Asia's migrant domestic workers learn their rights
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FEATURE-Asia's migrant domestic workers rally to fight low pay and abuse | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Many migrant domestic workers come from the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, and work in neighbouring countries as well as the Middle East.
Occasionally, cases of violence make the headlines, such as the 7-year-old girl from Myanmar who was enslaved for five years in Thailand, or the Indonesian maid, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose employer in Hong Kong was found guilty in February of charges including grievous bodily harm.
Abuse and exploitation in the Middle East has been so extreme that Indonesia recently barred domestic workers from working in 21 countries, media reports said.
Activists say travel bans will only push women to migrate through illegal channels, putting them at greater risk of abuse.
The best fix is to persuade governments to protect their citizens' rights, says Elizabeth Tang, general secretary for the Hong Kong-based International Domestic Workers Federation.
She said Asians have traditionally hired domestic workers from indigenous or ethnic minority groups, lower castes or poor families, and believe they are doing them a favour by doing so.
"Employers tend to think, 'You're so poor. If I don't give you work in my house, you will probably die, you will have nothing to eat.' These kinds of attitudes are deep rooted," Tang told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Governments also need to tackle unscrupulous agencies that lure women into domestic work abroad and charge exorbitant fees amounting to six months of wages, Tang said.
With poverty at home, many women have no choice but to pay, putting homes and property up as collateral to pay broker fees.
"In Cambodia and Indonesia, they have no rights at all and earn about $30 to $60 a month. This is the main reason they have to leave their countries and go abroad, even if they don't know what will happen to them ... because what they earn at home will get them nowhere," Tang said.
ORGANISED AND INFORMED
Many migrant domestic workers land in their new countries of employment unable to speak English or the local language, and with no friends, family or money.
Organised networks - such as the ones the Filipinas, Indonesians and Thais have set up in Hong Kong - have helped to give women support and information to protect themselves.
In Thailand, for example, the Network of Migrant Domestic Workers says about 15 of its 75 Burmese members have at least one day off each week. About 80 percent of them work with Westerners, who tend to pay more.
Now they are trying to expand their network to assist women who are younger, unable to speak Thai or English, and more vulnerable.
"We are domestic workers, too, we aren't doctors, we aren't lawyers. If they need help, we have to learn, too, what rights we have, how we can access those rights and be ready to help others," said Champa, who belongs to the Network of Migrant Domestic Workers.
"I have worked as a domestic worker for 20 years, but I never cared about rights because I never met anyone who told me that I have rights ... I just wanted money, and thought I had to work to earn money. But ... then I learned my rights."
Story Type: News