Cherrylin Reyes, Titin Rohaetin Suryadi, Fatima Benkharbouche, and Minah Janah say NO! to slavery … and win!


In the United Kingdom, today, October 18, is Anti-Slavery Day. Today, October 18, in two separate decisions, England’s Supreme Court decided that domestic workers employed by diplomats have the right to sue their former “employer”. These rulings have been hailed as landmark decisions, and hopefully not only for the United Kingdom. For migrant domestic workers, they could be the shot heart in capitals round the world.

The first case involves Cherrylin Reyes, directly, and Titin Rohaetin Suryadi. Cherrylin Reyes, a Filipina worker, worked for the al-Malki household from January 18, 2011, until March 14, 2011. Titin Rohaetin Suryadi, an Indonesian worker, worked for the household from May 16, 2011, to September 19, 2011. Both women have described inhuman working conditions. They worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and were not allowed to leave the house, except to take out the trash. Cherrylin Reyes reports that the al-Malkis took her passport and prohibited any contact with her family. Titin Rohaetin Suryadi says that her payment, such as it was, was sent directly to her family, rather than being given to her. The two also allege that they were trafficked, and have letters from the UK Border Agency that note that there are “reasonable grounds” for the claim. Additionally, Cherrylin Reyes and Titin Rohaetin Suryadi argue they were paid below minimum wage, and that they were subjected to racial discrimination.

On March 14, 2011, Cherrylin Reyes reported the situation to the police, after which she fled. On September 19, 2011, while the ambassador was away and his wife was asleep, Titin Rohaetin Suryadi escaped. In 2011, Cherrylin Reyes tried to take the al-Malkis before an Employment Tribunal. The Tribunal and then lower courts held that al-Malki, who was a diplomat from 2010 to 2014, had diplomatic immunity. With the help of the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) and Kalaayan, an organization that works for justice for migrant domestic workers in the United Kingdom, Reyes appealed the decision.

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the employment of domestic workers in the diplomat’s household was not part of the diplomat’s official function, and so residual diplomatic immunity was lost once al-Malki left his post. Further, a majority of the Court added that human trafficking is a ‘commercial activity’, and so also falls outside of the diplomat’s functions and therefore outside of the reach of diplomatic immunity. Both ATLEU and Kalayaan are pursuing other cases that will challenge so-called diplomatic immunity of domestic worker employers while they are in post.

In the second case, two Moroccan women, Fatima Benkharbouce and Minah Janah, had worked for employees of Sudan’s and Libya’s embassies, respectively. The two claim they were forced to work unlawful hours and were paid far below the minimum wage, and took their employers to the Employment Tribunal, which denied the claims, again on the basis of state and diplomatic immunity. The claims were based on both UK and EU laws. The Supreme Court today ruled that the claims based on EU laws had to be considered.

This means that Cherrylin Reyes, and ultimately Titin Rohaetin Suryadi, and Fatima Benkharbouche and Minah Janah can proceed, as regular workers, to take their cases and cause to the Employment Tribunal.

Avril Sharp, Policy Officer for Kalayaan, explained, “These cases were about access to justice for domestic workers, including those who had been trafficked to the UK and exploited in domestic servitude and forced labour. Human trafficking and modern slavery are grave human rights violations … Kalayaan will continue to support domestic workers and assist them to bring cases before the employment tribunal to ensure their employers are held to account. Diplomatic immunity should not act as a bar to enforcing rights and is at odds with the UK’s stated aims of combatting and preventing modern slavery.”

Cherrylin Reyes added, “I am delighted that the supreme court agrees that I can take my claim against the al-Malkis. I know there are lots of other domestic workers who have suffered like me and I am delighted that they will be able to use this case to get redress, and that they will not have to wait as long as I have done. I see myself as a fighter. Bringing this case has made me stronger.” Bringing this case has made us all stronger, and that much closer to justice for all.

