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Studying the Domestic Worker in Sri Lanka

17 August 2015 09:22 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


istory has witnessed human labour exceeding the bounds of employment into slavery. With time,   those who were slaves   raised their voices; sometimes in rebellion, so that their masters would  notice. Eventually, slavery was abolished almost everywhere.
But a new, unofficial form of slavery  is in practice in many parts of the world. For millions labouring in homes, farms and ‘sweatshops’, conditions and pay are abysmal.  This is often the case when it comes to domestic workers in Sri Lanka. There are many instances where domestic workers are looked down upon with  abuse common and their basic needs go unnoticed.  Internationally new laws protect   domestic workers and ensure their basic rights, but Sri Lanka is far behind in this vital area.

 On July 30,  powered by this need to bring justice to domestic workers,  Verité Research together with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) and Solidarity Centre hosted a conference on the rights of domestic workers in Sri Lanka called     ‘ In Sight but Out of Mind’.  The conference was attended by several distinguished academics, representatives of development organizations & NGOs, government officials, domestic workers’ unions as well as students. An analysis carried out by Verité Research focused both on the socio-economic findings and legal aspect of the domestic workers in Sri Lanka.
 Subhashini Abeysinghe, Head of Economic Research at Verité, initiated the event by presenting the cultural and socio-economic characteristics of domestic workers and their employers.  She said that “It [their research] was one of the first comprehensive studies that were undertaken to review this issue.”
 For the purpose of the study, house owners were also asked about their employee’s work performance and their satisfaction. The results turned out to be surprising as a vast majority of the employers confirmed that their version of an ‘ideal domestic worker’ focused more on the work ethic and not on the skill level of the employee.
Unfortunately, their employee research was restricted to female workers and excluded child domestic labour. Also, as workers were personally interviewed, there was an unintentional bias toward the better-treated and more out-going domestic workers.
Verité Research categorized domestic workers as “residential” and “non-residential”. Residential meant those who travelled daily from home and ‘non-residential’ meant those  who took up residence with the employer.  The survey showed differences in their satisfaction levels due to their contrasting work patterns.
Shedding light on the topic, the event held on Thursday discussed the situation of domestic workers and explained the following:


Studies found that the domestic work sector was the lowest paid occupation in Sri Lanka. The mean daily wage of a domestic worker was Rs.430/- and hourly wage was Rs. 51.00
In addition to this daily wage,  the employees are also offered ‘in-kind’ payments which mean provisions for their personal use. Residential workers also receive free food and accommodation along with their payment. These in-kind payments include gifts for the New Year, extra pay when a family member falls sick and even going on family trips with the house owners.
 However not all employers are equally generous. Kamala, who was one of the 300 interviewed by Verite, served three young Indian men in a Wellawatte apartment. When asked about in-kind payments,  she said:  “I don’t expect that from them. I don’t get anything extra for New Year or such because they are all boys. There are no ladies there to show such consideration. Even when my son became sick and was in hospital, I only asked for leave and never for extra money.”
 So what other alternatives exist for workers who rely solely on this meager monthly remuneration?

Job Alternatives

It is widely believed that people turn to domestic work due to dire financial need,  and lack of alternatives. But,  throughout the survey domestic workers  revealed that they have been previously employed in other fields and taking up domestic work was more of a choice than something they did due to lack of choice.
 Workers can easily find vacancies in the garment industry, plantation sector and security offices which offer better wages. Their dependence on household employment is due to the random ‘in-kind’ payments and provisions. They also enjoy the time they can find in this sphere for  family commitments.
Until recently, families had taken up serving rich households as a hereditary service. Many domestic workers recount how they were sent to work for their parents’ employers.
 The current generation does not carry out this tradition. They want to educate their children for a better future. In some cases, the housemaid’s children become more educated than the employer’s.  
Thus,  this goal of social mobility implants a common reluctance among the new generation  to work for other households despite the high demand for domestics.
 Conversely, a closer look at Tamil domestic workers of Indian origin who populate the upcountry have shown a different aspect .  Most of them were  25 to 30 years of age and to explain further, the case of Tamil domestic workers, ICES researcher  Avanthi Kalansooriya presented another study which targeted housemaids residing in Maskeliya and Hatton.

Domestic Workers of Indian Tamil Origin

Ms. Kalansooriya’s study found that Tamil domestic workers  were generally mistreated by their  host communities and had to deal with issues related to racial prejudice. There were instances where these workers who practised Hinduism were forced to eat meat and were deprived of their right to practise their religion. Language too,  was a barrier to these workers.
Observations also proved that these workers were given poor accommodation and generally poor working standards. One female worker who was interviewed reported that she had to sleep on the balcony but did not object. This presents a general perception of the employer known as the ‘normalization of suffering’ where house owners believe their employee should readily accept  a lower standard of life.
Though previous demographics explain that these workers choose domestic work as a lifestyle due to time flexibility/employee provisions. And looking at both the studies it is clear that workers are still mistreated when it comes to their wages and standards.

