BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – When Cecilia Flores-Oebanda started advocating for the rights of domestic workers in the Philippines in 1995, she faced intimidation and antagonism from lawmakers, employers and the public who thought she was interfering with an age-old tradition.
“You can trace (domestic work) to our history, which is itself rooted in slavery,” she told TrustLaw by telephone from the capital Manila. “No one has really challenged it ... so there was a lot of resistance initially.”
People asked Flores-Oebanda, head of Visayan Forum Foundation, a Philippines non-governmental organisation that fights modern-day slavery, why she was complaining when the domestic workers weren’t speaking out. Politicians wanted statistics and data that required expensive studies and research, something a local organisation could not afford.
“There were times when I almost gave up,” said the former rebel who fought the dictatorship of president Ferdinand Marcos. Flores-Oebanda founded the foundation in 1990 and has won accolades for her work with domestic workers and trafficking victims.
Flores-Oebanda and Visayan soldiered on and coined the term “Kasambahay”, meaning “companions in the house” or “partners at home”, to try to make the issue less sensitive and to help domestic workers receive recognition and respect for their contributions.
The work has finally paid off, almost 20 years later.
After years of languishing in the legislative process, Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino last month signed the landmark legislation that would provide protection and welfare to around 2 million domestic workers.
“It’s really a milestone in the history of the Philippines, especially as a migrant country that sends domestic workers abroad,” said Flores-Oebanda, who believes the law could also strengthen the government’s hand when it comes to negotiating better conditions for Filipino domestic workers abroad.
BETTER FOR OVERSEAS WORKERS TOO
“Usually if we negotiate for better conditions for our domestic workers abroad who've been abused, the first thing that those countries ask the Philippines is whether we have our own law protecting domestic workers,” she added.
The icing on the cake – the law is called the Kasambahay Bill.
Flores-Oebanda credited the department of labour, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as well as TrustLaw Connect with helping to make the law a reality.
“When we were lobbying for the law, we asked TrustLaw Connect to conduct some research and studies to look at other countries and the practices and gaps vis-à-vis the existing ILO conventions,” she said.
“TrustLaw Connect gave a wealth of knowledge. The research they gave us was one of the pillars we used in negotiating with legislators,” she added.
TrustLaw Connect is a service that links non-governmental organisations with law firms doing pro bono work. It is provided by Thomson Reuters Foundation, the parent organisation of TrustLaw.
According to an ILO report released recently, more than 96,500 Filipino domestic workers, mainly women, went overseas in 2010 alone, to Hong Kong, China and the Gulf region, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
FIGHT IS NOT OVER
A labour force survey carried out in 2010 found 1.9 million domestic workers in the country, accounting for almost 12 percent of female total employment in that year, ILO added.
The new law would have a significant impact on them, with increases in the monthly minimum wage rates, entitlement to social security instruments, provisions for education and training and protection from abuse by employers.
Previously, domestic workers’ salaries were pegged at around 600 ($15) to 800 pesos ($20) a month, said Flores-Oebanda.
“Imagine a sector which is mainly women – and sometimes children – with a legislated wage like that. For me, that already shows discrimination,” she said.
Under the Kasambahay Bill, they will now receive a minimum of 1,500 ($37) to 2,500 pesos ($61) a month, still low but an improvement, said Flores-Oebanda.
She’s hoping the new law will also entice domestic workers to stay in the country and be closer to their families instead of going to high-risk countries such as Syria.
The law may now be a reality but the fight is far from over, said Flores-Oebanda. “I actually feel the serious fight is just starting.”
The Philippines has many good laws but there are problems with implementation, she added. Her next aim is to ensure both employers and domestic workers truly benefit from the Kasambahay Bill.
Separately, Flores-Oebanda’s foundation is being investigated by the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) after the United States’ development agency USAID accused her of failing to account for 210 million pesos of American aid, according to the Philippines Inquirer.
The foundation said in a statement that the NBI had raided its Manila office in August “under allegations of falsification of documents and through the request of USAID,” and had seized computers and important documents.
“The accusations against VF are unfounded,” the foundation said, adding that it had not yet received any formal complaint but was ready “to defend ourselves and give our side.”