 

(Photo Credit: Kalayaan) (Image Credit: Lexisnexis)

SB 4 and the Domestic Workers Fighting Against It: “We have a beautiful sisterhood”

Araceli Herrera

Amid the continuous attacks on undocumented immigrants across the United States, on September 25th courts permitted key elements of Texas’ Senate Bill 4 to go into effect, which allows police to work with immigration officials in detaining suspected undocumented people. SB 4 acts as a ban on sanctuary cities, by allowing police to inquire about immigration status during routine traffic stops, keeping undocumented people detained in jails, and punishing officers or city officials who refuse to comply with the legislation.

Opponents of the bill have raised concerns over the bill as infringing on people’s First and Fourth Amendment rights, and the risk of increased racial profiling during traffic stops. With the increase of racist, anti-immigrant sentiment permeating the country, it is a legitimate concern for those who are undocumented who may fear that they are one stop away from being detained and deported.

That concern has not stopped those who most at risk from speaking out against it. Many immigrants living in Texas have raised their voices in opposition to the bill, most notably domestic workers who fear they are most at risk because of the precarity of their jobs.

Araceli Herrera is a domestic worker who cleans houses for a living and was an undocumented worker for years. She was the founder of Domésticas Unidas, a coalition of domestic workers which fights to empower and educate undocumented domestic workers in San Antonio. The coalition is based on camaraderie and sisterhood among groups of domestic workers who met on a bus route before they started their workdays. Meeting on public transportation, the group could assist one another in instances of illness, which prevented a member from receiving her wages, to offering condolences after the death of a relative. When the bus route was suspended, the women organized, fought, and won the restoration of the route four years later. The group’s official motto became, “Cooking, Cleaning, Organizing and Fighting, The World Changes.”

Domestic workers in Texas have been subject to exploitative labor conditions that could be exacerbated if SB 4 isn’t struck down. 59% of all domestic workers are undocumented and 26% of those domestic workers are live-in nannies, placing them at the mercy of their employers. Many are subject to slave like conditions, abuse and exploitation, afraid to speak out because of their employers’ threats of report and deportation.

Live out domestic workers, who rely on having cars and driving to get to their jobs, do so without a license, as Texas has not issued driver’s licenses to non-naturalized citizens in nearly six years. Domestic workers in Texas therefore need to carefully navigate the public and private sphere for fear of deportation in all walks of life.

In response, domestic workers have organized workshops that educate undocumented women on the rights they have during traffic stops. Fear and anxiety about SB4 has persuaded many that ignorance of the law is the wisest route. According to Araceli Herrera, “Many don’t want to know how SB4 will hurt them because they are scared. They go with their little kids and open their eyes when their questions are answered.”  Instead of hoping and praying for the best,  Domésticas Unidas workshops advise undocumented immigrants in Texas to memorize their respective lawyer’s phone number.

Although racist ideology concerning undocumented people has won at the state level in Texas, the sisterhood of Domésticas Unidas forges forward, undeterred. Undocumented domestic workers and supporters have been out in force, marching in San Antonio, and protesting at the State Capitol in Austin. Workers have put their undocumented status on display, fighting against a bill that will put themselves and their families in jeopardy. During such time, they will make sure to provide advocacy campaigns to empower other domestics to fight for their rights against exploitation and abuse at their place of employment as well. In the words of Araceli Herrera, “We have a beautiful sisterhood.”

 

(Photo Credit: Scott Ball / Texas Monthly)

What happened to Sophia Rhianne Dulluog? Just another domestic worker falling from the sky

 


On the first Sunday of September, domestic workers and their allies marched in the streets of the city center of Hong Kong, chanting, “We are workers, not slaves!” 35-year-old Sophia Rhianne Dulluog, a Filipina domestic “helper”, was nowhere to be seen and yet everywhere. On August 9, Sophia Rhianne Dulluog was cleaning the outside of the windows of her employer’s apartment in a high rise building. She fell to her death: “No suicide note was reportedly found, and there were no suspicious circumstances. The police has classified her death as caused by `falling from a height’. Dulluog, who hailed from Santiago, Isabela, was a single mother to a 10-year-old boy. She arrived in Hong Kong three years ago.” The report language is flat because the incident is absolutely ordinary. In March 18, a 47-year-old Filipina worker working in the same neighborhood as Sophia Rhianne Dulluog fell to her death. In the past year, at least four other domestic workers have died, in Hong Kong, from “work accidents or suicide”. Those deaths were neither accident nor suicide. They were murder, and given the victims, femicide.

