Marilyn* is a single mother of two grade school-aged kids. She worked as a dress-maker in Oman for 16 years before returning to the Philippines in 2006.
Upon coming home, she started two businesses in her hometown — a computer shop and a bakery — with all the hard-earned money she saved for almost two decades. Both businesses were eventually ravished by typhoons. Choosing to stay with her kids instead of going back to the Middle East, Marilyn started doing part-time dressmaking work at home.
One day, a friend referred her to a company called Urbia, which serves as a concierge for providers of various services, including on-demand home cleaning services. A people person by nature, Marilyn found herself enjoying the work because of the diversity of clients she gets to interact with. In return, her clients liked her pleasing personality and the speed and efficiency with which she does her work.
By 2018, Marilyn was the most requested and highest-rated cleaner in Urbia.
The new domestic workers?
On-demand home cleaning is not a new phenomenon in the Philippines. As the number of condominium dwellers skyrocketed, so did the demand for house cleaners (and laundry washers and baby sitters) who did not have to stay in the employer’s place like traditional domestic workers usually do.
A fairly recent innovation, however, is the use of digital platforms to mediate such labor arrangements. Previously, tenants had to contact cellphone numbers advertised in bulletin boards and pinned into lamp posts to avail of on-demand home cleaning. Now services like Urbia, Cleaning Lady, Clean Zone, and Happy Helpers are rampant on Facebook and Google Play Store, making the search for a home cleaner as easy as booking a Grab ride.
The informal, flexible nature of this work also makes Marilyn one of the 1.5 million workers who are estimated to be part of the rising gig economy in the Philippines, along with Grab drivers and virtual assistants.
How technology transforms labor
In an upcoming report titled Cleaning ladies on demand: Are local digital platforms transforming domestic work in the Philippines?, FMA dives deep into the world of on-demand home cleaning. On a broader scale, the report looks at how technology is transforming labor in the Philippines, and how local policy is keeping up. The report reflects the following findings, among others:
Philippine governance structures fail to comprehensively account for the rising platform economy. Although Republic Act No. 10361 or the Batas Kasambahay provides protection for domestic workers, the seven-year-old law only accounts for the traditional full-time (and usually “stay-in”) model of domestic work and therefore does not cover those who work through digital platforms. At the same time, there is plenty of confusion as to the regulatory structure for digital labor, especially because several government agencies are working on the issue in their own isolated capacities without a harmonized framework.
Philippine domestic work platforms do not fall within existing labor platform categories. Even within the broader category of platform-based work, on-demand cleaning appears to be a class of its own. One of the most salient features of local cleaning platforms is that they are neither fully online nor fully offline, therefore taking on an “amphibian” nature. Most of these businesses utilize free tools, platforms, and social media accounts in their operations instead of developing their own or paying for software. Cleaning businesses also employ human intermediaries to arrange schedules and manage client bookings, as opposed to automated systems and algorithms utilized by most digital labor platforms.
Platform work is often regarded as supplementary or transitory work. Most of the workers we interviewed for the research were engaged in on-demand cleaning either while waiting for other opportunities or in preparation for working overseas as a domestic helper.
The conditions of platform-based domestic work are characterized by irregularity and precarity. The irregular nature of client bookings makes the work not much different from offline/traditional domestic work; although for some women, such flexibility allows them to attend to their household responsibilities, something that was near impossible with traditional full-time stay-in arrangements.
Access to technology determines platform economy inclusion. Although cleaning platforms do not fully operate online, workers are expected to use their own mobile phones to communicate with platform owners and clients, or remit payments via mobile services such as GCash and Smart Padala. These services allow women who have feature phones (i.e., phones that may not necessarily have the capacity for quality internet) to participate in the work even with limited technological resources and knowledge.
Small-scale platform enterprises also need protection and an enabling environment for them to flourish and sustain their operations. It is not a remote possibility that big global domestic/cleaning platform companies will soon penetrate the local market, as is the case with other digital platforms. As such, small local platform enterprises will be subjected to stiff competition in the platform market. In this possible scenario, the government has a crucial role to play to ensure the survival of these small platform enterprises.
Filipinos have a longstanding culture around domestic work that usually sees ‘yayas’ as part of the household or even the family. While this is usually considered to mean that domestic workers are treated well, it has also hampered widespread recognition of domestic work as a profession.
On-demand cleaning businesses, by providing technical training, logistical support, and a flexible structure for their workers, are working towards “professionalizing” domestic work while also doing away with the conditions that traditionally caused the exploitation of domestic workers, such as the “stay-in” culture and the expectation for kasambahays to be always on-call. But this feat is easier said than done.
A few months after we first interviewed her, we heard news that Marilyn was no longer working for Urbia and was preparing to resume working overseas. The reality is that although the sector holds much promise, on-demand domestic work still is not stable and lucrative enough to provide primary income to Filipino families. Like every other major industry, domestic work in the Philippines is undergoing digital transformation. And like any other digitized industry, this process necessitates change not just in technology but also in policy and public behavior.
Among the platforms we analyzed and interviewed, FMA saw the greatest potential in Clean Zone, a business that operates on a model where cleaning officers are treated as regular employees and trained to conduct and perceive themselves as professionals. A similar model to this, as well as an inclusive, responsive, and harmonized policy framework, will undoubtedly advance the agenda of domestic work as decent work.*not her real name **In the header: Photo by KC Wong, titled “Calling Home: Migrant Workers in Hong Kong,” captioned “Hong Kong is the home of some 250,000 migrant workers. Most of them are coming from Indonesia and the Philippines. Every Sundays, they come out to meet friends and make calls to their families. Communication helps to comfort and to sustain them.” Photo used under a CC BY 2.0 license.