Formalising domestic work in Sri Lanka | Daily News


Ratifying Convention 189

Formalising domestic work in Sri Lanka

In 2019, the ILO commissioned a research study at the request of the Ministry of Labour regarding the formalization of domestic work in Sri Lanka. The Center for Women’s Research (CENWOR) was contracted to conduct this study, with the objective of examining living and working conditions of domestic workers, and of assessing the current legal and policy framework in Sri Lanka pertaining to domestic work. The ultimate aim in exploring these two aspects was to assist the government to ratify ILO Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Having included the ratification of C189 in the National Human Rights Action Plan for 2017-2022, the government articulated its commitment to ratifying C189, and commissioned this study to provide an evidence-base to inform ratification and formalization.

On January 7 2020, CENWOR researchers presented the findings of the research, as well as pathways to formalization, to an audience of trade unionists, Civil Society Organisations, researchers, ILO representatives, Department of Labour representatives, and other relevant stakeholders.

C189: the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011

Uruguay was the first, The Philippines was the second, and since then, 29 countries have ratified C189. This Convention sets out decent standards of work for domestic workers “recognizing the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy,” acknowledging that this sector of work “continues to be undervalued and invisible” and that workers are “particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights”. It thus sets out minimum, decent standards of work for a formally excluded group in precarious work, most of whom are women, and is supplemented by Recommendation 201.

Describing the demographic trends of a growing middle class and a growing ageing population in Sri Lanka, CENWOR researcher Asha Abeysekera noted, “with this informed point of view, we can make the conjecture that there will be an increasing demand for domestic workers in the country”– a fact which will necessitate that adequate, protective laws be secured.

Living and working conditions

Some of the main research findings regarding terms of employment included the following: over 90% of workers had not received a written contract, yet functioned off verbal agreements with their employers; there appeared to be a huge range in wages, with some workers receiving as little as Rs.5,000 per month and some receiving over Rs. 30,000 per month, highlighting the nonexistence of a minimum wage; of the sample of live-in workers, 22% reported facing psychological harassment, with five individuals reporting having experienced unacceptable sexual behaviour (in one instance- rape), and the majority of respondents reported that they did not complain about problems they faced in their living and working lives due, mainly, to the fear of losing their jobs.

Bringing domestic workers within scope of legal protection

Following the summary of research findings, which highlighted the lack of protections existent for domestic workers as well as a review of the legal and policy framework in Sri Lanka, the following recommendations to formalise domestic work were made by the study team:

1) The enactment of a distinct law for domestic workers

2) The incorporation of domestic workers into existing laws (which is a process that has already been initiated by the Ministry of Labour following advocacy efforts on the part of the Domestic Workers’ Union, and key government officials, past and present)

3) The introduction of a Standard Agreement (in the form of a model contract) between employers and employees

4) The creation of a State-led formal system of registration of domestic workers and to ensure the terms and conditions by a government circular

Researchers also highlighted the complexities that the above options would entail, such as issues related to incorporating different categories of domestic workers into legal frameworks, and the difficulty of monitoring working and living conditions of workers given that work occurs in private households.

The road map to ratification

After presenting the findings of the research study, the researchers delineated the Road Map to Ratification of C189.

The Road Map focused on the following:

1) that a government institution (such as the Ministry of Labour) take the lead in formalizing/regularizing domestic work

2) that domestic workers be subcategorised based on the specific areas of work they do (to determine which salary scales and other benefits would apply to them)

3) that there exist training programmes and courses, similar to those available for migrating domestic workers, for local domestic workers

4) that awareness be raised on the subject to create an environment conducive to the implementation of effective legal and social protections

5) that key monitoring and accountability mechanisms be established

6) that a proper documentation system be established.

Reflections on the research

Joint-President of the Domestic Workers’ Union (DWU), Sathya Vani, commended the Roadmap when it was presented, yet regarding the section of the study that had focused on the living and working conditions of domestic workers, commented on how, “the researchers spoke to one Muslim worker, and a large proportion of domestic workers in Sri Lanka are Muslim. It is important that research studies, in the future, expand their sample populations to be more representative.”

Anusha Sivarajah, Representative of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) commented that the CWC had, decades prior, requested that labour organisations take up the issue of domestic work’s precariousness, yet that this was met with little response. “I am happy that labour organisations have begun to take up this issue now.” Describing how the CWC initially worked exclusively in the plantation sector, the union expanded its scope to focus on all categories of informal workers following the murder of 2 domestic workers in Colombo a number of years ago. It dedicated a specific unit within the union for domestic workers’ issues. Sivarajah gave the CWC’s commitment moving forward with the Roadmap. “We will give you our full support moving forward to ratify this convention” she commented.

Pathway to formalization

Ratifying a convention means that member states commit to implementing it. There is therefore a lot of national-level work to be done (in the area of law and policy making/amending) to make sure that the tenets of the convention come to fruition.

Ambika Satkunanathan, Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, explains that, “in addition to ratifying conventions, it is important to focus on enabling legislation so that the convention(s) can be effectively implemented.” She invokes the case of CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) noting that although Sri Lanka has ratified this Convention, its tenets are yet to be fully realized on the ground. She states that once the Convention has been ratified and laws within the country have been amended in line with the tenets of the Convention, it is “imperative that we implement, and abide by, the law.”

Which should come first in the formalization process? Securing national laws or ratifying the convention?

CENWOR researcher, Ramani Jayasundere, commented that there were different pathways used by countries to formalize domestic work. Some countries have changed national laws prior to ratifying C189, and others, such as India, have not ratified C189 but are working towards securing domestic workers within national labour laws.

Madhavie Gunawardena, Commissioner of Labour (Women and Child Affairs), expressed that, “as the Department of Labour is currently in the process of including domestic workers within multiple provisions of existing labour laws, it would be best to ratify the Convention after these laws have been secured”.

Concluding the consultation, Balasingham Skanthakumar, Senior Programme Officer at the ILO Country Office in Sri Lanka and the Maldives noted, “we need to think in a more creative, less bureaucratic way of how social protection can be made accessible to the people they are supposed to protect”. Referring to the worker-unfriendly EPF and ETF schemes that currently exist – a topic that was broached by a representative of the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon – Skanthakumar commented, “the protections that we are attempting to secure are not just for domestic workers.

What we are trying to do here for this group of workers will also be of enormous benefit to others in the informal economy – all those in casual work, all those who seem to fall who seem to fall employee/employer relationships”.

That the inclusion of domestic workers within national labour laws is an ongoing process is hopeful, and suggests that an enabling environment is being created for the implementation of certain tenets of C189. However, formalization is a complex process that requires altering social perceptions and attitudes in addition to developing policies and laws, all of which will work in tandem to ensure that domestic workers are effectively brought within the scope of legal protection in Sri Lanka.

The role of Convention 189 is to facilitate this long-term goal, and Sri Lanka appears to be on the way to ratifying it, yet will require the support of all stakeholders to make this a reality.

(The writer is a voluntary activist on labour issues and a freelance commentator.)

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