Spain finally begins to settle a historic debt to domestic cleaners and carers

“Today, we, domestic workers, are organized in such a way that this has been one of the most powerful struggles waged in Spain.”

On October 1, thanks to a law enacted in early September, Spain will finally include the category of domestic cleaners and carers into the protections of national labor and welfare law. This comes after, and during, decades of women worker organizing. This comes six months after the European Court of Justice found Spain guilty of violation of European Union laws concerning unemployment benefits. This comes eleven years after Spain passed two laws that were meant to formalize and regularize domestic workers’ status and conditions. In its judgement, the European Court noted the obvious, that 95% of domestic workers in Spain (as elsewhere) are women, and so the discrimination against domestic workers bears more heavily on women. Additionally, Spain’s domestic workers are disproportionately immigrant workers. According to the Workers’ Commission, Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras, or CCOO, close to 600,000 women work as domestic workers in Spain. Of that number, 44% are migrant or foreign. While many come from other EU countries, many also come from outside the European Union, especially Romania, Morocco, Italy, Colombia, and Venezuela. It is expected that the new law will affect around 373,000 women workers. That means it will not affect close to 200,000 women workers, who are `undeclared’, meaning working without a contract.

First, this is a major victory. Women workers individually and collectively, and especially women workers organizations, have lobbied locally, nationally and at international platforms, such as the ILO, to be incorporated into the recognized formal labor sector. Equally, they have lobbied and organized to be recognized. Spanish women workers have long argued that the exploitation of and discrimination against domestic workers works to impede progress and equality for all women in Spain and beyond.

At the same time, why does a leftist government, such as that of Spain, have to be hauled into court in order to do the right thing? When the legislation was passed, Labor Minister Yolanda Diaz noted that the government was “settling a historic debt with domestic workers”. The new law is indeed a major step forward. It means domestic workers can claim unemployment benefits, employers must contribute to unemployment insurance, employers can no longer dismiss a domestic worker without just cause and due process, domestic workers qualify for health insurance and other healthcare protections, and, finally, domestic workers qualify for access to training to improve their professional qualifications. These are all important, major improvements, produced, again, by decades of concerted struggle on the part of women workers.

But does it settle the debt? No, not by a long shot. First, and again, almost half the women who work in people’s homes, providing essential services, work without a contract. They are not covered by this legislation. Second, the debtor does not get to declare the debt paid. When the women workers’ movement declares the debt paid, then it’s paid. Who pays for those women across the decades who’ve struggle and continue to struggle in Spain, as elsewhere, for dignity, equality, power, well-being? As Amalia Caballero, a domestic worker from Ecuador, noted, “There’s still a long way to go.”

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Capire)

Domestic work and the global: Sri Yatun’s story

Sri Yatun cooking at home

The story of Sri Yatun illustrates the resilience and courage of domestic workers, while revealing the corrupt global networks of shared reproductive labor that harm low-income female migrants and make their lives increasingly precarious. It also demonstrates how ‘the global’ facilitates the exchange of migrant domestic labor as the underpinning of a globalized capitalist economy; in doing so, it suppresses the voices and experiences of migrant domestic workers. To understand the experiences of domestic workers we must ask: Why are their experiences rendered invisible? How is this invisibility intentional and constructed? Sri’s story is equally devastating, instructive, and revolutionary. The details of her life demonstrate how the ‘global’ leverages migrant domestic workers’ state of precarity to silence them. Experiences like those of Sri are not unintended side-effects of State Department programs; rather they are intentionally crafted, sociopolitical notions of whose lives matter and whose do not.

For migrant domestic workers, like Sri, precariousness is an embodied state of being through their experience of liminal legality: they are aware their residency in the US is fragile and potentially fleeting. As such, they embody a liminal space and a physical precarity that colors their everyday interactions, duties, and behaviors. Notions of belonging, as codified through national identity, enforce precarity in the lives of migrant domestic workers. The fear of deportation places them in an incredibly vulnerable position in employer-employee relationships, promoting their silence in the face of exploitation. For Sri, the interplay between her status of liminal legality, the powerful status of her elite diplomatic employers, and the invisibility she faced in the home, obscured the abuses she faced at the hands of Cicilia and Tigor. She was afraid to speak out, depowered by the very system that relies on her labor to function.

