Domestic workers’ group bring out the voice of a marginalized sector
IF THERE’S ONE simple, yet significant contribution that the leaders of the United Domestic Workers of the Philippines (United) are proud of, it is helping their members try to keep their families together.
“We have so many members who have expressed their desire to work as domestic helpers abroad. But as much as possible, we try to discourage them from leaving the country by helping them find jobs with better wages so they can support their family. Not a lot of people know it, but it’s possible to find a job here that pays the same rate as a domestic helper abroad,” Maia Montenegro, Deputy Secretary General of United, said in Filipino.
The same sentiment is shared by United’s national president, Novelita Palisoc, who worked as a domestic helper in Qatar.
“It’s not easy working abroad, especially if you’re headed to a Middle Eastern country. Their culture is very different, so we try to get them to stay in the country and just be with their family,” she said.
Montenegro and Palisoc, both graduates of Education at Republican College, worked as domestic helpers while finishing their studies. This led them to qualify in heading United, a labor group that aims to represent those considered to be the most neglected in civil society by promoting the rights, dignity, and protection of their members against labor abuse.
Coming-up with a formal group to represent domestic workers in the country wasn’t easy — Montenegro was literally on her own when she began reaching out to other domestic workers and encourage them to recognize their rights as a laborer.
“I was very reluctant at first to do this. I was working in one of the daycare centers that was being supported by LEARN (Labor, Education and Research Network), when I was asked if I could head a LEARN program to encourage domestic workers like myself to establish a union which will promote our rights as a laborer. It took me almost a year before I finally agreed to do this, because I know that in the long run, this will benefit all domestic workers,” Montenegro said.
Recruitment was very difficult. Maia would go door to door so she could talk to domestic workers about establishing the program. She would also wait outside of school and talk to helpers who brought their employer’s kids to the campus. She handed out leaflets, and would spend a significant time just convincing the helpers to hear her out.
“It was hard, I had to do it alone at first.” Success came when Montenegro changed her tactic and approached the employers instead. “At first, they were reluctant. It was obvious that most don’t trust their helpers enough to let them join. But eventually, they agreed that this is a good option for them, as it would be more worthwhile to join our activities instead of just going somewhere for their day-off.”
By 2012, Montenegro was able to gather 73 initial members who formed the first batch of United.
It was a significant year because it was the same year that the Convention 189 or the Domestic Workers Convention held in Geneva laid out the new standards for domestic workers’ condition all over the world. When Montenegro learned about this from Technical Working Groups working on the ratification of the new guidelines, she felt it was even more important to push for the vision of United.
“LEARN already had a program for domestic workers that we would just follow, but the group pushed us to head it ourselves. They said they were just there to do the research, but it’s our voices that should be heard,” Montenegro said.
When President Benigno S. Aquino III, signed Republic Act (R.A.) 10361 or the Kasambahay Law in 2013, a year after United was formed, the group saw more reasons to even push for a more consolidated effort to be recognized by society.
“We now have rights just like the rest of the country’s laborers, so we have to work hard for those rights to be recognized.”
More than the just reaching out to more domestic helpers, United aims to educate employers regarding the Kasambahay Law.
“The benefits of the law covers not only domestic helpers but them as well. Through proper paying of fees like SSS, employers don’t have to worry about paying for our hospitalization or even our salary when we go on medical leaves. In the same way, the new benefits also encourages our members to show their employers that they deserve these privileges, so we have to do our duties very well.”
Through United, Montenegro and Palisoc are teaching their members new knowledge that will equip them to be recognized by society. Aside from personality development and values formation, the members also undergo leadership training, team building, and political education via regular get-togethers every month. They would also celebrate events like Kasambahay Day and the International Domestic Workers Day every June.
The get-togethers are like well-organized day-offs. The members would go to parks where they spend time both socializing and learning through thought leadership.
Aside from civic concerns, Montenegro shared that one of their top priorities is eradicating the negative culture often associated with the domestic group such as a culture of envy among members, crab mentality, and lack of professionalism.
“At first we really thought we would have a problem educating our members of their basic rights, but apparently it was harder to eradicate this kind of negative thinking among our members. It could be because the members came from different cultural backgrounds and social status,” Palisoc shared.
To address this, the leaders of United would encourage equality and participation during their activities. They are also encouraged to be fair and supportive of fellow members who are experiencing personal problems such as death in the family. This approach meant that everyone are considered equal – leaders are not allowed to be called ‘ma’am’ and members are encouraged to take lead in different activities.
“When we have assemblies and one of our members can’t make it on time because she still has duties to do, then we go to that household and help our member finish her chores. No one is considered too good to help out.”
Today, the United Domestic Workers of the Philippines already has 1,911 members – divided in different chapters all over the country (each chapter has a minimum of 15 members) such as Quezon City, Paranaque, Muntinlupa, Bataan, Ormoc, Iloilo, Aklan, and Davao among others.
“We actually do our recruitment when our members go home to their provinces!” Montenegro said. Every month, the members are encouraged to pay P30 in organization dues which are used for different assemblies and social services.
United is also a recognized labor group by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), and part of the Technical Working Groups in the Ratification of Convention 189. They are also recognized internationally by foreign organizations such as the International Domestic Workers Federation.
“We are now working on being recognized by the Employer’s Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP), which would further establish our status as laborers. We’ve been recognized as an important member of civil society, and we get acceptance during congressional hearings. We still have a long way to go, but we’re getting there.” Montenegro concluded.