As Asia changes and ages, domestic workers are in demand – but who will stand up for their rights?

Saleha Shah Living wage, Research, Women's Economic Empowerment

Paid carers are more important than ever to Asian societies and economies. Yet, say Saleha Shah and Raina Bhattacharya, upcoming Oxfam research will highlight how these millions of workers remain underpaid, exploited and invisible. Building decent care systems will mean paying and treating these workers fairly, and also creating new public care infrastructure that can meet everyone’s needs.

Dhaka-based domestic worker Mollika Begum pictured in the summer of 2020 when she was supported with food assistance by Oxfam because, like many Bangladeshi domestic workers, she had lost her job and income in the pandemic. Throughout Asia, millions of domestic workers still live in poverty, reliant on precarious work with minimal labour rights (picture: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam).

As Asian societies change, the way we care for each other is transforming too. In this blog, we share insights from upcoming research that reveals how care work is increasingly being shifted to informal domestic workers. However, it also shows how labour rights and wages for these workers and public care infrastructure remain stubbornly inadequate, leaving millions in this increasingly vital sector of the economy living in precarity, poverty and with no access to care themselves.

Ageing societies in Asia: the challenge of caring for poor, older people

Big changes in Asia’s population are a central theme of our research, which covers Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, and is being planned for release on International Domestic Workers Day on June 16th. Around 7% of the population in the region is now aged 65 and above. Countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia are having to adapt to these ageing societies.

We highlight a big challenge for policy makers: how will the region meet the needs of caring for older people when so many of them are too poor to pay for it themselves?

In Indonesia, 45% of older people are in the lowest 40% by socioeconomic status. Looking just at older Indonesian people with lower socioeconomic status, 67% of them endure poor living conditions. Similarly, in the Philippines, 13% of older people belong to households classified as income-poor, with another 4.3% classified as subsistence-poor. These statistics underscore the urgent need for improved public care infrastructure and enhanced social systems to look after people in their old age.

In some countries, younger dependents add to the economic pressure on families, creating more need for state support for childcare. Both Bangladesh and the Philippines have relatively larger populations of children (aged 0-14). That means the overall dependency ratio – a measure of the economic burden the working-age population faces supporting dependents (defined as those aged under 14 or over 64) – is notably high in both countries. Add to this the need to support disabled people, where demand for care clearly exists but where we lack data to gauge the scale of need.  

All these shifting demographic and social structures mean Asia urgently requires adaptable and comprehensive care infrastructure to meet diverse and  changing care needs.

South Korea and Taiwan lead the way in public care, but others leave care to families

Some countries are building a public infrastructure that can respond to the care challenges ahead. South Korea’s pioneering principle of the “socialisation of care” has resulted in universal public schemes for long-term and childcare, while Taiwan boasts relatively comprehensive public care policies and services, particularly in childcare.

However, in six of the eight countries reviewed, there’s a clear policy preference for family and home care over institutional care. This preference is perpetuated by existing policy frameworks. For instance, the 1987 Constitution in the Philippines emphasises the family’s duty to care for its elderly members, and Bangladesh’s Maintenance of Parents Act 2013 places the responsibility on children to care for their parents.

That leaves a huge share of care work being undertaken by domestic workers across the eight countries, now and for the foreseeable future. In Bangladesh and Indonesia, domestic workers provide care for at least 1.3 million households and 4.5 million households respectively. Even In Taiwan, domestic workers were found to shoulder at least 30% of the populations’ care needs. In South Korea, domestic workers provide care for at least 706, 959 households and the actual number is likely to be much more.

Without policy transformation, poverty and exploitation of carers will only increase

Given the massive share of care work shouldered by domestic workers, offering them a route to decent incomes and lives, will be vital to tackling poverty across our eight countries. Yet they still do not have access to decent pay, working conditions and social protection.

Domestic workers across the countries are mostly excluded from national labour laws, and often do not get labour rights granted to other care workers. For example, domestic workers are completely excluded from the national labour laws in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand. In South Korea and Taiwan, labour protections exclude informal migrant domestic workers who are employed directly by households – rather than a private company or recruitment agency.

As formal regulations outlining work hours, minimum wage, employment contracts and social protections do not cover domestic workers, they are forced into long hours at poverty wages. For example, domestic workers in Bangladesh work 79 hours a week, while in Indonesia, 63% of domestic workers work seven days a week.

With regards to wages, in Bangladesh, 85% of domestic workers earn less than TK5000 (US$45) monthly and so live below the poverty line. In Indonesia, salaries of domestic workers are generally just 20-30% of the official regional minimum wage. In the Philippines, 83% of the 1.4 million domestic workers are not covered by social security benefits, despite supposedly being guaranteed the same under the Batas Kasambahay (Domestic Workers) Law.

Almost no country has a wage structure that recognises the domestic worker’s accumulation of skills and experiences, except for Taiwan, where migrant domestic workers working over six years can be recognised as “intermediate skilled domestic caretakers”.

And they also have no unions or collective bargaining arrangements that could press for higher wages. In most of these contexts, domestic workers do not even have the right to freedom of association, or in cases where they can organise collectively, governments rarely or never consult domestic worker organisations and representatives in care policy dialogues.

And there is also the question of who will care for the carers? Not only are domestic workers’ rights as care workers violated across the contexts we looked at, but their own care needs are ignored and largely unexplored. Public care infrastructure that offers universal care regardless of income will therefore be vital for domestic workers themselves.

Six ways to change the lives of Asia’s domestic workers

Given the urgent need for better pay and conditions, the International Domestic Workers Federation has six clear asks from policy makers in the region:

  1. Legislate to protect the wages for domestic workers, including protection against wages not being paid, and setting out criteria for forced labour.
  2. Recognise domestic work as work, and domestic work as care work.
  3. Bring in entitlements to weekly days off and paid holidays like other recognised care workers.
  4. Social protection, including maternity benefits, as domestic work is a highly feminised sector.
  5. Regulated limits on working hours with provisions for overtime pay.
  6. Representation of domestic workers in policy making and the policy debate about care, by consulting domestic worker organisations and including them in decision-making forums.

Organisations and individuals employing domestic workers do not have to wait for government: they can immediately use these demands as a framework to guarantee the complete spectrum of labour rights to domestic workers.

In Indonesia, domestic worker union JALAPRT has negotiated a minimum wage for some domestic workers, despite it not being a legal requirement. Domestic worker unions have also worked with recruitment agencies to reduce agency fees levied from domestic workers, and to guarantee these workers safe employment through a proper audit of employers.

Time for a transformation in how societies see and value domestic workers

Asia faces changing societies and family structures, increased labour force participation – particularly by women who often traditionally did domestic work and care in families – and more families being able to afford care workers working in the household. That means more paid carers shouldering a significant portion of the region’s care work.

But what is clear is that shift must be accompanied by a parallel shift in how societies and economies treat the domestic workers who will be so essential to them in future. That means decent pay, working conditions and access to social protection; it means acknowledging and rewarding the skills they acquire in their work over the years; it means a new public care infrastructure that can care and  protect everyone, notably including domestic workers themselves. Domestic workers are workers like everyone else – and they deserve all the same rights and protections.

Author

Saleha Shah

Saleha Shah is Regional Gender Coordinator at Oxfam Asia

Author

Raina Bhattacharya

Raina Bhattacharya, is Program Officer for Asia at the International Domestic Workers Federation

This blog is the latest in our ongoing series about care and domestic work. It draws on an upcoming research paper about domestic work in Asia, which will be released on International Domestic Workers Day on June 16th. Follow us on Twitter/X for the latest publication news.