Sri is a survivor of mental and emotional abuse at the hands of her employers. Despite caring for their family–raising their child–Cicilia and Tigor treated Sri as a slave, frequently beating her and verbally berating her. The house in which Sri lived and worked was also the sight of a daily war, one in which she was depowered, vulnerable, and exposed. Sri was an outsider in the home she maintained. She had no way to protect or defend herself, an especially violent social existence, akin to Mbembe’s concept of the death-world. The article notes harrowingly that, “Wearing [Tigos’s] son provided a measure of protection against his outbursts.” Even this limited sense of security, however, dwindled throughout the years as the son became less reliant on Sri’s care. This utilization of the body and mind as the tools of labor, also left significant consequences for Sri’s health. She notes in the article that she “has pain in her back and knees. ‘Little things to remind me,’ she says.” Her body, then, is a tangible reminder of the verbal and physical abuse she faced at the hands of her employers–each ache, sore, and crack, a remnant of her years of exploitation.

Sri was a caretaker for many years, raising children who were not her own. Given that experience, one may assume she would be an expert in all forms of caring. Sri was not prepared, however, to be a caretaker for someone she knew affectionately and intimately. Sri’s experience caring for ‘mama’ in her old age illustrates a divide between caring as a profession and caring for your family. Her multi-faceted experiences of giving and receiving care elaborates upon the grief and loss inherent in every step of her life. As excerpted from the article:

“Sri had taken care of so many people, but it felt different to look after Mama. She’d started her career in caregiving with strangers who had felt entitled to extract what they wanted from her; she’d also cared for kind and generous people, and everyone in between. She’d mastered the domestic worker’s art of invisibility: the ability to take in everything in a home and render her own self unseen to avoid disrupting her employers’ perception of their privacy. So none of her experiences could prepare her for what it was like to care for — and potentially lose — the woman who had found her, who had truly seen her, at a gas station 14 years earlier.”

Grief shapes the lives of domestic workers in many ways: grief for elders who pass, grief of a child who moves on, grief of the family you thought you were a part of. Some workers grieve alternate employment prospects, or a stable wage. Others experience grief as they care for children a world away from their own. Many grieve the life they should have had. As such, grief cannot be disentangled from domestic work. For years, Sri’s desire to grieve–her jobs, dreams, the children she cared for a long the way–was suppressed in favor of economic survival. She had to keep going, working, and fighting for a better life. Finally, after years of this precarious struggle, Sri found someone to take care of her in her grief–the community–a radical act of communalized care in an undervalued community.

(By Alex Groth. Alex Groth believes everyone should be cared for.)

(Photo Credit: Washington Post / Barbara Davidson)


The de-coercion of care work

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an onslaught of irrepable damage to individuals and society as a whole. Additionally, the pandemic also exposed gaps in society that can no longer be ignored. One such gap is the role of labor unions on the workforce. Labor unions have been on the decline in recent decades in the US. But, amidst the recovery from the pandemics, more and more workers are demanding fair wages, comprehensive benefits, and better working conditions.

Recent headlines on the unionization of the first Starbucks in the US sparked a conversation on the politicization of care work. The act of caring, being a caregiver, and care in itself is hyper political. Care, for the welfare state, is a means to sustain the system of capitalism. As concerns the investments of the capitalist state in the act of caring, feminist economist Nancy Folbre explains, “Capitalist institutions create powerful incentives to maximize short run profits by exploiting unpriced public goods crucial to the sustainability of the social and natural environment.” Capitalism exploits workers to sustain itself, with the promise of providing care for them in return. Care workers – from Starbucks employees that serve us the coffee to start our days to the teachers that educate the next generation of leaders to the domestic workers that maintain our homes – are severely underpaid and ignored in the grand scheme of the political economy. Service industry carers, from companies like Starbucks, Kellogg’s, and Amazon, are rejecting the forced silence imposed on them by the welfare state and are fighting to de-coerce the hyper politicization of their existence by unionizing. Despite capitalist backlash, these care workers are changing the game for carers across the world.

