The historic, emotional, joyous meeting of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and migrant workers in Mahachai last week brought once more to the forefront the question of whether Myanmar migrants are planning to return to Myanmar in the near future.While the majority of workers may find it difficult to find work in Myanmar at this moment, there is one group who may return to their homeland quicker than others, and that is domestic workers. Myanmar, with the sudden influx of foreign investors, businesspeople, international NGOs, media and researchers, has a sudden demand for domestic workers to keep houses clean, navigate markets and magic up plumbers, electricians and handymen to create, mend and renovate. While factories in Myanmar are paying only a tiny percentage of the wages in Thailand, foreigners in Myanmar are already prepared to pay equivalent, or sometimes more expensive rents than in Thailand, and will also no doubt be willing to pay good salaries for experienced, travelled domestic workers.
In Thailand in 2009, 129,267 migrant domestic workers were registered with a work permit, of whom 101,509 were from Myanmar. The actual number is likely to be two or three times higher. If they return home, it will leave hundreds of thousands of working mothers and fathers in dire straits. It would also have a knock-on effect to the economy, with more absentee days for parents to care for their children. It is a serious issue but one that has a relatively simple solution. Migrant domestic workers would stay if they were paid decent wages, recognised and respected as workers, protected under the labour laws and able to learn new skills.
Currently, Ministerial Regulations 1 and 9 of Thailand’s Labour Protection Act 1998 exclude domestic workers, leaving them without any legal guidelines or protections for salaries, hours, working conditions. Networks of Thai home workers and migrant domestic workers have been lobbying the Thai government for years to include them in the labour laws. They were promised a new set of ministerial regulations offering a minimal set of rights, just three, including one day off a week.
But even these have not materialised, and in the meantime, something significant happened. Last year, the world recognised domestic work as work. In the 100th Session of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conference, the government, worker and employer delegates adopted Convention 189 “Decent Work for Domestic Workers”. The convention requires governments to protect the labour rights of housekeepers, nannies, and other caregivers and protect them against harassment and violence. To protect migrant workers, the treaty requires governments to regulate employment recruitment and to investigate abuse complaints.
Now, one year later, as the ILO sat down on May 30 to begin its 101st Session under the theme “Building A Future With Decent Work”, only two countries are in the process of ratifying the Convention – Uruguay and the Phillipines. The weak response to the Convention is not surprising considering that few countries recognise domestic work as work in their national laws, but it is nevertheless disheartening. Fortunately though, this Convention only needs two ratifications to come into legal force.
As the deadline for nationality verification rapidly approaches on June 14 and the threats of arrests and deportations become reality, some domestic workers may voluntarily return to test out the new wave of employers in Yangon and Mandalay. Thailand should act quickly to improve the pay and working conditions of domestic workers to encourage them to stay. To show true commitment to the rights of women and the rights of domestic workers, Thailand could also move forward on ratifying ILO Convention 189. Were the Myanmar government to also enact laws to protect domestic workers rights, then so much the better. The competition would boost wages and conditions, and domestic workers would, for the first time, have a real choice of employment and be able to build a future with decent work.