International Domestic Workers Day

Domestic work – work like any other

By Chang-Hee Lee, Director, International Labour Organization (ILO) in Viet Nam

Comment | 16 June 2017
As the head of the ILO Country Office for Viet Nam, I often receive advance leave requests from colleagues for dozens of reasons. Because all employees have the right to paid leave, I never concerned myself with the reasons why they take leave. That was until I noticed a quite common story – they have to stay home to take care of their little children in the absence of their domestic workers who are on leave themselves to visit their families.

It is not surprising as many of my colleagues are young women. That somehow reflects the current situation of national labour force at large. Viet Nam has a young workforce with a high female participation rate, at more than 70 per cent, higher than many other Asian countries.

While many Vietnamese women are at work, they struggle to balance their work with family duties. Sadly gender inequality remains a norm in the society with most of the housework burdens falling on women as shown by the national Household Living Standards Surveys. Viet Nam is not an exception, as women continue to do more unpaid domestic work than men across the world.

In this context, domestic workers, who are mostly women, have come to play a vital role not only in our families, but also in the economy and the labour market. While domestic workers participate themselves in the labour market, their work also gives other working-age women the opportunity to take jobs that otherwise would be incompatible with their responsibilities at home.

With the country’s vibrant economic growth and expanding middle class, this is not hard to understand why domestic work is becoming an important feature of the labour market. An ILO study showed that the country’s middle class workforce has risen to 13 million from only 1 million in 2000. With better income, many households can now afford to have domestic workers.

According to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, Viet Nam is expected to have about 350,000 domestic workers by 2020. Many women see increasing opportunities to undertake domestic work abroad in diverse destinations as well, including Taiwan and Macau (China), Cyprus, Malaysia or Saudi Arabia.

“Real” workers?

Recently, I spoke to a woman from the northern mountainous province of Hoa Binh. When asked if she has a job, she shook her head: “I have only been helping a family in Hanoi for the last 3 years.”

“So earning her living as a domestic worker does not mean “a job”?” I asked myself.

But soon I remembered that all over the world, domestic work is not always recognized as “real” work. Even when domestic work is recognized as a job, their skills are undervalued. Many believe that the ability to perform domestic work is somehow innately known by women, and that domestic work skills are not something you learn and not something valuable. These attitudes are deeply rooted in the traditional and stereotyped perceptions of the role of women and work within the home.

The undervaluation of domestic work leads to low pay and poor working conditions for domestic workers in the marketplace.

Another ILO report showed that more than 40 per cent of the world’s domestic workers do not enjoy minimum wage protection although minimum wages are set for other workers in their countries. While the situation is better in Viet Nam, there remains a big gap in between minimum wage compliance for domestic workers (86.5 per cent) and all workers in general (95.2 per cent).

Low wages in domestic work are linked to the centuries old practice of in-kind compensation in the form of food and accommodation. Providing for the domestic workers’ welfare through giving basic necessities rather than paying a wage which enables a decent living for the worker and her family has been and often continues to be the prevailing approach in many parts of the world.

The typical low wages of domestic workers are also connected to the lack of regular working hours, a norm in many countries. The situation is particularly dire for live-in domestic workers who are often expected to be available 24/7, to respond to the various needs of their employers and their families.

Now thinking about the woman from Hoa Binh, I understand her perspective better. Constantly having the idea of her work being somehow not as valuable as others’, suffering from social discrimination and low wages, domestic workers may be conditioned to consider themselves not “real” workers. It is a painful truth that needs to be addressed.

Work like any other

Viet Nam took a big step in offering better legal protection for domestic workers through its 2012 Labour Code and Decree 27 in 2014. It ensures that domestic workers are entitled to enjoy compulsory minimum wages, insurance and public holiday payments, minimum rest periods and annual leave.

And Viet Nam is considering the ratification of ILO Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) by 2020. The Convention was adopted six years ago, marking a milestone in improving protections for the 53 million domestic workers globally by providing the first international standards to be applied specifically to domestic workers. The ILO stands ready to assist Viet Nam to become the second ASEAN country to ratify this important Convention, after the Philippines.

But we should not wait until the ratification. Real change can begin now, in our own homes.

To celebrate the birth of the Convention today, now known as Domestic Workers Day (16 June), I have reminded myself and my colleagues who have and used to have someone helping with our housework that all domestic workers should be able to enjoy the same rights as other workers. We do our share of duty to make our homes as fair workplaces.

Of course the Government needs to strengthen its efforts for better protection of domestic workers. But it is also our responsibilities, as a responsible citizen and ‘employer’ of domestic workers.
*This story was published on Vnexpress on 16 May 2017.