These service industry carers are exposing a truth that feminist migration experts have been grappling with for decades, how to gain workers’ rights for domestic workers. In the United States, labor laws and constitutionally protected rights have explicitly excluded agricultural workers, prison laborers, and domestic workers. This has complicated domestic workers’ fight for de-coercion, but it does not make the fight impossible.

Care workers face coercion through the welfare state that traps them in a system of exploitation. To solve this issue, care work must be de-coerced. Undoing the ties of coercion allows care workers to tackle the politicized nature of care work and demand their own rights. The process of de-coercion can mean many things for the multiple intersectional identities and populations that make up care workers. But all in all, they must all center care workers. South African sociologist Shireen Ally has described how South Africa’s landmark legislation Sectoral Determination Seven for the Domestic Worker Sector gave domestic workers rights and privileges that they never had before, but it all came in vain because the legislation was not passed with domestic workers at its core. De-coercion must be centered around the day-to-day realities of domestic workers throughout the world and incorporate their opinions and beliefs. As political scientist and sociologist Emma Dowling states, “Care workers are experts. Their experience, knowledge and skill are crucial to designing and developing better care infrastructures that give care workers more control over their work. This requires a real democratization of workplaces and a voice for care workers.” The domestic workers that raise our children, clean our homes, and sustain the capitalist economy deserve a seat at the table of their own lives. They deserve to proclaim their wants and needs and feel like the world at least hears them. While the welfare state has shown it does not care, the rest of us should.

(By Evelyn Boateng-Ade)

(Photo Credit 1: Red Pepper / The Voice of Domestic Workers) (Photo Credit 2: Women’s Strike)

Once again, South African domestic workers win in court, expanding domestic workers’ rights everywhere!

Sylvia Mahlangu outside Constitutional Court

Great news! Last week, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that domestic workers ruled that domestic workers injured on the job in the past can claim damages, under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, COIDA. This ruling includes the family of Maria Mahlangu, a domestic worker who had worked for the same family for twenty years. While washing windows, Maria Mahlangu slipped, fell into the pool, and drowned. Her family received no compensation. More to the point, the family offered no compensation and the State excluded domestic workers from COIDA. Last May, the North Gauteng Court ruled that that exclusion was unconstitutional but did not rule on whether that unconstitutionality covered past injuries. Last October, the Gauteng High Court ruled that the Constitutional invalidity of the exclusion of domestic workers meant that all domestic workers are due unlimited retrospective COIDA compensation. The case of Sylvia Bongi Mahlangu and the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, SADSAWU, vs the Minister of Labour then went to the Constitutional Court. Last Thursday, November 19, the Constitutional Court decided that the exclusion of domestic workers from the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, COIDA, is unconstitutional. Further, “the order is to have immediate and retrospective effect from 27 April 1994.” After 26 years of struggle, domestic worker organizers, Black women such as 77-year-old SADSAWU organizer Eunice Dhladhla “nearly broke into song inside [the Constitutional Court], breaking the law.” After the ruling, Sylvia Mahlangu said she was excited at the decision. We all should be.

Justice Margaret Victor, writing for the majority, opened her decision: “Domestic workers are the unsung heroines in this country and globally. They are a powerful group of women whose profession enables all economically active members of society to prosper and pursue their careers. Given the nature of their work, their relationships with their own children and family members are compromised, while we pursue our career goals with peace of mind, knowing that our children, our elderly family members and our households are well taken care of.

“Many domestic workers are breadwinners in their families who put children through school and food on the table through their hard work. In some cases, they are responsible for the upbringing of children in multiple families and may be the only loving figure in the lives of a number of children. Their salaries are often too low to maintain a decent living standard but by exceptional, if not inexplicable effort, they succeed. Sadly, despite these herculean efforts, domestic work as a profession is undervalued and unrecognised; even though they play a central role in our society.”