None of this is new. Domestic workers, such as Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, struggle daily and organize to end the spectacular as well as casual violence employers heap on domestic workers. Domestic workers, such as Evangeline Banao Vallejos, struggle daily and organize to end the structural, exclusionary violence the State piles on transnational domestic workers. In public and in private, domestic workers have organized for decent work, dignity, and democracy. They have done so for decades, and they are doing so today.

And yet women like Sophia Rhianne Dulluog are falling from the sky to their deaths, and for what? For the windows to be cleaned? As a spokesperson for the Asian Migrants Co-ordinating Body noted, “Cleaning windows from the outside is not a domestic worker’s duty. It’s a responsibility of the building management.” And there it is. It’s cheaper to have domestic workers clean the outside of windows than the building management, and if a few die in the process, that’s the collateral damage of global urban development. After all, Sophia Rhianne Dulluog didn’t have to come to Hong Kong, she chose to. Right?

The domestic worker protesters called for an increase in the minimum wage for foreign domestic workers. Meanwhile, almost 72 percent are paid less than the minimum wage. The law says employers have to provide “suitable accommodation.” Close to 40 percent do not have their own room. Many live in “boxes”, “dog houses.” Employers are supposed to provide either free food or a food allowance. For many, that’s not happening.

None of this is new. The global political economy has been built on the acceptability and necessity of expendable slaves, and dogs, among us. They are meant to be the walking embodiment of social death and death-in-life. Other than their capacity as super-exploited labor, they are less than nothing. That’s why domestic workers’ struggles for decent work, dignity and democracy are crucial, because, while they are not the wooden shoes in the global machinery, they are the ones who wear and throw those shoes.

What happened to Sophia Rhianne Dulluog? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, just another domestic worker falling from the sky. “No suicide note was reportedly found, and there were no suspicious circumstances.”

 

 

(Photo Credit: Coconuts Hong Kong / Loryjean Yungco)

In India, domestic workers demand more than “protection”

Domestic workers stage a demonstration in Jharkhand.

For the last decade, domestic workers in India have organized to assert their dignity and rights as women, workers, and women workers. They have forced unwilling legislators to pass various laws. Numerous commissions have produced reports. At the same time, the conditions of domestic workers in India has stayed the same or worsened, because the State has refused to recognize them as workers, citizens or humans, and because that refusal is understood as `failure’. It’s not failure. It’s a consistent and persistent State policy to write low-income women workers under erasure. The State holds them on a string over an abyss, and then charges them for the gift of ever-intensified precariousness. Domestic workers as citizenship and humanity denied are not so much the face as the body of urban development in the new world disorder.

In the last days of 2009, Mumbai’s bais, or domestic workers, received a modicum of recognition when the state of Maharastra passed the Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board Bill. Maharastra was the seventh state to pass a domestic workers’ bill. At that time there were an estimated 500,000 domestic workers, mainly women, in Mumbai alone, and over a million across the state. Domestic worker unions and associations had been lobbying for such a bill for twenty years. Meanwhile, “State labour minister Nawab Malik, though, has termed this a `welfare measure’, adding that enforcement (punishment for violation) would not be considered at this stage.”  The rule of law has always translated domestic workers into recipient-clients of welfare. In the intervening years, in terms of enforcement, nothing has changed for domestic workers.

