The first case of Covid-19 in the Philippines was confirmed on January 30. Two months later, on March 16, President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the entire Luzon region would be under ‘Enhanced Community Quarantine’ (ECQ) for a month. This period has since been extended twice, and is likely to be stretched further, given the huge delays in mass testing and the continued increase in positive cases across the country.
Globally, the pandemic and the resulting restrictions on our mobility have shifted the way we look at and value domestic work. Left with no choice but to stay home, people are starting to bake bread, grow plants, and clean and sanitize their homes – doing the kind of labor that in most global South contexts is commonly outsourced to care workers.
With an increased emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene, domestic work has acquired a new significance. However, domestic workers have been among the worst affected by this pandemic, considering that many are still part of the informal economy and the nature of their work exposes them to a high level of risk.
Domestic workers have been among the worst affected by this pandemic, considering that many are still part of the informal economy and the nature of their work exposes them to a high level of risk.
In the Philippines, the “no work, no pay” scheme that still structures many domestic work arrangements, means that displaced workers are left with no source of income until the quarantine is lifted. Himaya Montenegro, an organizer for United Domestic Workers of the Philippines (UNITED), says that 383 of their Metro Manila members were forced to go home to their provinces when the ECQ was announced. Most of these displaced workers were in ‘live-out’ or part-time work arrangements.
Challenges Posed by a Hybrid Model
These unusual circumstances have also posed a challenge for on-demand workers, or those who are engaged in any form of domestic work (usually home cleaning). In 2018, the Foundation for Media Alternatives conducted a research study on on-demand cleaning services in the Philippines. Originally designed as an exploration of online domestic work platforms, the study revealed that although local on-demand cleaning services maximize the use of tech platforms such as Facebook and their own websites, they take on a hybrid form, simultaneously using online platforms and offline mechanisms to operate. In most on-demand cleaning businesses, a human intermediary or a booking manager decides on who will be deployed to a cleaning appointment based on the availability of workers. Work is also non-regular and commission-based in most on-demand cleaning businesses, although we found a rare exemption in Clean Zone, which treats its cleaning officers as regular employees who receive monthly wages based on the daily minimum wage set by law.
Under the Joint Memorandum Circular No. 1, a legislation that streamlines and harmonizes the social amelioration programs of the Philippine government to mitigate the socio-economic impact of Covid-19, target beneficiaries are qualified to receive assistance under several programs including Food and Non-Food Items Distribution, Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation, Livelihood Assistance Grants, Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP), and Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Displaced/Disadvantaged Workers Barangay Ko, Bahay Ko Disinfection/Sanitation Project (TUPAD #BKBK).
Domestic workers, or those falling under the definition provided by the Batas Kasambahay or the (Domestic Workers) Act, are among the target beneficiaries of some of the programs listed above. On-demand cleaners, however do not come under the purview of this Act. They may only qualify under the category of informal workers or displaced marginalized workers, and are eligible for the TUPAD program that requires beneficiaries to work for four hours a day for a maximum of ten days in exchange for a payment that adheres to the prevailing highest minimum wage in the region. The same categorization precludes them from availing CAMP—a non-conditional financial assistance of five thousand pesos provided to affected formal sector workers.
On-demand domestic workers cannot enjoy the benefits and protections accorded to formal workers, and at the same time, are unable to enjoy the flexibility supposedly offered by gig work.
As the Fairwork Foundation has pointed out in their research on Covid-19 policies for gig workers all over the world, these workers are at the bottom of the employment hierarchy and have been thrown into the frontlines of this crisis with very little protection or safeguards. On-demand domestic work is particularly concerning as it combines the precariousness of gig work with the informality and lack of legal protection that comes with traditional domestic work. More often than not – and with the exception of rare cases like Clean Zone where cleaners find regular employment – on-demand cleaners are trapped in a catch-22 situation. They cannot enjoy the benefits and protections accorded to formal workers, and at the same time, are unable to enjoy the flexibility supposedly offered by gig work. This is because on-demand cleaning in the Philippines is usually done through a supervising intermediary instead of a direct worker-to-client platform, leaving the worker with very little say in the work they undertake.
When asked about the most pressing needs and demands of domestic workers, Montenegro was quick to point to the slow implementation of the government’s social amelioration programs. According to her, as of April 21, only a small percentage of the social amelioration beneficiaries have been serviced. Some UNITED members have encountered difficulties in applying for the TUPAD program due to red tape in some local government units, and some are even unable to submit documentary requirements because of the ECQ.
More importantly, these government benefits can only go so far. Once these financial provisions have run out, even if the quarantine period is lifted, care workers will have to go back to wondering how to afford their next meal as their entire source of livelihood stands disrupted.
Adjusting to Covid-Related Disruptions
Small businesses, too, are highly impacted by the pandemic and the resulting lockdown. When the ECQ was declared, most on-demand cleaning services had no choice but to halt operations and disrupt their revenue flow. Small business owners had to cope with the disruption by coming up with creative ways to sustain their enterprises.
As of April 2020, Clean Zone has suspended 80 percent of its operations and is now only offering sanitation services to office spaces. This is being done by trained cleaning officers who are provided with full personal protective equipment. Although Clean Zone’s cleaning officers are all considered regular employees, the suspension of most Clean Zone services also means that the workers cannot receive the same wages as before. To address the needs of their employees, Clean Zone decided to do an early disbursement of the 13th month pay—a government-mandated benefit that requires employers to grant the pay to all its rank-and-file employees no later than December 24 each year. Clean Zone is also trying to equalize the opportunities as much as possible by rotating the few sanitation appointments they do take on among the pool of cleaning officers. The company is making sure that these officers are picked up from home, transported by a company vehicle, and provided meals and vitamins.
More than band-aid solutions and temporary assistance, what small businesses and domestic workers – whether traditional or on-demand – need is a legal framework that protects their income and their personal safety from crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
Other local cleaning business have adopted similar measures to deal with the disruption in business. Happy Helpers is a social enterprise that employs women from poor communities for on-demand housekeeping and cleaning services. When the Metro Manila lockdown prevented these women from finding work, Happy Helpers decided to organize a donation drive for an Emergency Support Fund. The enterprise was able to pool enough funds to provide a weekly allowance to their beneficiaries, sufficient to feed their families. The management is also keeping in touch with the ‘happy helpers’ through their ‘coaches’ or supervisors, who regularly report on how workers are coping. Like many other cleaning businesses, Happy Helpers concentrated on selling its own line of cleaning implements. The management sought to avail of the government’s CAMP initiative, but were unable to apply since the Department of Labor and Employment could not accomodate any more requests by the time the platform submitted its requirements. Cleaning Lady PH, which partners with an organized community to hire disadvantaged women, also pooled cash donations from clients to provide financial assistance to its workers.
Such measures are no doubt critical in providing immediate relief. However, more than band-aid solutions and temporary assistance, what small businesses and domestic workers – whether traditional or on-demand – need is a legal framework that protects their income and personal safety in a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Recommendations from our earlier research still stand: small businesses and platforms must be supported so that they can, in turn, provide workers with decent opportunities and a comprehensive set of rights and protections. The platforms themselves should be able to access government support in the Magna Carta for Micro Small and Medium Enterprises. Furthermore, defining labor standards for platform work as decent work, and amending the Kasambahay Law to provide for the rights of on-demand domestic workers will go a long way in ameliorating some of the precarity workers currently have to contend with.
This article is part of our Labor in the Digital Economy series.