Category Archives: Domestic Workers

MMN in Media: Podcast: Domestic Helpers- More Helpers from Cambodia in Hong Kong

It has been recently announced that the first batch of domestic workers from Cambodia will arrive in Hong Kong in the autumn. There are concerns about these workers’ vulnerability to rights violation as new comers. Speakers from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Employers’ Association and NGOs including a representative of the Mekong Migration Network (Reiko Harima, Regional Coordinator) discuss the issues surrounding foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong in this an-hour-long radio program.

The program was broadcast live on 26 April 2017


Please click the link below to listen to the full podcast:

Podcast: Domestic Helpers- More Helpers from Cambodia in Hong Kong


MMN in Media: Why Hong Kong’s plan for Cambodian maids may be hard work all round

The Chinese city has turned to a new source to solve a shortage of foreign domestic workers, but a past deal with Myanmar and an ill-fated scheme in Singapore suggest there will be plenty of problems to iron out

There are 330,000 foreign domestic workers – chiefly from Indonesia and the Philippines- already working in Hong Kong. Photo:AFP

Hong Kong may hope to ease its shortage of domestic workers by welcoming its first batch of maids from Cambodia later this year, but if history is anything to go by the scheme could end up providing more problems than solutions.

Under a new five-year scheme, the first trial group of 1,000 Cambodian workers will arrive in Hong Kong this autumn, adding to the 330,000 foreign domestic workers – chiefly from Indonesia and the Philippines – who already work in the city.

But those five years could well prove tumultuous, worker advocates warn, as both Hong Kong and Cambodia have chequered histories when it comes to the exploitation of such workers.

The success of the deal, they say, will hinge on both sides’ ability to stamp out corrupt practices among recruiters, improve worker training – and on whether the Cambodian government can muster the political willpower to act on cases of abuse.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Gregory So Kam-leung, left, and Cambodia’s Minister of Labour and Vocational and Training H.E. Ith Sam Heng signed the domestic helper deal earlier this week. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Cases of abuse of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong surface periodically – in part an almost inevitable consequence of the large numbers working in the city – and often receive widespread media coverage.

Indonesian worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih became a cause célèbre when in January 2014 she accused her Hong Kong employer of subjecting her to six months of physical abuse, with photographs of her injuries spreading through social media and prompting widespread outrage. So well-known did her case become that Time magazine included her on its list of 100 most powerful people that year.

But her case is far from unique; cases of helpers falling to their deaths while cleaning flat windows are not unheard of, while workers frequently complain of loan-sharking and exploitation by employment agencies.

One bad omen for the deal may be the arrangement between Hong Kong and Myanmar in early 2014 that envisaged bringing in 2,000 maids in the first year. Six months after their arrival, about one in five of the first 90 helpers had already returned home as they could not adjust to life in the city.

The Myanmar government later banned its women from working as maids in Singapore or Hong Kong because of concerns over abuse and exploitation.

In recent months, the Hong Kong government has moved to clamp down on exploitative practices, in part by introducing a code of practice for employment agencies.

“The government’s code of practice and more staff to monitor the actions of employment agencies were good steps, but in reality, I don’t think it goes far enough to make the Hong Kong [employment] agencies understand that they have an ongoing duty to ensure the safety of workers,” said Jade Anderson, anti-human trafficking coordinator at the Hong Kong Justice Centre.

“And there is certainly anecdotal evidence of increased vulnerability to exploitation and trafficking for workers coming to Hong Kong without proper support networks or communities.”

Abuses have been very poorly addressed [by Cambodia] with a system that is set for exploitation

Part of the deal between Hong Kong and Cambodia requires the helpers to undergo three months of cooking and health care training prior to their arrival, but Anderson said this was not enough to prevent exploitation and that more education was needed on workers’ legal rights.

“Even after training, their language skills are still not sufficient enough to understand the reams of documentation that agencies place in front of them and ask them to sign. This is one area where there is tremendous scope for exploitation.”

The workers will arrive this autumn from a country where the minimum wage is just US$153 per month, female education levels are low and corruption and exploitation commonplace.

