DAVAO CITY, Philippines — When I was a child, money was always tight. I had 12 brothers and sisters, and there was never enough. In our poor tribal community in the Philippines, my parents could barely scrape by to send us to school. I never dreamed that one day, I would have the chance to help change the lives of millions of women and girls.
When I was 13, I was recruited to go to Davao City as a domestic worker. I hoped that in the city, I would be able to continue my education. I found myself working long hours for a series of employers, each one worse than the last.
I cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed clothes, did errands and looked after the children. My first employer paid me only 800 pesos (US$18) a month, but often withheld my wages because of “mistakes.” When that employer moved to the United States, she handed me over to her siblings, leaving me responsible for three households for the same salary. The work left me exhausted.
I thought that my next employer, a doctor, would treat me better, but I was wrong. He never let me leave the house or use the telephone. One night he turned me out of the house with no place to go.
But the last was the worst of all. I not only had to carry out all the household chores, but also help out in their bar until 3am or 4am. I often got only three hours of sleep. They verbally and physically abused me. There were times I wanted to end everything.
I wish my story were unique, but according to a new report from the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, there are at least 15.5 million child domestic workers around the world.
Nearly half of them are younger than 14 — some are as young as 5. The majority are girls. Many have experiences like mine. They work long distances from their parents, siblings, or friends, and feel invisible and isolated. They are poorly paid, if they are paid at all, and often have no chance to go to school.
Hidden in private homes, child domestic workers may be physically or sexually abused by members of the employer’s household, but don’t know who might be able to help.
I was lucky. I was determined to continue my education and went to school on Sundays, my day off. Through my guidance counselor, I found Visayan Forum, an organization that helps domestic workers like me, and SUMAPI, an association of domestic workers. They helped me learn about my rights, and continue my education.
I became a trainer to help other domestic workers organize for decent working conditions. I finished college and became a registered social worker. Today I’m a full-time advocate for domestic workers. I am also collaborating with trade unions to organize domestic workers in the Philippines.
Two years ago, I had a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. I went to Geneva during the final negotiations of an international labor treaty for domestic workers, the Domestic Workers Convention. There, I was able to address more than 500 delegates, representing governments from around the world, trade unions, and employers.
I told them they had an opportunity to change the lives of millions of children around the world, and urged them to act to prohibit the employment of children under 14 as domestic workers, and to ensure decent working and living conditions and an education for the older ones.
The convention they adopted not only includes protections for children, but also gives all domestic workers the same labor rights as those of other workers, including a weekly day off, a minimum wage, and limits on their hours of work.
So far, seven countries from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe have ratified the convention, and many more are changing their national laws to recognize the rights of domestic workers.
I’m proud that my own country, the Philippines, was the first country from Asia to ratify the convention and recently adopted a comprehensive new law for domestic workers.
A lot has happened just in the two years since I got up to speak in front of those delegates in Geneva. The new convention and laws are already improving the lives of millions of women and girls. But more governments should act.
June 12 is the World Day against Child Labor. I hope that every government uses this day to commit them to end child labor in domestic work, and to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention.
As I told the delegates in Geneva, “We have been ignored and lived in the margins of society for so long. Now is the time to protect us.”
Lilibeth Masamloc is a former child domestic worker and the former national president of SUMAPI, a domestic workers association in the Philippines. She lives in Davao City, Philippines.