Woes of Domestic Workers Worldwide | Daily News

Woes of Domestic Workers Worldwide

Language skills vital for female workers seeking employment overseas.
Language skills vital for female workers seeking employment overseas.

Domestic workers are those employed in households on a personal level by individuals or families worldwide. The rules for domestic workers are not properly regularized in Sri Lanka or in many countries though attempts have been made to prepare international conventions and legal systems in some parts of the world.

The 100th session of ILO on June 16, 2011 agreed and ratified the Domestic Workers Convention which is only on paper as it is only an international convention not properly effective in all the countries in the world. The convention is not enforceable and effective as a nonstarter.

The Domestic Servants Ordinance 28 of 1871 is one of the oldest Acts passed on this subject which has not been taken forward for implementation. It defines domestic servants are those hired by the employer on payment of wages and generally they are given accommodation and duties by the employer at his/her discretion.

The above definition can be considered as universal in the absence of any other by any activist groups on employment or human rights groups.

Local and International Legal structure

Article c 180 of ILO is the most frequently used Convention on domestic employees which is also a nonstarter and an ineffective international instrument. Domestic workers are fully under the control of the employer at his mercy somewhat akin to slavery where the workers from villages (in Asian and African countries) are at the mercy of the employer with no legal or procedural safeguards as in developed countries where domestic servants are scarce and expensive except migrant workers. Domestic servants are maids, gardeners, chauffeurs, gardeners, or providing general assistance for the household and/or their trade and vocation. In Pakistan and India ‘Samindaers’ (richest of the rich and landlords/landowners) take families for labour due to their poverty and landlessness which is well known and in Sri Lanka domestics are mainly taken from vulnerable groups opt to be domestics due to poverty which is fortunately despairing today due to the advancement of the attitudes, education life style and existence of laws (though not effective) such as child protection, protection for women, labour laws which are not properly and powerfully enforced.

Legislation in Sri Lanka

The Shop and Office Ordinance on Employment of 19/54 gives some guidelines for good government servants and the judiciary to act fairly with sympathy on given opportunities. Wages Ordinance 43/1941 and Provident Fund Ordinance 15/58 Workmen Compensation 19/43 47/56 young person’s payment of gratuity establishment of Labour Department and Labour Tribunals and active participation of policy and the legal structure are good signs in the right direction.

In the United Kingdom domestic workers enjoy some freedom and a reasonable pay and protection. It is only rich families who can afford to employ domestic workers and rich and aristocratic families ‘Butlers’ are well paid and enjoy some kind of freedom. Historical domestics employed in the highest strata of the society rose up to high positions in the UK as even slaves during dark era/ages rose up to leading positions. In the West the lifestyle is different to be self-sufficient and able to attend to personal affairs by themselves without domestics and can be satisfied with part-time workers for cleaning and such assistance only without fulltime domestic servants who are expensive and difficult to find.

Article 1 of C189 defines the term domestic worker as work performed on or for a household or households.

Domestic workers overseas

Currently, a majority of domestic workers worldwide are females. Most Sri Lankan female workers are employed in the Middle East as domestic workers, namely housemaids in vulnerable and unfortunate situations with no safety protection and control or supervision of a third party to look after them though the Embassies and the representatives of Bureau of Labour is expected to protect them.

The treatment to the domestic labour in the Middle East and such countries are pathetic and sad as they are subjected to ill-treatment and even torture by the employer and agents. Local, International media and social media is full of such news on such horrific incidents apparently with no solutions in sight. Domestic workers are under the control of the agents/employer who is supposed to be protected by the Embassies and the representatives of the Employment Bureau. The Middle East is an oil rich region who can afford domestic labour supplied by the Asian and African countries through job agents.

Caregivers - a category of domestic workers?

Caregivers are employed the world over looking after the sick and elderly in many countries with a substantial salary expected to stay indoors. Caregivers are trained Paramedics trained to look after elderly and sick mainly in economically advanced countries. Israel and Japan are countries which have a long life expectancy rate and have a demand for foreign caregivers who too are somewhat domestic workers of high salaries and protection followed by many countries. Sri Lanka is in need of foreign exchange and the best way is to provide labour to countries as domestics and other workers, at a high cost where our children are deprived of the love and attention of their mothers which has a bearing on the country’s labour force. Domestic workers in Sri Lanka are not properly looked after or covered by the labour laws of the said countries.

The organisation that supervises the interests of the Sri Lankan labour force overseas is the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment which is established for the betterment of Sri Lanka’s labour force abroad. People seeking overseas employment are bound to obtain permission, approval and guidance from this institution. Apparently, not functioning as expected, thereby those employed in foreign countries especially in the Middle East are not protected, thus exposed. The respective embassies in those countries are expected to work together with the Foreign Employment Bureau, but the response from those countries is sad, pathetic and unfortunate. In the Middle East, one in every three domestic workers are females. Domestic workers are highly vulnerable in destination countries. Training and education play a major role in this context. In the Philippines, 30 per cent of the population depends on foreign employment and to their advantage they are trained by the state foreign employment bureau for the job as a public policy and their knowledge of English is comparably high. Therefore, they are successful in their respective trades and employment over many other foreign labour in the Middle East and the world over. For instance, people from the Philippines are employed around the world in the technical, domestic and other fields that bring revenue to their country.

Internationally recognized training for domestic workers

Though Sri Lankans are supposed to be educated, their foreign language skills are limited. Thereby their exposure to the outside world is limited. State or Private Sector enterprises should initiate training in English and other languages for the respective job seekers. Therefore, it is time for the Government and Private Sector to train Sri Lankans locally in language skills to suit the international market.

There should be a transparent public policy and schemes to compete with the Philippines and other countries to lift the Sri Lankan labour market from unskilled to skilled.

In the domestic field too, the Government and Private Sector must take steps to provide language skills training to uplift themselves which will bring foreign exchange and enhance the development of the country. The news we receive from the countries where Sri Lankan labour is employed is pathetic with no concrete steps taken by the authorities as a result of bribery and corruption taking place. We presume this summary will be an eye opener for the Government, labour organisations and non-government organisations agitating consistently for the uplift of the less privileged.


(Sarath Wijesinghe, President’s Counsel, Former Ambassador to UAE and Israel. Chairman Consumer Affairs Authority, President Ambassador’s forum).

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