Later in her decision, Justice Victor noted, “In considering those who are most vulnerable or most in need, a court should take cognisance of those who fall at the intersection of compounded vulnerabilities due to intersecting oppression based on race, sex, gender, class and other grounds. To allow this form of state-sanctioned inequity goes against the values of our newly constituted society namely human dignity, the achievement of equality and ubuntu. To exclude this category of individuals from the social security scheme established by COIDA is manifestly unreasonable.

“For all these reasons, I find that the obligation under section 27(2) to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within available resources, includes the obligation to extend COIDA to domestic workers. The failure to do so in the face of the respondents’ admitted available resources constitutes a direct infringement of section 27(1)(c), read with section 27(2) of the Constitution.”

This case crosses beyond the borders of South Africa and beyond the African continent. Many countries across the globe, including the United States, continue to exclude domestic workers from labor laws and from labor law protections and rights. That time is coming to an end. Domestic work is decent work, and domestic workers demand formal recognition of the dignity of their labor. Tell your family, friends, colleagues and neighbors about Maria Mahlangu, Sylvia Mahlangu and last week’s decision. Tell them Sylvia Mahlangu is excited. The time to sing the song of the unsung heroines has arrived. Amandla!

Eunice Dhladhla outside Constitutional Court


(Photo Credit 1: Sowetan / Penwell Dlamini) (Photo Credit 2: New Frame / Cebelihle Mbuyisa)

In Brazil, domestic workers’ children demand dignity for domestic workers!


“Domestic workers replaced black house slaves as markers of class differences and power in Brazilian society.”   
                                                                                                                                         Maurício Sellmann Oliveira

As of May 5, Brazil leads Latin America in both reported cases of Covid-19 – 110, 156 cases – and reported deaths, 7,458Brazil has almost as many cases of Covid-19 as Peru, Ecuador and Mexico combined. Domestic workers form the center and fiber of this necro-narrative. Brazil has more domestic workers than any other country in the world, seven million and counting. Almost all are women, and the overwhelming majority are women of African descent. In January 2018, Brazil officially ratified the ILO’s Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers, according some protections to those with more or less permanent appointments. That accord left out the millions of women of color who work by the day. That was before Jair Bolsonaro became President, before the coronavirus pandemic, before the attempt to shred all protections for workers, women, women workers. On March 17, 63-year old Cleonice Gonçalves, a domestic worker in the wealthy Rio neighborhood of Leblon, died of Covid-19. Cleonice Gonçalves was the first Covid-19 fatality in Rio da Janeiro and the fifth in Brazil. Around the same time, Cleonice Gonçalves died, Juliana França – daughter of a domestic worker and goddaughter of a domestic worker, teacher and actress, resident of Rio da Janeiro – began an online petition, “Manifesto by the daughters and sons of domestic workers”, demanding health and labor protections for all domestic workers, demanding concrete and material dignity and respect for all domestic workers. Juliana França started the campaign in the name of her mother, Catarina dos Santos. The Brazilian chapter of the Coronavirus epic is a giant triangle, and at the respective apexes are Cleonice Gonçalves, Juliana França, and Catarina dos Santos.

Cleonice Gonçalves’s story is all too familiar. She worked as a live-in maid four days a week, in the Leblon neighborhood of Rio da Janeiro, a neighborhood reputed to be the most expensive real estate in the country. She’d travel two hours to the working-class suburb of Miguel Pereira. She worked for the same family for decades. Her employers went on a trip to Italy and came back suspecting they had contracted Covid-19. They were tested immediately. They never informed Cleonice Gonçalves. Why would they? On March 13, Cleonice Gonçalves complained of pain while urinating, and went to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and sent her back to work. Cleonice Gonçalves was diabetic and lived with high blood pressure. On March 15, Cleonice Gonçalves began having trouble breathing. She went to the hospital and, again, was sent back to work. Her employers continued to remain silent about their own suspicions concerning their health. Her condition continued to deteriorate, her employers continued to tell her nothing. On March 16, hearing of Cleonice Gonçalves’s situation, her family sent a taxi and brought her home. On March 17, Cleonice Gonçalves died. On March 17, Cleonice Gonçalves’s employers’ test result came back: positive. The employers are now thriving. End of story.

