Domestic workers demand dignity, respect, and power

Earlier this week, the Sunday Nation described the `ordeal’ of Kenyan domestic workers in Arab `slave markets’. The story focused on Mwanaisha Hussein, a Kenyan woman who left her home to work in Jeddah.

The story is in many ways typical. Mwanaisha Hussein had a job in Kenya, as a store clerk, and wanted something better. She heard about jobs in Saudi Arabia, and signed up. Signing up involved raising funds, going into debt. The promise and allure of better jobs, and better pay, were strong.  When she arrived in Saudi Arabia she found, first, difficult to terrible working conditions; second, extreme and intensifying physical and emotional abuse; third, almost absolute confinement. Desperate, she jumped from a third floor opening she created by breaking through the air conditioner vent. She was taken to hospital, where police took her report … sort of. They would not listen to any accounts of torture or abuse. Finally, with some assistance, she made it to the Kenyan embassy and, somehow, made it home to Kenya.

Today, she says, “The conditions are poor, and there is little food. It’s just horrible. I left a job here in Kenya and wasted eight months of my life. Not only that, I nearly died. I’d never go back. I’d never recommend it for anyone. I’d rather make Sh100 a day in my country.”

It’s a typical story.

In June of this year, the Kenyan government barred Kenyan women from seeking employment in Saudi Arabia. This month Nepal banned women under 30 from working in Gulf States. These bans are typical State responses. Indonesia at one point this year banned women from working in Malaysia. The Philippines has imposed bans at various times.

So, how is Hussein’s story typical?

First, Mwanaisha Hussein is not one of the poorest of the poor. Quite the opposite, she is an ambitious woman worker who sought to improve her lot. She is precisely not a pathetic participant in the narrative of the plight of the domestic worker.

Second, Mwanaisha Hussein is not a domestic worker in Kenya. Most transnational domestic workers aren’t domestic workers in their own home countries. In Kenya, for example, domestic workers are among the lowest paid workers in the land. Further, they are paid approximately 3.5 times less than domestic workers in South Africa. South African domestic workers are paid five times less than in the United Kingdom. From London to Johannesburg to Nairobi, it’s not so much a chain or ladder as a precipitously slippery slope. Kenyan domestic workers would be very hard pressed to come up with the $3000 plus it takes to get a job in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else overseas.

The story of transnational domestic workers must always be placed alongside the story of national domestic workers, especially when the State suddenly claims to care about women workers.

How does the State claim to care about its transnational women workers? By `protecting’ them from entering into `perilous’ labor markets. Does the State consult with domestic workers? No. It simply proceeds to a politics of protection.

That politics of protection is profoundly gendered and gendering. It is the virile State protecting the vulnerable woman worker.  In ancient Roman law, according to Yan Thomas, women could not exercise the `virile office’ of autonomous actions. Later, in the quickly changing world of twelfth to fifteenth century Europe, as women entered into more and more public spaces, male leaders worked night and day to `educate’ women into their basic vulnerability and need to be protected. As Carla Casagrande notes, “We do not know how many Western women in the Middle Ages lived quietly within the home, church, or convent walls, obediently listening to learned, loquacious men who imposed all sorts of rules and regulations on them…. All we know is that women had to deal daily with these men, entrusted by society (and supported by a precise ideology) with the delicate task of supporting their bodies and souls. Part of the history of women lies, therefore, in the history of these words, spoken arrogantly, affectionately, and sometimes anxiously.”

When it comes to `protecting’ women, not much has changed in the last thousand years. Today, we do not know how many Western, African, Asian, Latin American women deal daily with these men. The scale of our not knowing has expanded exponentially.

Let’s change the story. Stop talking about protecting women workers. Don’t protect domestic workers; protect domestic workers’ rights. That’s a major point of the International Labor Organization Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Domestic workers’ rights should be protected because workers’ rights should be protected. Period. Not because women are vulnerable or need protection.

Domestic workers want dignity, respect, and power. That’s the lesson this week of the campaign in California to pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. It’s as well the lesson, in Namibia, of the recently formed Domestic Workers’ Wages Commission. And it’s the lesson Mwanaisha Hussein teaches. Slavery is wrong. No one knows that better than the worker herself. As Mwanaisha Hussein explains, death is preferable to death-in-life. Decent work is the only option. That only happens when women workers organize themselves.



(Photo Credit: A Celebration of Women)


About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.