Members of the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body at a march to demand increased salaries for domestic workers in Hong Kong. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Government data shows just 65 per cent of Cambodian girls in poor rural areas transition from primary to secondary school and by the time they reach senior years, at least 30 per cent have dropped out. But opposition lawmaker and women’s rights campaigner, Mu Sochua, from the Cambodia National Rescue Party, says the dropout rate could be far higher, with only 14 per cent of female students in rural areas completing high school. As a result, many female Cambodian workers are desperate for higher paying jobs but are largely ill equipped for what the work will entail.

“An estimated two million youth are unskilled labourers in neighbouring countries. This will not improve without a vision, a real investment in the national budget and political will,” she said.

“Abuses have been very poorly addressed [by Cambodia] with a system that is set for exploitation.”

The treatment of Cambodian migrant workers overseas, in such countries as Malaysia and Singapore, has long been a matter of controversy. In 2011, Cambodia banned workers from travelling to Malaysia after repeated cases of abuse surfaced. That decision had an undesired effect – causing workers to go underground, leaving participants even more exposed to exploitation. The ban was lifted in 2015.

Reflecting on Cambodia’s reaction to the abuse in Malaysia, Roiki Harima, managing director of the Mekong Migration Network, said embassies needed to play a bigger role in investigating mistreatment.

“To date, the embassies and consulates have not been responsive and that is something we want to see improved. Rather than bans, countries such as Cambodia need more political willpower to take concrete steps to improve the situation in receiving nations,” she said.

Mu Sochua, centre, a Cambodian opposition lawmaker, says corruption in the country’s own domestic worker recruitment agencies is a major hurdle to establishing a new deal. Photo: AFP

In 2013, Cambodia signed up to an ill-fated pilot scheme to provide Singapore with migrant workers. Alex Au Waipang, of the Singapore-based Transient Workers Count Too, said many Cambodian workers had lacked the support, education and maturity to work overseas. “Being the first in a pioneering batch, there was no community to really help them adjust,” he said, adding that the NGOs were equally unprepared. “Compared to Indonesian or Filipino workers … many Cambodians just wanted to go home. They were not ready to be domestic helpers. They were homesick.”

Like the Hong Kong-Cambodia deal, training was promised as part of the Singapore pilot scheme. But Au said the training was either non-existent or ineffective as many Cambodian workers were familiar with neither modern household amenities nor basic English. “So what were they trained for, we wonder?”

In addition to cultural differences, Au, Sochua and Harima cited falsified documents and qualifications, underage workers, employment agency corruption and the unofficial licensing of rural recruitment agents in Cambodia as ongoing problems.

“Compounding the issues was that the girls were underage, not even adults and potentially not of the education level required,” Au said of the Singapore experience. “About half the cases we saw were like that. There were so many things wrong, I hardly know where to begin.”

Au said Hong Kong needed to inspect the situation in Cambodia as well as recruitment and training agencies in both countries. But above all, it needed to establish a community for the workers. “If we could do it all over again, I would first bring in the Cambodian men,” he said.

“Take the Burmese for example. In Singapore, the men were brought in first, as construction workers, who quickly formed a community because they were out and about, did not live with family and tended to start businesses like restaurants [and visited temples]. Then, all of a sudden, we had access to translators and when the domestic workers began to arrive – sure there was some homesickness – that community took root much faster.”
By: Edouard Morton, South China Morning
Published on: 29 April 2017

Maid about the house

A new report from the UN makes a strong case for respecting the rights of migrant domestic workers

IN THAILAND as in other countries of the region, employing domestic workers has long been a cultural and social practice as much as an economic one. In the past, such jobs were routinely filled by girls from the provinces and while often overworked and grossly underpaid, they were usually absorbed into the family, which provided them with some kind of security away from their own loved ones.

Today, domestic work has all but been taken over by migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, most of them in the country illegally. They too in many cases become part of the family but unlike their Thai peers have no security and few, if any rights.