Indian domestic workers figure prominently in the news as surrogate mothers or as trafficked workers but seldom as simply workers. Domestic workers are the bricks of the construction of global cities, in India as elsewhere, and the epicenter is Delhi: “Women from tribal regions are considered to be hard working, honest, simple, docile, and unaware of market demands and are in great demand. A higher wage in the metropolitan than what they would otherwise get in their state attracts a large number to migrate to Delhi, Calcutta or Mumbai. The Delhi metropolitan is their most preferred destination. In Mumbai and Calcutta the locals from the surrounding areas take up domestic work but the Delhi locals are generally well-to-do and have opportunity to take up other work thus leaving the domestic work on the migrants. Another reason for high demand for domestic workers in Delhi is because of high concentration of business head offices, IT businesses, banking firms employing men and women in highly paid, skilled, professional work. The upkeep of these professionals working long hours is only possible because of the support of host of low paid workers. Amongst many such workers are the domestic workers – the house cleaners, care takers of children and elderly relatives of the high paid professionals. Urban professionals transfer a growing share of ‘domestic’ work to the market place by hiring labour themselves. Today many middle class women are doing higher skilled waged work and employing migrant poor women `maids’ to do the domestic work. In some cases it is seen that keeping a house helper has become a status symbol and women from affluent background have withdrawn themselves from household duties. Thus in the shadow of these growth sectors there is growth of low-paid low-status workers, who are often migrant and to sustain its urban population Delhi needs to import domestic workers from impoverished tribal hinterland.”

That hinterland is Jharkhand. A recent ILO report examined two of the most frequented migration routes for female domestic workers: Kerala to the Arab countries and Jharkhand to New Delhi. The report found that, along with the typical push factors, the Jharkhand-to-Delhi pipeline was increasingly dominated by unscrupulous labor agents, who charge employers high placement fees, charge workers with dubious travel costs, and trap workers in eleven-month contracts.

Two aspects stand out in the ILO report. First, there is no law regulating the recruitment of domestic workers in India. Second, there is little or no data on the conditions of labor, employment or anything concerning the largely tribal and adivasi women who travel from Jharkhand to Delhi and back. Why? Because the State actively does not care about women caregivers.

While organizing and advocating, women workers are also refusing: “When an employer repeatedly pressed Lata to take up domestic work at his house in place of an older worker, she refused to take up that job, although it would have added to her income. She questions why older workers are not hired. It’s not as if domestic workers get pension.” Lata refused, and in so doing bound herself to the older woman she was meant to displace.

The story of domestic labor is one of migration, and as much of that migration occurs within borders as across. The violence of invisibility visited upon domestic workers is a function of their gender, of being-women, of women doing `women’s work’ which is considered no work at all. In India, women domestic workers are saying NO! As workers and as women, they want the protections they deserve, but that’s only the beginning. Each refusal is an articulation of power. In India today, women domestic workers are organizing for power beyond protection. Delhi needs Lata, and Lata knows that.

Hong Kong and Singapore face a day without Indonesian domestic workers

Earlier this month, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, commonly referred to as Jokowi, started quite a stir, especially in the Middle East and East Asia, when he announced plans to limit and then stop the migration of live-in domestic workers. The President argued that much of the abuse of young Indonesian women stemmed from their working in informal, unregulated sectors, and that that has to stop. Indonesia wants those who work as domestic workers overseas to live in their own quarters, to work regular hours, and to enjoy one day off each week and public holidays. This is big news, on a scale of Los Angeles imagining a day without Mexicans.

Indonesia provides Singapore with most of its domestic workers. Currently 125,000 Indonesian women work as domestic workers in Singapore, the overwhelming majority as live-in. 50,000 Indonesian women work as domestic workers in Malaysia, and 150,000 work in Hong Kong. According to the Indonesian government, of the more than 7 million Indonesians working abroad, 60% are domestic workers. That’s over 4.2 million women, a lot of women and a lot of money.

Not surprisingly, employers in the receiving nations are `lukewarm’. Indonesian women workers’ groups argue that the solution to the problem of abuse of domestic workers overseas is for the State to actually protect them, rather than cut off their freedom of movement. While the President talks of national shame and dignity, women workers’ groups argue for decent work and more protections.

Where everyone is in agreement is that abuse of Indonesian, and other transnational, domestic workers is rampant. The case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, two years ago, sparked more than mass mobilizations. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih had gone to Hong Kong to work so as to be able to attend university. After eight months of torture, she was dumped at the airport and sent back to Indonesia. The sight of her damaged body sparked outrage. Two years later, she says, “I still have problems breathing. I cannot go swimming because I cannot get water into my ears. And I still have the scars. I need to see the doctor from time to time.”