Bargaining power: An employee’s key to demand better working conditions

 An effective tool to gain better work conditions from employers is the ‘bargaining power’. The bargaining power is one which is related to a worker’s dependency on their current job. This includes ease of finding another employer, civil status of the employee and other job alternatives available. Provided that there is a high demand for domestic aid, the workers indeed withhold a high bargaining power.
Nevertheless, this bargaining power is not put to use. Usually domestic workers like to stick to their habitual employer most of the time,  mentioning that they feel attached to him or her and do not want to signal ‘disloyalty’.
While for some employees, it is simply a job,  for others it is a service. According to international standards, a domestic worker can be defined as ‘any person engaged in domestic work in an employment relationship.’
 A foreign undergraduate writing a thesis on Domestic workers in South-East Asia was present at the conference. Speaking to Daily Mirror she said  “We must first ask the worker whether she considers herself as an employer or part of the family?” Furthermore she commented: “sometimes employers convince their workers to believe they are liable to their loyalty, so they would avoid making complaints or demands. It’s more like a form of ‘emotional blackmail’“

 While this may sound true, another major reason for workers to refrain from using their bargaining power is probably their lack of awareness on their own rights as the statistics clearly indicated. But can we put their ‘ignorance’ to blame?  In this case we continue to propagate an injustice by exploiting their ignorance.
 Apart from working in households, domestic workers are being employed at a number of firms offering care (day care centres) and cleaning services.
These organizations benefit the Domestic Workers’ sector. They professionalize the workers. Offices/workplaces simply refer to these firms for assistance. Also busy employers would now depend on hiring agencies which find workers appropriate to an employer’s needs.
There is preference among workers to join these organizations as they are considered socially acceptable. Also these organizations are deemed reliable  as employers have more security and justice through this system.
 Yet, this alone would not solve the problems faced by the workers. In order to acquire decent working conditions, necessary legal solutions should be proposed.

Legalizing Domestic Work Sector

The joint conference on July 30 also conferred on creating a legal framework for domestic workers. S.H.A. Mohamed, a member of the panel discussion  stressed that when a domestic worker may cook, clean, drive or indulge in gardening, but an equally qualified citizen does similar jobs in a hotel. The only dissimilarity of hotel employees is their eligibility for social security (EPF/ETF) and have the cover of the law (labour rights) while domestic works are deprived of these benefits even if they are  equally  skilled.
This legal session was led by principal researcher Sabrina Esufally, an attorney-at- law who introduced the ILO convention of C189 and recommendation R201 as a solution to their problem.
Throughout the sessions, Esufally and the panelists debated on how Sri Lanka, as a member of the ILO, could ratify this convention and benefit our domestic workers.
“In adopting Convention No. 189 and Recommendation No. 201, the International Labour Conference gave a clear message: Domestic workers; like other workers have the right to decent working and living conditions. The Convention provides for minimum protection of domestic workers, while allowing for flexibility in implementation.” –‘ C189 & R201 at a glance’ by International Labour Office, Geneva
Dr. Bilesha Weeraratna had previously pointed out that the ILO conventions should be looked at from a broader perspective. She cited household chores as ‘informal’ work and stated: “…trying to formalize informal things would make things murky for everyone. This is  because  domestic work is of a flexible nature and workers refuse to regard the house owner in an ‘employee-employer’ status.
On the contrary, Mohamed, an active practitioner in industrial relations stressed on ratifying C189 and R201. He believed that doing so would benefit the lifestyles of the migrating domestic workers.

The existing laws in Sri Lanka have bluntly disregarded domestic work as a type of employment. The team gathered on July 30 was continually looking out for laws that would improve the rights of domestic workers.
Their search found that domestic workers were supposed to be covered by the Wages Board Ordinance, Maternity Benefits Ordinance, Trade Union Ordinance and Industrial Dispute Act. However, there exists an ambiguity over their respective definitional scopes.
Apart from that, the team of lawyers  proposed a plan to legally reform the vulnerability experienced in the domestic worker sector even without ratifying the conventions. In our country the laws that govern domestic workers are centuries old. For the modern world, introduction of new laws and expanding the interpretations of current laws are essential.
Verite Research’s publication “Sri Lankan Domestic Workers; An Analysis of the Legal and Policy Framework” gives a detailed comparison of C189 and the existing Sri Lankan Law.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that decent work is a must for all domestic workers.  At the panel, Snr. Lecturer Arulanantham Sarveswaran remembers to mention the upcoming Parliamentary elections. On behalf of all the domestic workers, he hoped the new parliamentarians would pay domestic workers a better attention.
Home is a very important place in our lives, and during the absence of home owners domestic workers take care of this  haven. It is therefore, a moral obligation to provide justice and legal protection for those who play a major role in people’s lives. The joint conference was a first step in a long process  to bring justice.
 Lecturer Sarveswaran who was present as a panel member mentioned that the studies have been done at the right time given that a new Parliament was soon to be established, the relevant authorities would be able to look into this issue at the very beginning.
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