Juliana França decided another story is possible. Juliana França’s 57-year-old mother and 75-year-old godmother have work histories similar to that of Cleonice Gonçalves. Working class live-in maids who travel long distances from working class suburbs to upscale neighborhoods, both have worked decades for their current employers. When the pandemic struck, both women’s respective employers insisted that they should continue working. The pandemic? Nothing serious, overblown, listen to the President. Juliana França understood the pressures on her mother and godmother and all the women like them, and so she created the manifesto, “For the lives of our mothers”, demanding paid quarantine leave, health benefit protections, worker protections. Juliana França has also created a network that is linking domestic workers to donors. When Juliana França’s mother, Catarina dos Santos, showed the petition to her employers, they gave her paid leave.

As elsewhere, the story of Covid-19 in Brazil is a story of violent inequality, inequality that structured national and community lives prior to the pandemic and has intensified within the pathological onslaught. At the same time, it is the story of women, overwhelmingly women of color, refusing to accept abuse, for themselves and for their loved ones, refusing to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Remember the martyrdom of Cleonice Gonçalves and remember the Great Refusal of Juliana França and Catarina dos Santos. After too many martyrs, it’s time, it’s way past time, for enforced decent work for domestic workers now! Please consider signing the petition, here.


(Image Credit: Change)

In Massachusetts, au pairs win in court, expanding domestic workers’ rights everywhere!

Matahari Women Workers’ Center Au Pair Organizing Committee

In November 2019, Philadelphia enacted a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, joining one other city, Seattle, and nine states: Oregon, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Nevada. Massachusetts passed its Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2014. In December 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Massachusetts, ruled that au pairs are covered by Massachusetts’ Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Once again, domestic workers organized, persisted, organized some more, cut through the fog and smoke of “like one of the family” and “care work is loving work and therefore not work at all”, and secured victory. While this ruling “only” applies to Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico, its implications are both national and global, and it is a major victory for women workers’ rights everywhere.

The case emerged when Culture Care Au Pair, an au pair sponsorship agency, sued Massachusetts. Culture Care claimed that au pairs were not workers but rather participants in a cultural and educational exchange program. The Matahari Women Workers’ Center, which had worked for the passage of Massachusetts’ Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, immediately spun into action, organizing domestic workers, finding lawyers, and keeping the pressure on. When the Court threw out Culture Care’s arguments, Monique Tú Nguyen, Executive Director of Matahari Women Workers’ Center, said, “This is a huge win for au pairs, who provide crucial live-in child care to families across the state. They do the critical caregiving work that makes all other work possible.”

This is a huge win for au pairs and for all workers, overwhelmingly women of color, who provide critical caregiving work.

Since the First Circuit decision, instead of trying to figure out how to comply with the new circumstances, many parents have mobilized and lobbied Massachusetts state legislators to find a way to preserve the status quo, to find a way to keep their au pairs from being formally protected as workers and from being formally and existentially recognized for the work that they do. The press has largely focused on how families and agencies have been “upended” by the court ruling and how they’re “struggling” to comply. Families are “up in arms”. Where is the coverage of the impact on au pairs? The struggle for women workers’ dignity continues.

The First Circuit decision on au pairs means that au pairs must be paid the Massachusetts minimum wage, $12.75 an hour, and that au pairs must receive meal breaks, overtime, and all other benefits covered by law. 2019 was a big year, perhaps a turning point, for au pairs across the United States. It began with a $65.5 million settlement between 100,000 former au pairs and 15 companies which sponsor au pairs. That settlement came out of a class-action lawsuit filed by ten or au pairs in a Denver federal court. Those au pairs worked with Towards Justice, a Denver-based advocacy group. When the settlement was reached, David Seligman, Executive Director of Towards Justice, said, “This settlement, the hard-fought victory of our clients who fought for years on behalf of about 100,000 fellow au pairs, will be perhaps the largest settlement ever on behalf of minimum wage workers and will finally give au pairs the opportunity to seek h.”