The abuse of domestic workers is as old as domestic work itself, as is the work of organizing among domestic workers. What’s new is the transnational. That has meant, on one hand, that domestic workers, especially live-in domestic workers, are radically, viciously isolated, often with no place to go. In many countries, that lack of place is codified by labor and migration laws. These women are beaten by their bosses and trapped by State policy. Additionally, it takes money to travel, obtain visas and work permits, and to find employment. That means overseas domestic workers necessarily incur large debts. They are trapped in indebtedness. They are beaten by the bosses and trapped by international fiscal and monetary policy.

The domestic workers of this not-so-new neoliberal world order engage in domestic work largely because they want to use the money for the future, and the jobs available at home are too few and too low paying. For the past decades, this scam has been run to the fill the coffers of the sending nation-States, through remittances, and of the receiving nation-States, by subsidizing the entire care industry. People in Hong Kong are wondering who will pay for childcare, eldercare, home health care and so much more if the Indonesians really do vanish and, even more, if the Philippines national government follows suit? From Hong Kong to Singapore and beyond, people really are beginning to imagine a day without Indonesians.

Around the world, women domestic workers are organizing. They’re pushing for Domestic Workers’ Bills of Rights in the United States and in Kuwait. They’re organizing domestic workers’ unions in Jordan and Lebanon. They’re mobilizing everywhere. Most South American countries have ratified the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. In South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania domestic workers’ unions are on the move. The time to end the super-exploitation of domestic workers occurred decades, centuries, ago, but now is the time to support their efforts to end the global household plantation system. This is the story of women breaking the chains, locally and globally, of bondage, old and new, and seizing and creating power for themselves, collectively, in the name of women’s dignity. My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, and I am unafraid. Justice for all!

 

(Photo and Video Credit: You Tube)

Emebet Mono Bezabh, another warrior in women’s struggles for emancipation and power

 

Emebet Mono Bezabh

Emebet Mono Bezabh

Emebet Mono Bezabh worked for two years as a live-in maid working for the head of the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) in Thailand. According to her reports, the diplomat and his wife regularly beat and starved her. They made her sleep with the family dog, and they treated her as “less than an animal”, which is to say they treated her like a slave. On Monday, an out-of-court settlement between Emebet Mono Bezabh and her `employers’ was reached.

Emebet Mono Bezabh was brought to Thailand from Ethiopia. Her employers are Ethiopian. Emebet Mono Bezabh is twenty-five years old. She was orphaned at the age of five. She has little to no formal education, and is deemed illiterate, but she knows something about justice: “This money doesn’t make up for what they’ve done to me.”

A year ago, today, we wrote about Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong who was beaten and starved almost to death. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, “My case was finally exposed because of the unity of the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong. I am happy that through my case more such cases of exploitation are being exposed and given more attention. I hope that both—the sending as well as receiving governments– will give more attention to the protection of migrant workers. I hope there is no more exploitation against migrant workers, against women and no more cases like me”.

Emebet Mono Bezabh’s case was finally exposed through the unity of the women’s movements in Thailand, where she was supported by the Foundation for Women, Human Rights and Development Foundation and the Lawyers Council of Thailand. That was the story last year, it’s the story this year, and it most likely will be the story next year, same time: the solidarity of women workers breaking through the chains of domestic hyper-exploitation, violence, oppression, and slavery.

There is no room to be surprised, yet again, by the violence of domestic workers’ employers. It’s time to recognize the histories of struggle by domestic workers, in unions and associations, in courts and on the streets. Women workers’ ongoing and historic struggle for emancipation and power is the story. Pass it on.

 

(Photo Credit: Bangkok Post)

From Connecticut to Oregon, women fight for domestic workers’ rights and power

 

Domestic workers celebrate in the Connecticut Senate gallery after passage of a bill recognizing domestic workers as employees.

