Protecting Domestic Workers with the Blockchain
June 22, 2022
Migrant domestic workers and their challenges
Cooking, cleaning, laundry, childcare—domestic labor is essential labor in any society. In Vietnam, a rapidly growing middle class has produced skyrocketing demand for paid domestic workers—both live-in and hourly—particularly in large metropolises like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and domestic workers have become an important part of the gig economy.
The development of a paid domestic workforce has been recognized as a way to ease the unequal distribution of unpaid labor in the home, which continues to fall on women and girls in the household and remains undervalued. These unpaid domestic responsibilities in turn hinder women’s participation in education, employment, and community leadership. A workforce of paid domestics thus has the potential to free women from unpaid labor and allow them to contribute more fully to their society.
Studies have shown, however, that domestic workers in Vietnam are themselves almost exclusively women who have migrated from rural to urban areas, have scant skills and education, and typically find work through informal channels such as friends and relatives. While they average better pay than other low-skilled workers, their informal status leaves them without bargaining power and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Domestics in the informal economy typically cannot provide employers or recruiters with formal documentation of their identities, training, or prior work experience. As migrants, they are often unable to access essential social and financial services due to cumbersome paperwork and administrative requirements. And as public agencies begin to go digital, many domestic workers are being left further behind. But perhaps not for much longer, as a new technology promises to streamline and secure the documentation that can bring informal labor migrants into the formal economy, protecting their rights and opening new opportunities.
A role for technology
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), a revolution in information and communications technology, is progressing rapidly in Vietnam. Rates of mobile and internet use are high. By early 2022, the country had 93.5 million smartphone subscribers, and 73.2 percent of the population were internet users. Now, 4IR technologies are attracting the attention of advocates for the rights and welfare of informal workers such as domestics.
In recent years, startups such as BTaskee, GiupViecTot, JupViec.vn, and Phu Viec Nhanh have offered web-based services or mobile apps to connect domestic workers with urban households. These new platforms have helped domestic workers find more stable jobs with higher pay and more flexible hours, the last an essential for female workers who also have their own burden of housework and childcare.
One emerging technology that has been widely discussed within The Asia Foundation–Vietnam is blockchain, a form of distributed, digital ledger that automatically records transactions in a continuously growing list that is essentially immutable.
In early 2019, with funding support from the U.S. State Department, The Asia Foundation–Vietnam began a partnership with HCM House Cleaning Services Development JSC (JupViec.vn), an online service that matches domestics with employers, and the Vietnam Blockchain Corporation, a technology company specializing in innovative blockchain applications, on a project called Blockchain Solutions to Address Worker-Rights Challenges. The pilot project is the first ever to use blockchain technology to address the needs and vulnerabilities of domestic workers in Vietnam.
At the time of this writing, the Foundation and its local partners have successfully developed a blockchain-based digital identity solution for JupViec.vn’s current system. The blockchain ledger keeps an unfalsifiable record, which workers can show to prospective employers, government officials, banks, and other entities, of personal information such as name, age, and place of birth, work permits and licenses, training certificates and credentials, and employment and payroll history.
The user’s identity information is automatically recorded with a digital timestamp and cannot be modified or deleted from the blockchain by any entity or individual without leaving a mark. In case of errors, the user can ask the platform manager to make corrections, but the change and the justification for it are recorded. The data is stored securely and privately: prospective employers view the blockchain record through a separate interface, and the workers themselves control who may review their blockchain record and what information will appear.
After training on the new system, I think it’s a miracle. All my identity information, including my training certificates and work experience, is verified by the company and stored on the blockchain, and no one can change this information. I have been doing domestic work for more than 10 years, and never before have I had my information available like this. —Ms. Hien, a domestic worker in Hanoi.
Benefits for domestic workers
To date, the pilot project has introduced the new system, along with training in basic elements of labor law, to nearly 2,000 female domestic workers connected with JupViec.vn, using a training-of-trainers approach. Initial results have shown promise, increasing the accuracy and transparency of migrant domestic workers’ personal records, reducing human error in document checks, and promoting adherence to statutory labor standards by providing access to information and documented status that workers in the informal economy often lack.
The digital identity information recorded on the blockchain cannot be damaged or lost like paper certificates. Domestic workers can choose what information they wish to share with recruiters or customers at any time. With a permanent and accurate record of skills training, work experience, professional certificates, and earning history, domestic workers are better positioned to bargain for their true value when negotiating salary and other benefits with a prospective employer.
After training on the blockchain technology, I see that all my information, certificates, and working hours are recorded in a public and transparent manner; no one can falsify this information. Customers can view the profile of any housekeeper, so they have a basis to evaluate and select someone with the skills and experience they need. As for the domestics, instead of being paid a standard wage as before, our pay increases with our experience, certification, skills, and good customer reviews. —Ms. Bui Thao My, a domestic worker in Hanoi.
Improved access to social services
The blockchain platform offers a transparent and reliable way for domestic workers to provide reliable information to customers or other parties without complicated requests for paper records or cumbersome procedures with employers, recruiters, or government agencies. Going forward, we hope to see migrant domestic workers use this verified information to gain access to essential services such as savings, credit, and insurance accounts, or healthcare and education.
Through the blockchain technology my work is accurately and transparently recorded. I can see the amount of money I earn every day, every month, and my salary increases with my experience and skills. Through blockchain, I can also see how I am evaluated by customers. Their compliments and thanks ultimately make me believe that my work is meaningful and brings value to many people. —Ms. Lai Thi Duy Hong, a domestic worker in Ho Chi Minh City.
View a video demonstration of the Blockchain Solutions to Address Worker-Rights Challenges project here (in Vietnamese with English subtitles).
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Anh is a program specialist in social development and gender with The Asia Foundation in Vietnam. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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