They are often called the hidden workforce. But their numbers are huge: in Asia, more than 21 million women and men work as domestic workers, according to a new report from the International Labour Organisation. In fact, these are conservative estimates based on official statistics; many more have probably gone uncounted.
What is clear is that domestic work is a significant source of jobs, especially for women, and that the sector is growing fast across Asia - by 50 per cent over the past 15 years. Hong Kong alone now employs 300,000 foreign domestic workers.
Recently, the public debate in Hong Kong has focused on the question of residency for domestic workers who have worked in the city for many years. But a more fundamental question is often lost in the debate: do we treat domestic workers as equals, or as second-class workers?
Let's start with some of the basic rights that most of us take for granted - such as a day off, or a good night's sleep. If you are a domestic worker in Asia, you will most likely depend on the goodwill of your employer for these "luxuries". Because, as of 2010, a mere 3 per cent of Asia's domestic workers could turn to the labour laws to claim a weekly day of rest, and only 1 per cent could rely on a statutory limit of their working hours. Paid annual leave? Dream on, unless you are among the 3 per cent that are covered.
Other regions, namely Latin America with its 19.6 million domestic workers, show that better legal protection is feasible. Of course, compliance is not always perfect. Only a third of Brazil's domestic workers are enrolled under the social security scheme, but that is a huge improvement since the mid-1990s. And the wages of Brazil's domestic workers have doubled in real terms over the same period, largely due to increases in minimum wages, which cover these workers.
Like elsewhere, Hong Kong's domestic workers have taken to the streets to protest against poor working conditions. It's true that, in some respects, they are better off than many of their counterparts elsewhere in Asia. The familiar scene of domestic workers gathering in Central on Sundays is testimony to their right to a weekly day of rest. And the minimum allowable wage (HK$ 3,920 per month) sets a floor for their wages, although live-in domestic workers remain exempt from the rates of the Minimum Wage Ordinance.
Nonetheless, Hong Kong can - and should - do more to position itself as a place with fair labour standards for domestic workers, for example by limiting their often excessive working hours and by remunerating overtime.
Ruthless practices by private employment agencies are another concern. The ILO's Convention on Domestic Workers and other international labour standards call for the regulation of these agencies, including an effective complaints mechanism and the prevention of fraudulent practices. Placement fees should always be borne by the employer, and not by the worker - whether they come in the form of an outright fee, or in the disguise of a "training levy".
When abuses of domestic workers occur, this is tragic for the individual and shameful for the perpetrator, who should be punished. Widely reported in the media, such cases are also bad publicity for countries that depend on migrant domestic workers to look after their homes and children. If they want to attract the best-skilled workers, it is a much better advertisement to offer sound legal protection and to ensure effective remedies in cases of mistreatment.
There is also a business case for improving labour standards. The economic value that domestic workers create is often overlooked because it does not feature in the headline statistics on growth. However, their contribution to national welfare is sizeable: domestic workers do not only give us comfort at home, but they also enable those with care duties to leave the house and join the labour force. If professionals suddenly had to run their households without a helping hand, they would rush home early to wash dishes and change diapers - and enterprises would surely feel the toll on productivity.
The good news is that the ILO's domestic workers convention has set in motion change for the better. Last September, the Philippines became the first country in Asia to ratify the convention, and the country has recently updated its legislation. In November, Thailand announced that domestic workers will gain a right to a weekly rest day, public holidays and sick leave, and Singapore's domestic workers enjoy a weekly day of rest under new labour contracts starting this month. Vietnam's new Labour Code, which comes into effect in May, strengthens the protection of domestic workers.
This is a promising trend - but other countries have to follow suit, and much more needs to be done to give domestic workers a fair deal across Asia.
Malte Luebker is a senior regional wage specialist with the ILO's Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (Bangkok) and the principal author of the ILO's new report, Domestic workers across the world: global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection