Written by 11:31 am Verité in the News Views: 2

Invisible Under the Law: The Consistent Neglect of Domestic Workers in Sri Lanka

Published on The Sunday Times 

As COVID-19 sinks its teeth into Sri Lanka anew this month, Work-From-Home (WFH) has become the new modus operandi for white-collar workers. As our domestic and working spaces merge into one, we now better understand that work holds value regardless of where it is done.

With this recognition comes growing demands for labour protections for home-based work. In the shift to WFH, labour scholars and activists are pushing for new laws to protect employees’ normal hours of work and prevent the erosion of earned rest and leave, whether this labour takes place in the factory, the office, or in the home.

While Sri Lanka’s socialist history ensures that most classes of workers are protected by laws that regulate their working hours, rest and leave, and minimum wages, our laws have continuously neglected an unseen yet vital sector of home-based workers – domestic workers. Their work remains mostly unregulated, resulting in a large class of labourers who are exceedingly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. June 16 marks International Domestic Workers’ Day — an apt time to reflect on the current state of domestic work in Sri Lanka.

The only legislation that directly acknowledges domestic workers in Sri Lanka is the Domestic Servants Ordinance No. 28 of 1871. Aside from being grievously outdated, its primary purpose was to limit the freedom of movement of domestic workers as opposed to protecting their rights. In contrast, the Labour Code is wide-ranging, yet domestic workers are rarely acknowledged in this piece of legislation, and are often explicitly excluded from the legal protections mentioned in the Code. Herein lies the problem. It is not that Sri Lanka lacks labour laws; it is that Sri Lankan labour laws do not make any attempt to acknowledge and protect domestic work as “real” work.

Dawn till dusk

The Labour Code limits the normal working hours for employees of shops and offices in Sri Lanka. They are not to exceed eight hours on any one day, and not exceed 45 hours in any one week. However, there is no legislation to regulate the working hours of domestic workers. Given that many domestic workers are live-in workers, they are often expected to cook meals, wash dishes, clean floors, launder and iron clothes, and handle a myriad other tasks around their employer’s home, often resulting in them working from dawn to dusk quite literally.

A landmark survey by Verite Research, an independent think tank based in Colombo, found that 63 percent of surveyed domestic workers did not have specified working hours, with residential domestic workers clocking in a shocking average of 12.45 hours a day. Notably, since normal hours of work remain legally undefined for domestic workers, the concept of overtime pay is also non-existent for these workers. Thus, despite the fact that many of these workers are working much longer hours than office employees, their additional work hours are rarely compensated.

No rest for the hard-working

Through the Shop and Office Employees Act, most employees in Sri Lanka are entitled to seven days of paid casual leave and 14 days of paid annual leave each year. However, there are no laws that regulate how much paid leave a domestic worker can take — let alone whether they are even entitled to paid leave. Once again, the informal and unregulated nature of domestic work means that domestic workers’ leave entitlement is entirely dependent on the benevolence of their employers.

Aside from annual leave entitlements, most employees take for granted the welcome respite of the weekend, when they are usually free of work. The ILO Domestic Workers Convention of 2011 states that domestic workers should also receive a weekly rest period of at least 24 consecutive hours. No such laws exist in the Sri Lankan legislation, however. The Verite Research survey found that while 82 percent of non-residential domestic workers had a day-off each week, only 10 percent of residential domestic workers reported having 24 consecutive hours of rest each week. Instead, a majority of residential domestic workers reported receiving a full day-off only once a month.

Pay below the bare minimum

As the pandemic forces businesses to tighten their belts, those who are facing pay cuts would do well to recall that, by law, the minimum monthly wage for any employee is LKR 10,000, while the minimum daily wage is LKR 400. Even though these minimum wage levels set out by the National Minimum Wage of Workers Act of 2016 (NMWWA) are barely enough to sustain an individual, let alone a family, the fact remains that these meagre protections are still better than having no wage protections.

A discerning reader may now be able to guess that because domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the definition of “worker” set out in the Act, they are deprived of even this limited wage protection.

What now?

Together, these three oversights in the labour law — no normal hours of work, no rest and leave entitlements, and no minimum wage — result in a dire situation for domestic workers in Sri Lanka. But the solution is relatively straightforward. Given that the problem originates in the lack of legal coverage of domestic workers, the solution must be to expand the scope of Sri Lanka’s current labour laws to include domestic workers within their ambit.

Naysayers may argue that the nature of domestic work is too fluid and amorphous to be regulated, but this is not true. As far back as 2013, the Philippines, which has a socioeconomic structure similar to Sri Lanka’s and a large domestic work sector, introduced an act that addressed all the issues highlighted in this article. Incidents of non-compliance can be reported to the regional Department of Labour Employment office, where the involved parties will have to undergo a 30-day mediation process to attempt a settlement. If the mediation attempts fail, the employer may incur a fine for non-compliance.

The Philippines may not yet have the perfect system of protections for domestic workers – but it has begun to take the first steps in the right direction. So too must Sri Lanka. Ideally, we must first ratify the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) and then create national legislation in line with the Convention. Even if Sri Lanka is unwilling to commit to all clauses of the ILO Convention, we may yet pass our own Domestic Workers’ Act defending the most basic rights of a domestic worker.

The current lack of legislation protecting domestic workers in Sri Lanka is jarring given how many Sri Lankan women work overseas as migrant domestic workers. Whenever reports of the abuse of Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers in the Middle East come in, we are quick to condemn the lax attitudes of foreign governments. Yet within our own country, we tolerate archaic laws that still refer to domestic workers as “servants” and indeed, treat them as second-class citizens.

The carework provided by these domestic workers is important, and deserves to be recognized as real work. We cannot protest the inhumane treatment of Sri Lankan domestic workers abroad, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the shoddy state of affairs in our own home.

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Last modified: April 1, 2024