From Denver to Boston and beyond, justice for au pairs, domestic workers, women workers is forged by the persistence of women workers who fight for years, who were never meant to survive. Matahari Women Workers’ Center understands it’s time for those who were never meant to survive: “Matahari Women Workers’ Center (“Matahari”) is … committed to building a world without economic violence and exploitation. Our community believes in the transformative power of survivors and is committed to developing the leadership of women of color, immigrants, and low-wage workers.” From domestic worker victories and advances in South AfricaPhiladelphia, Denver, Massachusetts, 2019 was a year that saw the expansion and deepening of domestic workers’ rights, dignity and power everywhere. Spread the news! The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Matahari Women Workers’ Center) (Image Credit: International Domestic Workers Federation)

Who mourns Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende? Where is the global concern?

Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende

On July 4, 2019, 26-year-old Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende left her village on the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, and headed for Kuwait, where a job as a domestic worker awaited her. Five months later, on December 28, 2019, Jeanelyn Villavende arrived, or was dumped, already dead, showing signs of having been tortured, at Sabah Hospital. Her employers are under arrest. The Philippines expresses its outrage, and, yesterday, declared a partial ban on “deployment of workers” to Kuwait. Two years ago, reflecting on Saudi Arabia’s execution of domestic worker Tuti Tursilawati, we asked, “Why does the world not care about the young women of color who travel long distance and leave families and communities behind, precisely to keep the world, our world, functioning?” The redundancy and familiarity of Jeanelyn Villavende’s story suggests that was the wrong question. This repeated narrative of migration, abuse, torture, exploitation, death, return, 15 minutes of national “outrage”, followed by return to the same, this is the quality of our concern for young women of color in the contemporary global marketplace. As an Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon once put it, “We are like oil to our government”. After an oil spill here and there, it’s back to business as usual.

None of this is new. If anything, it’s a cliché by now. The neoliberal global economy was built on global cities that required 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week service, and so, among other industries, the household care work sector exploded. Urban areas of certain areas demanded more and more domestic workers, and certain nation-States, the Philippines most notably, turned themselves into mega-brokerage houses for mass migrations of domestic workers … like so much oilThe sending countries lauded the women as heroes of the nation and promised to protect them. But that protection never came. If it had, not only would Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende be alive today, she would never have had to leave in the first place.

Repeatedly, we have seen migrant and transnational domestic workers organizing themselves, demanding justice, making change. Filipina domestic worker Evangeline Banao Vallejos did so in Hong Kong, as did Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, and as are Filipino domestic workers Baby Jane Allas, Milagros Tecson Comilang, and Desiree Rante LuisAdelina Lisao is a mirror sister of Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende: 26 years old, Adelina Lisao left Indonesia to work in Malaysia, and returned home, visibly tortured, in a body bag. Why does the world not care about the young women of color who travel long distance and leave families and communities behind, precisely to keep the world, our world, functioning? We do. This is how we care. We speak of justice, for example “justice for Jeanelyn Villavende”, and then return to business as usual. No one cries forever over a little spilled oil.

In February 2018, the Philippines imposed a total deployment ban on Kuwait, which it rescinded in May 2018. In May 2019, the Philippines imposed a total deployment ban on Kuwait, which it rescinded soon after. Each one of these bans occurred in response to spectacular brutality and death visited upon Filipina domestic workers. Each time, Kuwait and the Philippines signed a new deal. Each time, women were told they were protected. This is why almost every headline involving Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende’s torture and murder says “another”: “PH condemns killing of yet another Filipina domestic worker in Kuwait”; “PH gov’t condemns death of another Filipino domestic worker in Kuwait”; “Another OFW killed in Kuwait”. Another just like the other just like the next … so many drops of oil.

Around the world, domestic workers, overwhelmingly women, are organizing. They know that neither justice nor dignity come in some afterlife. There is absolutely no point in intoning “justice for Jeanelyn Villavende” as if that would conjure her up. It’s time to remember Mother Mary Harris Jones’ exhortation to striking miners: “Your organization is not a praying institution. It’s a fighting institution. It’s an educational institution along industrial lines. Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!” 