Across the United States, women are organizing for domestic workers’ rights and power. According to the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, in the next week, the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights will hit the Illinois State Senate; the Connecticut Domestic Workers’ Bill will go to the Connecticut House of Representatives; and the Oregon Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights will arrive on the floor of the Oregon State House of Representatives. From sea to shining sea, domestic workers – maids, nannies, and home health care providers – are on the move and winning previously thought impossible battles. Women, overwhelming women of color and largely immigrant women, are transforming a subterranean network into an Overground Railroad of emancipation and enfranchisement. Connecticut, Illinois, and Oregon are stations on that system.

In so doing, women are re-writing history. While every labor victory rewrites history, these particular struggles involve not only State and Civil, or uncivil, Society disrespect and marginalization. They involve the words and texts of law. In Connecticut, for example, domestic workers’ struggle for dignity, rights, power, and better working conditions is aimed at re-writing the State definition of “employer.” Under Connecticut law, “employee” is defined as “any person employed by an employer but shall not include any individual employed by such individual’s parents, spouse or child; or in the domestic service of any person.” The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights eliminates the last clause: “or in the domestic service of any person.”

On Friday night, the Connecticut Senate passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Domestic workers – such as Natalicia Tracy, Iame Manucci, Maria Lima and Nina Siqueira – danced and shouted from the gallery, as the final vote was tallied. But they understand that this is the next step. Not only must the House of Representatives pass the Bill, but domestic workers must then militate further to be included in the State’s minimum wage law. That protection is not guaranteed under the Bill of Rights.

In Illinois and Oregon, it’s the same. Domestic workers are pushing to do much more thatn “come out of the shadows.” They have never been “shadow workers”. They have always been women workers on the move, and now the move has risen and expanded to the next stage.

The exclusion of domestic workers from labor law emerges from the explicitly racist foundations of slavery and Jim Crow. Domestic workers writing and promulgating Domestic Worker Bills of Rights participate in an ongoing Black and Brown Workers’ Liberation Movement. Within and beyond #BlackWomensLivesMatter and #SayHerName, domestic workers are pushing and expanding the terrain of emancipatory struggle. A luta continua! The struggle continues!

 

(Photo credit: Mark Pazniokas / Connecticut Mirror)

Domestic workers Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat shake the world

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. In 2013, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it. Last November, the man was found guilty, and on Friday he heard his sentence.

The man was sentenced to two years house arrest, 70 hours of community service “in the service of Black women”, successful completion of various programs addressing substance abuse, prohibition from owning any firearms and from using any substances.

Gloria Kente was not in court on Friday, but her attorney said she was happy with the sentence.

As so often happens, the news coverage of this case focuses largely on the man. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers is not news. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers’ rights under the law is also not news. The news is that around the world, domestic workers are saying “NO!” to abuse. Around the world domestic workers are on the move, organizing, advocating, going to court and winning civil and criminal cases, organizing unions, consolidating power for domestic workers and for women workers generally. That’s the story.

In Hong Kong today, a court found that Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer had indeed abused her. Her employer was found guilty of criminal intimidation, grievous bodily harm and wage theft. Again, the story is not the employer, but rather Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s refusal to accept the veil of secrecy that enshrouds household labor. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih said “NO!” to the violence of like-one-of-the-family, and, instead, said “YES!” to workers’ right, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, humans’ rights, and every configuration thereof. As Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, after hearing the verdict: “To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves, because as human beings, we all have equal rights.”

In Lebanon, immigrant and migrant women domestic workers are organizing a union. In Pakistan domestic workers have formed their first trade union, partly as a response to increasing violence against domestic workers and partly as a response to the affirmative recognition of their combined rights and power. Last December, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the Domestic Workers Trade Union. Of 235 members, 225 are women domestic workers. Sumaira Salamat, in Lahore, is a member: “It’s only in the last year-and-a-half that these women have finally realised the importance of what it means to become a united force. We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work.”

 

Everywhere, women domestic workers are on the move.

Remember that when you read about this court case or that decision and the abusive employer receives all or most of the attention. The days of employers owning history are over. Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat are shaking the world up. Remember their names.

