Academic Research Public Law

Migrant Filipino Domestic Workers in Pakistan; Agency, Rights and the Limits of the Law

Dr Ayesha Shahid explores the question of whether international human rights and labour standards can provide protection and empowerment to migrant Filipino domestic workers through the feminist concept of ‘women’s agency’.

by Dr Ayesha Shahid, Assistant Professor and Associate Member of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations.

International labour migration has expanded across the globe creating new migration patterns within countries in the southern hemisphere.[1] Domestic service is one such informal labour sector where international labour migration is taking place. This large-scale transnational labour migration from Southeast Asian nations, in particular, is due to an increased demand for domestic and care workers in the service industries of countries in the northern and southern hemisphere. Domestic service has become one of the key drivers of female labour migration.[2]

According to an estimate given by the International Labour Organization domestic work constitutes one of the largest, yet least visible service industries in the world.[3] The increase in female migration and the nature of domestic work constitutes a major challenge to the protection of the human and labour rights of domestic workers. As domestic work is performed within the privacy of the home, it is frequently excluded from the scope of labour legislation. Human Rights Watch has stated that almost 30 per cent of the world’s domestic workers are employed in countries where they are excluded from national labour laws, including weekly rest days, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage and overtime pay. Even when partially covered, domestic workers are often excluded from key protections such as minimum age requirements, maternity leave, social security and occupational health measures. [4]

Historically, performing domestic service for another’s household has been an important way of earning a livelihood for women. Affluent families in both developing and developed countries engage both local and migrant women domestic workers. In recent years, Pakistan has become an employment destination for migrant Filipino domestic workers (hereinafter referred to as MFDWs), who are being employed by affluent Pakistani households, despite the presence of a large number of Pakistani female domestic workers available to take such positions. The employment of MFDWs is increasingly a marker of status and affluence, reflecting the racialised and class hierarchies that continue to infuse the sphere of domestic work, both in Pakistan and elsewhere. Based on a small, exploratory, sample qualitative study of the lived experiences of MFDWs, Ayesha Shahid in her research study addresses the question of whether international human rights and labour standards can provide protection and empowerment to MFDWs. By using the feminist concept of ‘women’s agency’, her research examines the extent to which law reforms, drawing upon evolving human rights standards, can support migrant domestic workers’ capacity for agency, and more effective implementation of decent work standards. Ayesha Shahid draws upon the feminist concept of ‘women’s agency’ to analyse the complexities of domestic work carried out by MFDWs in Pakistan. Ayesha argues that the realisation of the right to work under labour rights and human rights standards can accord migrating women greater ‘agency’, and ensure these standards are effectively implemented. MFDWs have the capacity to use international labour and human rights standards as interpretive tools for demanding justice and enforcement of their rights.

Supporting domestic workers in collective organizing, through civil society organizations and trade unions, will be critical to securing further reforms for domestic workers in Pakistan. For migrant domestic workers, particularly MFDWs, registration and regularization of migration status is a necessary step to ensure that domestic workers have effective access to support and protection provided through the embassy and consular services. Where the enforcement of labour standards at domestic level remains weak, and the scope of labour legislation is limited, the advocacy of diplomatic and consular officials will be crucial to migrant domestic workers. The necessity for such advocacy, in the absence of effective domestic safeguards for domestic workers, is already recognized by the Philippines Government and its diplomatic staff in Pakistan and elsewhere. Bilateral negotiations and agreements can serve to fill gaps in rights enforcement. However, the trade-offs between access to employment, a desire to seek better opportunities overseas, and lack of opportunity at home will still push many MFDWs to accept terms and conditions of work that do not meet the standards of decent work. Against this background, the wider move to enhancing the rights of all domestic workers, including through ratification and implementation of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, will be critical, so that domestic workers can enjoy the full range of human rights entitlements – legal, civil, political, cultural, social and economic.

[1] Amarjit Kaur, ‘Migration Matters in the Asia-Pacific Region: Immigration Frameworks, Knowledge Workers and National Policies’ (2007) 9 International Journal on Multicultural Societies 135–157; Silki Staab and Kristen Maher, ‘The Dual Discourse About Peruvian Domestic Workers in Santiago de Chile: Class, Race and a Nationalist Project’ (2006) 48 Latin American Politics and Societies 87–116; Nicola Piper, ‘Enhancing the Migration Experience: Gendering Political Advocacy and Migrant Labour in Southeast and East Asia’ (2007) International Development Research Centre, Working Papers on Women’s Rights and Citizenship. Social and Economic Policy No. 1. 

[2] Glenda Labadie-Jackson, ‘Reflections on Domestic Work and the Feminization of Migration’ (2008–2009) 31 Campbell Law Review 67–90.

[3] The ILO estimates that between 4 and 10 per cent of the employed workforce in developing countries is engaged in domestic work. For industrialized countries, the figure stands between 1 and 2.5 per cent of total employment. Based on national surveys of 117 countries, this report places the number of both men and women domestic workers above the age of 15 at around 52.6 million. This figure represents around 3.6 per cent of global wage employment. However, experts say that as domestic work is a kind of hidden form of employment and in most countries unregistered, the total number of such workers could be as high as 100 million. Around 83 per cent of these workers are women or girls and many are migrant workers. For instance, women’s share of total domestic employment stands at 93.3 per cent in Brazil and 90.7 per cent in Ethiopia. ILO, ‘Decent Work for Domestic Workers’, Report IV (1) (2009), para. 20.

[4] Human Rights Watch, ‘Claiming Rights: Domestic Workers Movements and Global Advances for Labour Reform’ (2012). A Joint Report by the International Domestic Workers’ Network and the International Trade Union Confederation and Human Rights Watch. les/related_material/2013_Global_Domestic Workers.pdf (accessed 25 June 2013)

You can find out more about Ayesha’s research through her Pure profile, which sets out her research interests, publications, and contact details. You can also find out more about Coventry University’s research through our dedicated research pages.

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