Their plight is addressed in a research study recently launched by the United Nations Women Regional Office for Asia and Pacific in Bangkok. The publication, entitled “Worker, Helper, Auntie, Maid?”: Working conditions and attitudes experienced by migrant domestic workers in Thailand and Malaysia” makes the point that while there is nothing wrong with these workers becoming “fictive kin” – the term used to describe non-familial relationships – they should also be protected by an employment contract that recognises their human and labour rights.

The report makes for interesting and eye-opening reading. On the statistical side, it notes that approximately 73.4 per cent of all migrant domestic workers are women. The Asia and Pacific region is home to the largest percentage of domestic workers, making up more than 40 per cent of the global total. The region also hosts the largest share of women migrant domestic workers, at 24 per cent of the global total.

In Thailand, of the 250,000 migrant domestic workers from Laos, Myanmar Cambodia and Vietnam, many are unregistered and without a work permit. These housekeepers, nannies and caregivers are often caught between immigration law and employment law and excluded from labour rights and protections. As a consequence they are vulnerable to exploitative and unfair conditions.

In Thailand, employment conditions of domestic workers are mainly governed through labour laws. In Malaysia, however, immigration law is the principle instrument of governance, with labour law as a secondary focus.

Few Thai employers feel that a written contract is an appropriate right for a domestic worker, preferring to integrate them as part of the family – indeed, only seven percent of migrant domestic workers surveyed here had a written contract.

By contrast in Malaysia, even respondents who felt that domestic workers should be treated as part of the family were supportive of written contracts, which can be put down to the fact that contracts are associated with immigration requirements and explicitly tie workers to employers.

For the workers themselves, close relationships with their employees are governed by emotion and reciprocity rather than a contract. And, of course, these emotional aspects have a considerable impact on their experiences.

Perhaps that explains in part why workers surveyed for the study expressed a lack of enthusiasm for contracts, associating them with a lack of  freedom to leave their job, thus affecting their ability to change employers. A less surprising finding was that up to 90 per cent of migrant domestic workers in both countries are paid below the minimum wage.

“People treat you badly when they think that you have no choice,” says one Myanmar domestic worker interviewed for the report. Another, also from Myanmar, says, “They say if they give high salary, it won’t be a family any more”. A domestic worker from the Philippines has similar grievances; “I won’t complain. If I complain they won’t let me go out. When I go out at least I can find another employer.”

William Gois, representative of the Migrant Forum in Asia, says that change must begin from the workers themselves. “While history tells us that they struggle even if they work together to claim their rights, the ‘informed’ sector of society, such as feminist groups in Thailand for example, can bring their cases into the light.

“The close family environment is often created because the employer wants to hide something. He or she is worried that the migrant domestic workers will give away the family’s secrets or that they will run away with a boyfriend and leave the family in the lurch. This has to stop. Employers must create more space for the domestic workers, ensure they have days off and allow them to have a phone,” Gois continues.

“We need to deconstruct this ‘being part of the family’ mentality. It is symptomatic of the patriarchal system that can be traced back to the colonial period. We have to stop this attitude of ‘benevolent employer caring for someone with lower status’. It’s all very well to say, ‘well, she’s part of the family’ but you would never see a family member with this kind of job description. The employer is bringing an outsider into the family home so yes, it is important to build trust and confidence but in return the work space and the dignity of work that the domestic worker does must also be recognised.”

The findings and recommendations of the UN Women’s study are backed up by a 2011 Master Degree’s Thesis prepared by Ekachai Eutanpisit for the Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University. Titled “Maids, Migrant Domestic Workers in Thai Households and State Protection”, it points out that the exploitation of maids raises questions about the state’s effectiveness in embracing laws and the governmental mechanism in protecting the rights of this group of workers. The expansion of the role of working women and the greater economic value that this implies has given birth to a need for low-paid female migrants to take over the housekeeping duties. While many are treated well, their poor working and living conditions are often ignored by employers and government agencies, the international labour organisation and state mechanisms ineffectively regulate the power of employers in private homes.

Ruchika Bahl, regional programme manager – migration, says blame should also be placed on the media for painting such a negative image of migrant workers.

