ASEAN and its Invaluable, Vulnerable Women - Blueboard by Dr. Liberty Chee
In 2009, Mary Jane Veloso, a single mother of two from Nueva Ecija, worked for six months in Dubai as a migrant domestic worker. Her six-month stint ended in failure, because she did not finish her employment contract. The reason? The alleged attempted rape by her employer. In April 2010, she was recruited by Maria Kristina Sergio and her live-in partner Julius Lacanilao to work in Malaysia. Upon arrival, there was no work, but an errand to do in neighboring Indonesia. Trusting her handlers, and a certain African by the name of ‘Ike’, Veloso ran the errand.
She unwittingly transported 2.6 kilograms of heroin, stashed in her travel bag lining. Upon arrival at the Yogyakarta airport, she was arrested, charged with drug trafficking. After a quick trial, she languished in jail for five years until her scheduled execution in April 2015. What happened after was a media and diplomatic maelstrom that engulfed both Indonesia and the Philippines, incidentally the two largest domestic-worker sending countries in the region. Advocates from both countries succeeded in convincing Indonesian president Joko Widodo to postpone Veloso’s execution, as further investigation and the trial of her illegal recruiters take place. To date, Veloso is still in jail.
Veloso’s story is hardly exceptional. It is a story lived by hundreds of thousands of women like her around the world today. In Southeast Asia alone, there are about 750,000 domestic workers employed in a country not their own. Women from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam clean, cook and care for households in richer Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. This number does not include those who are from the region but are deployed in East Asian cities and the Middle East.
Their stories are those of sacrifice, hardship and extremely challenging work conditions. This may mean not being allowed outside the household for months on end, non-payment of salary, and payment of illegal recruitment fees. Migrant domestic workers are also susceptible to physical, sexual and psychological abuse, extortion, and hyper-exploitation by their employers and recruitment agents. Occasionally, abuses lead to fatalities. The question to ask is why do these conditions exist? And why should we care?
Domestic workers are one of the most vulnerable category of migrants, for a number of reasons. Apart from the Philippines (and only since 2013), they are not covered by national labor laws. This means that the rights and privileges that most of us enjoy, for example an eight-hour workday, leaves, and the right to association, are not extended to them. Southeast Asia is not alone in this regard, as domestic work is not generally considered ‘work’ in many other places around the world. This may be due to the low status accorded to cooking, cleaning and caring, jobs that have always been performed by women for little to no remuneration.
According to the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics, the value of unpaid work performed in households in the UK is estimated at over 1 trillion GBP or 1.2 trillion USD in 2014.In other words, if the British were to pay for chores most women routinely do for free, this would generate economic value of over half the country’s GDP. Moreover, without the performance of these chores, the formal, productive economy would ground to a halt. It is clear that domestic work is crucial to the functioning of most modern economies today. Why then are the people who perform these tasks, including the intimate care of babies and little children, subject to so little care themselves?
Apart from domestic workers, Southeast Asia is host to some five million other migrants. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recognized the need to set up mechanisms for protection, evinced by the 2007 Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. Since then the ASEAN Committee on Migrant Workers (ACMW) has been drafting a Framework Instrument on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (AIMW). This is the only regional mechanism that could potentially align the legal and regulatory frameworks of all ten ASEAN countries to care for the well-being of its migrants. It is as yet unclear, however, whether domestic workers will be adequately covered by the instrument, perhaps for the reasons already stated above.
It is expected that in 2017, the details of AIMW will be finalized. The slow-going proceedings may be due to the culture of international relations in Southeast Asia, which rests on the primacy of national sovereignty and, consequently, the principle of non-interference. This means that national governments are reluctant to let go of the final say in matters relating to domestic politics. Ceding some control over to the ASEAN needs a sea-change in thinking of all members, one which recognizes that the region’s success and stability would depend on acting in concert as a community of nations rather than as atomistic states.
This reluctance was on full display in September last year, during President Duterte’s state visit to Indonesia. It was expected that he would advocate on behalf of Mary Jane Veloso. Bound by the region’s outdated principle, he could only tell Widodo to “go ahead with the process in line with the law in Indonesia.” Because of the absence of mechanisms which could have prevented her illegal recruitment and her consequent drug trafficking, all transboundary processes, Mary Jane and thousands like her, find themselves in conditions of vulnerability, enduring the unendurable. This, despite the fact that without their invaluable service, our households, our societies and our countries as we know them, would cease to function.
Dr. Liberty Chee teaches global politics at the Department of Political Science in Ateneo de Manila. She does research on migration governance.