 

(Photo Credit: drum.co.za) (Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France – Press / Getty Images)

 

Domestic workers in Lebanon organize a union!

Yesterday, more than 200 women from Ethiopia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and beyond met to establish a first in the country, a union for migrant domestic workers. For decades, domestic workers have struggled with the `kafala system’, a `sponsorship’ system that binds migrant workers to their employers. This system gives employers practically absolute free rein over their domestic workers, because, under the kafala system, a domestic worker cannot quit. That would mean losing her sponsorship. It’s a vicious and often deadly cycle.

Domestic workers have struggled to tell their own stories and to frame the larger narrative for themselves. Ethiopian born domestic worker and filmmaker Rahel Zegeye explained, “We often hear stories of abuse and bad treatment of Lebanese employers towards their foreign domestic workers (maids). Most media and organizations working to help migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Lebanon portray the worker as a helpless victim, her fate ruled by evil agencies and bad madams. Although this often does happen and is definitely an issue that needs attention, reality is much more complicated.”

In Lebanon, domestic workers have joined with organizations, such as Kafa (enough) Violence & Exploitation, the Migrant Workers Task Force, and others, to end the kafala system and more. They’ve launched research projects, social media campaigns, film and other media projects, to decry the inhumanity of the system and the brutality that is visited upon them regularly. They’ve tried to contextualize the tragic and regular tales of suicide among migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Throughout, they’ve insisted that their human rights story is a women workers’ story.

To that end, the women persuaded Lebanon’s National Federation of Labor Unions to endorse their union proposal. Five weeks ago, the Federation submitted a proposal to the Labor Ministry applying for formal recognition of a migrant domestic workers’ union. As Carlos Abdullah, head of the Federation, explained, “We’re in a struggle phase now … This is the start of the journey and we don’t know how much time it will take to set up the union.”

With the National Federation of Labor Unions on board, migrant women workers, from all over the world, established their own autonomous women workers’ space. According to Lily Jacqueline, from Madagascar, “It’s a big step forward. Maybe we could have a common contract for all domestic workers and force employers to abide by it.” Gemma, who has lived in Lebanon since 1993, concurs, “We domestic workers are not seen as real employees. We are … employees, not … slaves.” Leticia, a Filipina domestic worker, agreed, “We want to be treated like human beings, like real workers. With this union, I will no longer feel alone in the face of abuse.”

To no one’s surprise, the Ministry of Labor today rejected the proposal, saying it prefers a legislative route, which has thus far completely failed women workers, rather than one of trade unionism. The struggle continues, and the women continue to organize to be treated like human beings, like real workers.

 

(Photo Credit: AFP/ Anwar Amro)

Will the murders of Seneng Mujiasih and Sumarti Ningsih be a wake-up call?

In the early morning hours of November 1, 29-year-old British securities trader Rurik Jutting called police officers to his apartment in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. Inside, they discovered a gruesome scene: 29-year-old Seneng Mujiasih lying naked on the floor with fatal knife wounds, and a suitcase containing the mutilated remains of 23-year-old Sumarti Ningsih who had been killed several days earlier. Jutting has since been charged with both murders.

Jutting’s privileged background and successful financial career and Wan Chai’s reputation as the home of Hong Kong’s sex industry have contributed to this incident being reported as a tabloid-style story of sex, betrayal and murder, not unlike the 1991 American novel-turned-movie American Psycho. But this narrative does grave injustice to the lives of Mujiasih and Ningsih – two migrant workers from Indonesia, and it ignores the economic, social and legal pressures threatening the lives of women like them worldwide.

Seneng Mujiasih, who also went by Jesse Lorena, came to Hong Kong in 2010 as a domestic worker on a two-year visa. Thirteen months in, her employer terminated her contract and she was given the standard two weeks to leave the city. Mujiasih couldn’t afford to go home due to outstanding debt owed to the recruitment agency she had to use to secure employment, and returning home to find a new placement meant she’d have to take on more debt through the same flawed process. According to a friend, that’s when she turned to sex work.

