A Third of Domestic Workers In Malaysia Face Forced Labor Conditions, UN Says

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A Third of Domestic Workers In Malaysia Face Forced Labor Conditions, UN Says

The report from the ILO highlights a pervasive problem in Southeast Asia, but one that has often been overlooked by policymakers.

A Third of Domestic Workers In Malaysia Face Forced Labor Conditions, UN Says
Credit: Depositphotos

Yesterday, the United Nations labor agency published a report about the conditions facing migrant workers employed as domestic help in three Southeast Asian nations. In the report, the International Labor Organization (ILO) revealed some alarming findings, particularly regarding conditions in Malaysia, where it found that just under a third of migrants employed as domestic workers face what it considers exploitative conditions.

The study (PDF here) was conducted between July and September 2022, and involved interviews with 1,201 domestic workers in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. It found that 29 percent of surveyed migrant domestic workers in Malaysia were in conditions that meet the ILO’s statistical definition of forced labor. This compared to 7 percent of surveyed workers in Singapore and 4 percent in Thailand.

Domestic workers form a crucial part of many Southeast Asian economies. In the report, the ILO estimated that there are around 2.2 million migrant domestic workers in the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), representing nearly a fifth of the region’s total migrant laborers. Around 83 percent are women.

The ILO surveys revealed that long hours and low wages are more or less the norm for this pool of workers. “After accounting for the excessive hours worked by migrant domestic workers,” the study states, “the average wage across all three countries falls below the minimum wage.” It also revealed that conditions for many met one or more of the ILO’s other indicators of forced labor, which it views as present when there is evidence “both that the work is involuntary and that the worker is under threat of menace of a penalty.”

The report argued that migrant domestic workers, especially in Malaysia and Thailand, are very often undocumented, and as a result were not fully protected by labor laws. According to the study, “many domestic workers are working at a demonstrably skilled level equivalent to that of workers in other sectors that are granted labor and social protection by law, and that the continuing denial of such protections to domestic workers leads to heightened – and avoidable – levels of exploitative and forced labor conditions in the sector.”

The ILO found that all of these issues were particularly marked among workers in Malaysia, who hail mostly from Indonesia (around 80 percent of the total), the Philippines (15 percent), and Cambodia (5 percent).

“In Malaysia, the survey results indicate high levels of isolation and restriction on migrant domestic workers’ freedoms, including freedom of movement and freedom to change employer,” the report stated. “These are likely the result of the combined impact of a lack of labor protections in law, lack of enforcement of existing laws, lack of post-arrival orientation, and challenges to workers being able to change employers where work permits are tied to employers.”

The ILO report sheds light on a pervasive issue in Southeast Asia, but one that is rarely a subject of sustained attention from policymakers.

Labor migration within ASEAN has grown considerably since the 1980s, in line with the rapid expansion of the region’s “tiger” economies. This transient and generally low-paid workforce has played an important – though usually unheralded – role in the economic advancement of nations like Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. As one researcher noted in 2001, “unregulated and marginalized workers provide a competitive advantage to countries promoting export growth.”

If migrant workers are often invisible to the upper and middle classes whose interests they help support, this is particularly the case for domestic workers, whose labor takes place often in private residences, away from the public gaze. As a result, the ILO notes, “many decision-makers consider domestic work as being outside of the scope of formal work.”

The ILO concluded by urging Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand to make greater efforts to redress this imbalance, and to recognize that domestic work is both skilled and difficult. It also called on all three nations to ratify the existing U.N. conventions on domestic workers and forced labor, and make other efforts to expand labor protections for domestic workers.

The fact that it has to do so is a reminder that while economic growth has transformed many Southeast Asian nations over the past half-century, the benefits of this growth have been distributed very unevenly.