Migrant domestic work: where expectations clash with reality

A group of women from Ampana in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

13 April 2016

Saving money for the future is the primary motivator for women in poorer Asian economies who move overseas to work as domestic labourers.

But it’s a goal that very few achieve, according to research examining the exploitation of migrant domestic workers in East Asia.

Modern Slavery in East Asia, a report funded by Macquarie Group Foundation and led by social enterprise Farsight, found that 41 per cent of prospective migrants in Indonesia who took part in a survey, and 50 per cent in the Philippines, said saving for their future and for investments was the key drawcard for taking a job as a domestic worker abroad.

But once they begin work, that goal is quickly overtaken by other responsibilities, including sending money back home to assist their families and paying off debts to recruiters.

The report found the working conditions and treatment experienced by migrant domestic workers were akin to modern slavery, a term used to describe contemporary employment practices that are exploitative.

“The primary motivator that they report is always economics. A big part of it is household expenses and savings and sending their kids to school,” says Sharmila Parmanand, director of policy and advocacy at Visayan Forum, a non-government organisation in the Philippines that worked on the research.

“Then, what usually ends up happening is it does get used for household expenses and education but there aren’t very much savings.”

Among women already working as migrant domestic workers in Singapore, only 8 per cent of Indonesians and 24 per cent of Filipinas said saving for the future was still a priority.

Among migrants who returned home from either Singapore or Hong Kong, only 6 per cent said they had done so because they had enough money.

Ten per cent of returned migrants said they had moved home with no money at all and 13 per cent were still in debt to recruitment agencies.

"The report found the working conditions and treatment experienced by migrant domestic workers were akin to modern slavery, a term used to describe contemporary employment practices that are exploitative.".

Parmanand says it is clear there is a significant gap between the expectations women have when they embark on a period of work abroad and the reality.

“The biggest information gap seems to be a lack of awareness of how much they have to pay or how much they have to pay to migrate anywhere,” she says.

“On paper, recruitment firms are not meant to charge placement fees, but they’re charging training fees, certification fees, fees for processing government documents – all of these hidden fees that are not declared up front to migrants.

“And in more limited cases, there’s outright deception. They move overseas and then it [a fee] appears on their bill.”

As part of a long-term project to try to combat this issue in Asia, Macquarie Group Foundation will continue to support Visayan Forum, which is trying to break an intergenerational cycle of Filipina women taking overseas domestic work.

The organisation has set up safe houses and shelters for returning workers who have experienced abuse and need counselling, medical support and legal and employment advice.

They have also established prevention programs in communities in the Philippines they have identified as “hot spots” with a high concentration of women who move abroad for domestic roles.

“We link the women up with other providers who can help with skills training,” she says.

“We just facilitate the creation of employment opportunities for them – other than domestic work.

“Our goal is not to stop domestic work. It’s to enable them to have a stronger position and to make this decision from a position of strength and not because it’s the only option they have.”

Photographer: Fabio Lamanna