(Photo Credit: Sun Star Manila)

Fleeing abusive conditions in Saudi Arabia, Bangladeshi domestic workers demand justice!

Domestic workers and supporters demands respect and justice.

As of November 7, 2019, 900 female domestic workers have returned from Saudi Arabia to their home country of Bangladesh. They returned before the end of their contracts, many of them citing physical, mental, and sexual abuse as their reason for fleeing. Interviews with 110 returnees revealed that “86 percent did not receive their full salaries, 61 percent were physically abused, 24 percent were deprived of food and 14 percent were sexually abused.” Many blame the prevalence of abuse on Saudi Arabia’s Kafala, or sponsorship, system, which is present in many west Asian countries and binds a domestic worker’s status to an individual employer or sponsor for the duration of their contract. In effect, the worker’s ability to live and work in the country is completely dependent on their sponsor, creating a dynamic ripe for exploitation. Many workers don’t have the resources to seek help, and face retaliation and deportation if they do.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) continues to blame these domestic workers for their own abuse. According to the Kingdom, the stories told by domestic workers returning to Bangladesh are “nothing but hoaxes and are being spread to give a bad name to the country,” and, again according to the KSA, Bangladeshi workers leave Saudi Arabia due to their inability to adapt to the fast-paced Saudi economy. In response, Bangladesh’s government plans to “better train” the workers it sends abroad, in an attempt to prevent further incidents.

This is a truly insidious form of victim blaming, implying that these workers, most of them women, would not have been abused if only they “knew better.” Beyond the KSA’s refusal to acknowledge the suffering of these workers, Bangladesh’s implicit agreement that the workers are at fault makes them complicit in the abuse. Rather than protect these women, Bangladesh would rather continue to grow their labor exportation economy. On November 14th, Dr AK Abdul Momen, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, defended his Ministry’s lack of action, saying that “only 53 female workers died out of 220,000 female workers currently working in the KSA.” Apparently, the government feels that a few deaths are worth the economic growth their labor provides the country.

A coalition of Bangladeshi Progressive Women’s Organizations has demanded the government free women from repressive situations abroad and stop sending female workers to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia altogether. The movement has gained momentum since Sumi Akter, a Bangladeshi maid, returned home. While still in Saudi Arabia, Sumi Akter made a video pleading for help, describing the extreme abuse she suffered; the video went viral. Many of the organizations have spoken out condemning the minister’s speech, emphasizing how every death is significant and another call for action. No worker’s death, they say, is insignificant.

This coalition shows no signs of backing down, with more women returning and new stories of abuse being shared daily. One can only hope that with continued pressure placed on the government, Bangladesh will eventually act to ensure these domestic workers gain safety and justice.

(Photo Credit: Mehedi Hassan / Dhaka Tribune)

Domestic workers organized, and the Philadelphia City Council passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights!

On Wednesday, October 31, 2019, the Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Officially, the City Council amended a chapter in its “Fair Practices Ordinance: Protections Against Unlawful Discrimination.” The Council amended the chapter entitled “Promoting Healthy Families and Workplaces,” by adding a new chapter, “Protections for Domestic Workers,” “all to provide protections for domestic workers and to establish remedial and enforcement provisions, all under certain terms and conditions.” 

As the City Council put it, this “landmark” legislation “provides protections and rights for domestic workers that will give the city one of the strongest laws in the country.” The bill’s principal sponsor, City Councilwoman Maria Quinoñes-Sánchezexplained, “The women have bravely told their stories about non-payment and sexual harassment, and despite their challenges whether they are undocumented or not, they have helped us put together not only the best piece of legislation, but a task force that is going to ensure the implementation with a comprehensive education campaign.” Director of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, Nicole Kligerman, added, “Domestic workers have been excluded from all labor protections in the history of the U.S. Today, for the first time, Philadelphia domestic workers have won the same rights and protections that all other workers have in Philadelphia. We’re the largest city to do so and it’s the best law in the country.”

