JAKARTA—Indonesia, the Philippines and other developing countries are demanding more rights and higher wages world-wide for their legions of unskilled laborers—a trend that could shake up global labor markets.
The most recent battles have centered on maids, whose ranks have swelled in recent years in rich nations in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. The fight has implications beyond house cleaners and nannies. Advocates are hoping the push for more rights for domestic servants will spread to other unskilled migrants, as some countries grow increasingly reliant on imported cheap labor to baby-sit for their children, staff their factories and build their skyscrapers.
European Pressphoto Agency
An Indonesian migrant worker prepared to be sent to Saudi Arabia, covers her face during an inspection by police after a raid at a shelter in Bekasi, West Java, Indonesia.
The millions who go abroad to take jobs as domestic workers—mostly women employed as maids, but also including such traditionally male jobs as gardeners and cooks—are a crucial source of foreign currency back home, and are emerging as an important vote bank.
The poorer nations that supply the labor are now insisting their citizens receive better protection, fair pay, equal treatment under local laws and weekly days off.
The United Nations' International Labor Organization is helping propel the campaign. Last year, it pushed through an international convention to protect domestic workers around the globe that outlines some basic rights, such as fixed working hours and weekly holidays.
"Until now, this had hardly been considered labor that others would recognize as needing labor protection," because the work is done by women, who traditionally did it at home for free, said Lotte Kejser, the Jakarta-based chief technical adviser for the ILO.
The Philippines—one of the world's biggest exporters of labor in general, with close to eight million citizens working abroad at any given time—recently blacklisted more than 40 countries for not having proper labor safeguards. The Philippines recently got Saudi Arabia to agree to impose minimum salaries and other benefits. Filipino maids recently won a landmark case in Hong Kong, granting full-time residency to those who have been living there at least a decade.
"This can be traced from a history of abuse that many of our overseas workers are encountering," said Rosalinda Baldoz, the Philippines' secretary of labor and employment. "We want more transparency in terms and conditions."
Indonesia also has clashed with Saudi Arabia. Indonesian authorities last year blocked the country's domestic workers from going to the kingdom, following reports of rape and torture of its citizens working in private homes, along with the more common complaints of contract violations. In one case, a maid was beheaded, without warning, after being found guilty of the murder of her employer, according to Indonesian officials, who say they believe it may have been a matter of self-defense.
Saudi Arabian authorities didn't respond to requests to comment.
Cambodia, after reports of abuse, has stopped its domestic workers from going to Malaysia.
In January, Indonesia's Manpower and Transmigration Minister Muhaimin Iskandar threatened to block all Indonesian maids from taking jobs overseas in the next five years if more progress isn't made. The government also wants better monitoring of brokers and hiring households.
"Host countries need to start recognizing normal rights, such as to set working hours, leave and minimum wages," said Jumhur Hidayat, an adviser to Indonesia's president on overseas worker issues.
Malaysian authorities said they are taking steps to ensure the rights of Indonesian maids will be respected, and that a new accord with the Indonesian government—which also guarantees workers' rights to hold on to their own passports, rather than have them held by employer or their agency—will apply to maids from March.
In home countries, politicians are starting to acknowledge the potential clout of the millions of maids and their families as an important block of constituents. They are quick to express outrage at reports of maid abuse abroad, and to threaten retaliation. Some countries, including India and the Philippines, are looking for ways to make it easier for their overseas workers to vote in elections.
Meanwhile, remittances from overseas workers to developing countries have quadrupled in the past 11 years, according to the World Bank, to more than $350 billion. In the Philippines, remittances are equal to nearly 11% of its gross domestic product.
Labor economists say they expect tensions to increase as more workers look overseas for opportunities.
The number of migrant domestic workers has jumped in the past decade. Lower airfares, improved communications and the spread of the Internet have made it easier to travel and to share information about job opportunities.
The increased global connectivity also has spread horror stories faster, raising the awareness of the need for more protection for overseas workers.
Some labor-importing countries are pushing back on the new demands. Malaysians have started looking for domestic help from other sources, such as Vietnam. Singapore has tightened restrictions on all types of immigration.
Saudi Arabia last year said it would stop accepting maids from Indonesia and the Philippines, even as Indonesia banned its workers from going there. Riyadh is in the middle of a drive to reduce the number of foreigners working in the country by hiring Saudis, though the move is mostly fueled by fears that low youth employment fed the uprisings in neighboring Mideast countries.
Tougher standards for more pay and protection for domestic servants also could curb demand, as some parents in the developed world leave the formal work force or work fewer hours to take care of their homes, said Dilip Ratha, lead economist and manager of the migration and remittances team at the World Bank.
"If you are in Singapore or Dubai, or even London or New York, not having access to affordable domestic workers is a problem," he said. "It could significantly affect the labor supply and productivity" of working parents.
and Celine Fernandez
contributed to this article.
Write to Eric Bellman at email@example.com
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