not working?
“It is very hard to change mindsets. The standards around for migrant domestic workers are generally very low. But the government feels they have done enough and now no more. It’s hard to press the government to do more. Until the local people are more aware that migrant domestic workers do have serious problems, otherwise they won’t stand up for them. Then there will be more pressure on the government.
“With the Erwiana case, people saw the pictures and thought it’s so horrible. Now people believe there are serious abuses in Hong Kong.”
How does Convention No. 189 change things?
“The Convention has done a huge job to advance domestic workers’ rights. The standard is there now. We know every country, even Pakistan, is talking about making a new law to protect domestic workers. In India, there are so many reports of abuses of domestic workers. And what I’ve heard from domestic workers leaders is that there is a huge change. Before nobody reported the abuses, it wouldn’t even come out in the newspapers when a domestic worker was killed. The Convention has done a lot to change people’s perception and awareness that the abuse is happening and is common.
“The Convention tells clearly that domestic workers are workers. That makes a big difference. The perception is changing. But the reality is pretty much the same.”