One of the key findings in the publication to come out of the press analysis was the strikingly strong association made between “immigration” and “illegality” in such English-language newspapers as Malaysia’s New Straits Times and Thailand’s The Nation.

The negative images and discourses disseminated in the media contribute to creating a hostile environment workers, the report states, adding that in both Thailand and Malaysia, employers surveyed associated migrants with crime and were concerned about their potential as domestic workers.

Some of these embedded stereotypes and damaging images need to be challenged. One potential avenue for such change could be through the inclusion of the voices of migrant workers themselves rather than relying solely on police and other officials.

Ultimately, the publication proposes that laws and policies regulating migrant domestic workers’ employment experiences be brought in line with relevant international standards, including ILO Convention No 189. In the Asean bloc, the only country to have ratified it is the Philippines. In addition, employers and the public need to be educated more broadly about the rights and contributions of migrant domestic workers, emphasising that treating someone as “part of the family” should include respecting their human and labour rights.

By: Kupluthai Pungkanon, The Nation

Published on: 12 Janurary, 2017

Domestic Workers from Myanmar Overworked in Thailand

In Thailand, thousands of unregistered domestic workers from Myanmar face daily abuse at the hands of their employees. But now, as Myanmar opens to reform, changes are coming slowly. Is it enough to draw back a future work force? Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.

For the full report, please see the links below:

By: Steve Sandford, Voice of America

Published on: 22 March 2016

Asean worker influx stirs fear of ‘diseases returning’

Health officials warn that foreign maids and workers could bring leprosy, elephantiasis, etc

THE SOARING labour migration in the region following the implementation of the Asean Economic Community may increase the risks of people contracting many diseases in Thailand including leprosy, the Disease Control Department has warned.

If migrant babysitters and elderly caretakers come from neighbouring nations and have leprosy, there is a real risk the disease will be spread to the those under their care, department specialist Dr Krisada Mahotan said yesterday.

Krisada highlighted those jobs because they would involve very close contact between disease sufferers and Thais over a long period.

Medical experts from various fields came together yesterday to warn that there were no boundaries for pathogens.

“We are worried that the establishment of the AEC will push up the number of leprosy patients on Thai soil,” Dermatological Society of Thailand president Noppadon Noppakun said.

Leprosy is a contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes and nerves, causing discoloration and lumps on the skin and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities.

Thousands of Thais were once infected with the disease each year but health authorities have successfully controlled its spread in recent decades. Last year, 187 were found to have contracted leprosy.

“Of that number, 39 were migrant workers,” Krisada said.

But the number of leprosy cases reported in Myanmar reached 2,950 last year.

“This means when more people cross borders, there will be a higher risk of leprosy in Thailand,” Krisada said.

He advised employers to be on the lookout for workers with skin conditions.

He said if a worker was suspected of having leprosy, the employer should bring them to a doctor for treatment.

“Don’t fire him or her. Treatments can cure the symptoms and prevent the spread of the disease,” he said.

Noppadon said the risk of elephantiasis, Leishmaniasis and sexually-transmitted diseases could also become more common after the AEC’s implementation.

Dr Rattiya Techakajornkiat, a medical specialist on STDs and epidemiology, said statistics between 2011 and 2014 suggested there had been an increasing number of Thailand-based Cambodian, Myanmar and Laotian workers with syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia.

Asst Prof Dr Jittima Dhitavat from Mahidol University warned Thais to take precautions against Leishmaniasis and elephantiasis.

“Leishmaniasis is no longer a disease only affecting Thais who travelled overseas for work or leisure trips,” she said. “Now, the disease affects even those who have always been in Thailand because of the growing number of migrants.”

She said illegal migrant workers usually did not undergo blood tests and might sneak into the country with elephantiasis.

“Mosquitoes are the carriers of elephantiasis,” she said.

Jittima recommended applying mosquito-repellent cream to the skin and using mosquito nets at home.

By: Puangchompoo Prasert, The Nation
Published: 26 March 2016


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