Nine states have passed versions of Domestic Workers’ Bills of Rights: Oregon, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Nevada. This year, Seattle also passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Each version is more expansive, more specific. In July, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Pramila Jayapal introduced the federal Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act. From coast to coast, state by state, city by city, the racially based exclusion of domestic workers from the dignity of labor protections is being challenged and overturned. 

At each turn, domestic workers have exhibited organizational prowess and extraordinary courage and bravery, as Councilwoman Quinoñes-Sánchez noted. While domestic workers’ courage and bravery is admirable, why must they be heroic in order to attain the basic rights workers are meant to have? What is the regime of intimidation and, at times, terror that blankets the work and labor of care givers, nannies, and housekeepers? How will we pay for the decades of pain and suffering inflicted on mostly women of color, all in the name of “economic growth”, all the while chanting the “our” domestic workers are treated “like one of the family”?

These are questions for down the road. But for now, it’s time for celebration. In October 2019, South African domestic workers won a major victory in the courthouse, and Philadelphia domestic workers won a major victory in the City Hall. Both of these victories are landmark events that expand and deepen domestic workers’ rights, dignity and power everywhere. The struggle continues.


(Photo Credit: (Tim Tai / Philadelphia Inquirer)

South African domestic workers win in court, expanding domestic workers’ rights everywhere!

Sylvia Mahlangu, Maria Mahlangu’s daughter, in court

Great news from South Africa! Yesterday, October 17, 2019, the Gauteng High Court ruled that domestic workers injured on the job in the past can claim damages, under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, COIDAThis ruling includes the family of Maria Mahlangu, a domestic worker who had worked for the same family for twenty years. While washing windows, Maria Mahlangu slipped, fell into the pool, and drowned. Her family received no compensation. More the point, the family offered no compensation and the State, at that point, excluded domestic workers from COIDA. On May 23 of this year, the North Gauteng High Court ruled that that exclusion was unconstitutional, but they did not rule on those who had been injured prior to the ruling or in past jobs. Yesterday’s ruling clears all that up. The Court ruled that the Constitutional invalidity of the exclusion of domestic workers means that all domestic workers are due unlimited retrospective COIDA compensation. The case now goes to the Constitutional Court. Today, we must celebrate, support and give thanks to all those domestic workers and domestic worker organizers, past and present, who brought the Court to make a decision. They refused to bargain with the State, and said, simply and directly, “Our rights are non-negotiable.”

Founding member of the United Domestic Workers of South Africa (Udwosa), Pinky Mashiane, said, “This is a victory for us and we will now approach the Constitutional Court with confidence that it will also rule in our favour. Government had denied domestic workers their right for a long time as it discriminated against us. We will move forward with the confidence that those injured on duty and the families of those who had died, will at long last receive compensation.”

In July, Myrtle Witbooi, the President of the International Domestic Workers Federation and General Secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers’ Union, explained, “The government ratified International Labour Organisation Convention 189 (dealing with the rights of domestic workers worldwide) in June 2013, which meant that they had a year to include domestic workers in COIDA. We had several campaigns, but all we got were promises. In 2016, the government told the ILO that COIDA would be extended to domestic workers, and it was gazetted in 2018. It is now 2019, and we are still waiting … While we have been fighting for domestics to be included in COIDA, many women have lost their lives or have been injured while on duty and have received no compensation at all.”

Pinky Mashiane and Myrtle Witbooi have called for expanded and deepened support for their campaign from all social justice sectors in South Africa. Hopefully, many will heed and respond to the call. At the same time, this is a case that crosses beyond the borders of South Africa and beyond the African continent. Many countries across the globe, including the United States, continue to exclude domestic workers from labor laws and from labor law protections and rights. That time is coming to an end. Domestic work is decent work, and domestic workers demand recognition, formal recognition, of the dignity of their labor. Tell your family, friends, colleagues and neighbors about Maria Mahlangu and about this week’s decision. Remind them that the struggle continues, and as it does, it expands the horizons. Amandla!


(Photo Credit: Zelda Venter / IOL)