A Handshake Industry for Centuries, Domestic Work Gets Formalized

Manila | 03/01/2013 8:02am
Purple Romero | Informal City Dialogues

Amelita Dimaguila was 17 when she was raped by the son of her employer. Not knowing what to do, the young domestic worker simply fled the house and never looked back.

Now 44, Dimaguila wonders what might have been if the Philippines’ new Domestic Workers Law — more popularly known as the Kasambahay (Househelp) Law – had been in force all those years ago. Signed in January by President Aquino, the legislation applies formal protections to one of the country’s most informal sectors: domestic work, an industry in which some 2 million residents here are make their daily living.

After languishing for nearly two decades, it was the gruesome case of Bonita Baran that finally put the legislation – and the issue of domestic-worker protection itself – front and center. Baran, 22, sued her employers, Reynold and Annaliza Marzan, for attempted murder, kidnapping, serious illegal detention and physical injuries in August 2012. Baran said she was strangled, singed with a hot iron and stabbed with a pair of scissors. The horrific story made headlines around the world and sparked international outrage.

The new law mandates that abused or exploited domestic workers be rescued by a municipal social welfare officer, and tasks both the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Department of Labor and Employment with developing a standard operating procedure for the rescue and rehabilitation of abused domestic workers.

But it does something else, too – it formalizes the industry in far-reaching ways, standardizing hiring and firing processes, dictating what benefits should be extended to domestic workers, describing the kinds of compensation and perks they should be given, and spelling out exactly what penalties and punishments are acceptable for inadequate work. For hundreds of years in the Philippines, these kinds of details have been worked out face-to-face between employer and household help, sealed with a handshake. Even the Filipino word “kasambahay” suggests not so much a formal employee, but a member of the family. Domestic workers here usually don’t wear uniforms, are often included on family vacations, and share food and household amenities with the people who provide them their pay.

Take Maria Virgilia. As I speak with her, the 46-year-old domestic worker is dressed in casual clothes and on her way to evening mass. She has no set schedule, and can work as many or as few hours as she likes, as long as she finishes her chores (a setup many workers in the formal world might find enviable). A neighbor referred her to her current employer, and Virginia herself refers her friends to the friends of her employer. She earns $73 USD per month, higher than the minimum wage set under the new Kasambahay Law, which mandates $61 for those working in Metro Manila, $49 for those working in chartered cities and municipalities and $36 for those in other municipalities. The law also requires employers to pay for their workers’ social security, health and housing benefits except in cases where the worker earns more than $100 a month.

These aspects of the law are, in many ways, crucial protections for a traditionally disempowered workforce. For every Bonita Baran — an extreme case and certainly not the norm — there are countless less-dramatic examples of domestic workers being denied their full pay, forced to work unreasonable hours, or living in fear of retribution from their employers if they “step out of line.” For instance, aside from doing the laundry, cleaning the house and ironing clothes, Virgilia also watches over her employers’ children. But she’s always felt afraid of disciplining them, or even raising her voice, because she worries she may be penalized or even fired for doing so.

Presumably the Kasambahay Law would allay such fears. But neither Virgilia or Dimaguila are entirely sold on it. They’re not confident that workers will take advantage of it, out of fear they’ll be fired if they do so. Dimaguilat, who now has two domestic workers herself, believes some employers won’t be able to afford the new minimum wage. And she’s had brushes with legal proceedings with her own help – one maid left to get married after less than a year of employment, then came back after seven months to demand $71 in unpaid salary. Dimaguila says she had to face local officials after the former maid complained to them – and this was back when there was no Kasambahay Law. Now employers can be fined up to $1,000, enough to deter some from hiring help at all, Dimaguila believes.

In general, however, Dimaguila has faith that the law won’t be widely abused, in part because of the close familial relationships that exist between worker and employer. In fact, she thinks most employers of domestic workers are exceedingly good bosses – better than those you would find in most formal jobs, in fact. Case in point: Right now, one of Dimaguilat’s household workers is pregnant and can only do limited chores. Not only does Dimaguilat still pay her in full, she’s even helping to pay some of the woman’s medical expenses.

It’s a tricky situation. On the one hand, partially formalizing informal-sector work is an important step toward making sure informal workers are treated fairly and paid a living wage. But in the case of domestic work, some of the job’s most appealing attributes spring directly from the fact of its thorough informality. Dimaguilat says that structuring the job around mutual appreciation and respect, rather than officialdom, means her workers do things for her that go beyond transactional relationships. “Sometimes, she [my employee] will just suddenly make me a cup of coffee,” she says, genuinely touched. “I don’t need to order her to do so. These are the things that cannot be matched by any compensation in any contract.”