Sumarti Ningsih came to Hong Kong on a tourist visa that was about to expire. She was the second youngest of four children and sole breadwinner for her family in Indonesia, including her five-year-old son. She left her son in the care of her parents after her marriage ended and her family struggled to buy food and basic necessities. According to her father, Ningsih spent time as a domestic worker and a waitress in Hong Kong and had been living in the city intermittently for the past few years to support her family and pay for her son’s education.

Both women were last seen in Wan Chai, a popular drinking spot for foreigners and businessmen that has numerous “sex bars.” That backdrop led to early reports that Mujiasih and Ningsih were among the 100,000 people who work in Hong Kong’s sex industry. Family and friends deny this, and claims to the contrary have yet to be substantiated, but that’s a mere afterthought in much of the media coverage. In fact, the possibility that the women were sex workers is being used to define them and thereby diminish the significance of their deaths.

Whether Mujiasih and Ningsih were sex workers is irrelevant. First and foremost, they were women – human beings – who were trying to support their families. If they chose or were forced to turn to sex work to do so, that’s no excuse for murder, especially when prostitution is legal in Hong Kong. Sex workers can legally solicit clients at bars, but they have to leave the premises to have sex. Mujiasih’s and Ningsih’s deaths have called attention to how vulnerable and unprotected that leaves the city’s largely migrant and female workforce.

Mujiasih’s and Ningsih’s deaths have also brought to light the relationship between domestic and sex work in Hong Kong. It’s not unusual for the city’s domestic workers to get pulled into the sex industry as a way to supplement their meager wages, or because employers’ actions – usually termination of a contract or abusive practices – leave them without homes or incomes. Hong Kong requires that domestic workers live in the homes in which they work, effectively tying them and their ability to stay in the city to their employers.

Recruitment and placement agencies also play a major role. Indonesia requires that those seeking work abroad go through such agencies, and both Mujiasih and Ningsih did so. According to a 2013 report on Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong, these agencies use “deception and coercion to recruit Indonesian migrants and to compel them to work” in dangerous situations, including “confiscation of identity documents, restrictions on freedom of movement and the manipulation of debt incurred through recruitment fees.”

Clearly, a combination of policies and social and economic pressures in Indonesia and Hong Kong position migrant workers like Mujiasih and Ningsih as prime targets for exploitation, abuse and death. Domestic worker and spokesperson for the Asian Migrant Coordinating Body, Eni Lestari, has criticized both Indonesia and Hong Kong for their “exploitative migration policies.” She chides Indonesia for failing to take responsibility while actively supporting and benefitting from a deceitful and harmful system.

Lestari is referring to the benefits countries that send workers overseas reap from the money workers send home. These workers, such as Mujiasih and Ningsih, work abroad because of economic hardship, lack of jobs or insufficient wages at home. Thus, Indonesia fails its people at home, knowingly requires them to use agencies that exploit them when they seek opportunities elsewhere, and offers them no protection while gone – and then profits from their mistreatment.

Nearly half of domestic workers in Hong Kong are Indonesian, and stories of abuse are familiar to either government. Recently, an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong made headlines for escaping her employers after two years of imprisonment and despicable torture. In January, TIME called Indonesian domestic workers “Hong Kong’s ‘modern-day slaves.’” Two-thirds of Indonesian domestic workers interviewed for a 2013 report said they were physically or psychologically abused while in Hong Kong.

Systemic abuse isn’t news to the public either. At a vigil honoring Mujiasih and Ningsih, attendees held signs demanding changes in Hong Kong’s and Indonesia’s laws. The event drew more than 100 Indonesians and was held in a park that domestic workers frequent on their days off. Its message made clear that people in Hong Kong, especially Indonesians, recognize the forces behind the murders and the community the women represent. Comments from friends, domestic workers and sex workers reinforce that sense of community and shared experience.

The murders of Seneng Mujiasih and Sumarti Ningsih are a chilling reminder of the plight of domestic workers worldwide. While Jutting’s guilt may not officially be determined for some time, there are others to blame. Real justice for Mujiasih and Ningsih requires action on the part of all those involved to make sure no other women are subjected to the same fate.

 

(Photo Credit: The Associated Press)