Domestic workers organized, and the New Jersey General Assembly passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights!

On Monday, January 8, 2023, after more than two and a half years of deliberating, and not deliberating, the New Jersey General Assembly finally voted on and passed the New Jersey Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, 47 – 26. Monday was the last day of the legislative session. The bill was passed out of committee on January 4, the last day the committee could hear and decide on whether or not to pass the bill onto the general body. As one domestic worker/organizer said, “They put us last minute because we were there with our presence”. This bill was first introduced June 2021. For two and a half years, and longer, domestic workers showed up, pushed, persisted, shouted, whispered, sang, linked arms, advocated, mobilized, organized, organized, and organized. They were there with their presence. As domestic worker/organizer Sandy Castro explained, “It’s a very big win for us. It feels good to see it come to fruition after sacrificing so much time, so many days, to continue this fight”.

The New Jersey Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights provides domestic workers protection against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation; ensures mandatory meal and rest breaks; and requires written agreements that establish, detail, and document hours, wages and duties. Employers will have to pay workers no less than the state minimum wage, $15.13 an hour. The new law creates a board to monitor and review the implementation of the legislation and make recommendations to improve it and provides for the enforcement of domestic worker rights. Finally, the new law ensures advance notice of termination and provides other protections for live-in workers, such as privacy and anti-trafficking safeguards. In other words, domestic workers are workers. The centuries long era of exclusion is coming to an end … finally.

In 2020, Rutgers University Center for Women and Work issued a report, Domestic Workers in New Jersey, which found, unsurprisingly, “domestic workers are predominately female with a high proportion of immigrants and women of color. This is especially true for New Jersey, where domestic workers are even more likely to be female, immigrant, and non-white compared to the U.S. national average. In New Jersey, 97 percent of all domestic workers are female, 52 percent are immigrants, and 60 percent are non-white.” The report also found that the top three reasons domestic workers did not take action against labor violations were, in descending order, “Did not know how”; “Did not know I could”; “Afraid I would lose my job”. The new law establishes structures to educate both workers and employers concerning the law. Eliminate not knowing and fear, you eliminate over 60% of the respondents’ reasons for not contesting and reporting labor violations.

New Jersey joins ten other states that have some version of a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights: New York, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia. New York passed its Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2010; Virginia, in 2021. As domestic worker/organizer Evelyn Saz explained, “This bill is a critical step toward justice, not only for us in New Jersey but for domestic workers across the nation. We deserve to work with protections, dignity and the respect we have rightfully earned.” They came with their presence … and they won for workers across the nation.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: National Domestic Workers Alliance)

In South Africa, `return to normal’ drowns domestic workers in debt, danger, despair

Have you heard, the pandemic is over, and the world is `returning to normal’. In South Africa, part of this return has involved loadshedding, scheduled (or not) rolling blackouts. Why does a country as rich as South Africa suffer from loadshedding? Don’t ask. This Sunday, SweepSouth, a South African online platform through which people can hire domestic workers and domestic workers can secure reasonably protected work arrangements, released the 2023 Report on Domestic Workers Pay and Work Conditions, its sixth since 2018. The news this year is grim. As Luke Kannemeyer, SweepSouth Managing Director, noted in the Executive Summary, “Our results continue to emphasise the disproportionate burden that domestic workers carry in their households. The majority are women (94%), sole breadwinners (84%), single caregivers (64%), and support an average of four dependents …. Workers continue to sacrifice basic needs as costs outstrip earnings. Food is the largest expenditure item with the greatest increase since last year (+12%). Poor South Africans were hit hardest as food inflation hit a 14-year high in March 2023. Primarily driven by the electricity crisis, vegetables, wheat and corn-based products, and plant-based oils (such as vegetable oil) increased the most. These items make up a disproportionate portion of food in low-income households. With few workers having any savings (2023: 9%, 2022: 10%), many take on debt.” While much of the report is unsurprising, much of it is new, and none of it encouraging. As Kannemeyer concludes the Executive Summary, “This summary is just the tip of the iceberg. We want this report to motivate you to be part of driving change in the domestic work industry.”

As in past years, 94% of domestic workers are women, median age 37. 39% are South African, 56% are Zimbabwean. 58% work in Gauteng, 37% in the Western Cape. 96% are primarily engaged in cleaning. 28% of domestic workers lost their jobs in the past year. Of this group, 25% lost their jobs because their employers could no longer afford them. This is more or less consistent with past years. 40% lost their jobs because their employers moved. Of those employers who moved, 28% moved to another city in South Africa, and 59% moved overseas. Much of the movement from one city to another, semigration, is a consequence of remote working. In both instances, emigration and semigration, those leaving are so-called skilled workers.

Between loss of jobs, relatively stagnant earnings, skyrocketing inflation, it’s not particularly surprising that most domestic workers are in debt and sinking deeper quickly and that very few have any savings.

Loadshedding has also taken its toll. Most domestic workers report that loadshedding has had a negative impact on the number of hours they work, has added extra time on their commutes, and made their commutes more dangerous. Additionally, loadshedding has had the more general impact lack of reliable energy has on low-income communities.

The report ends with recommendations: enforce and expand legal protections; implement multi-pronged solutions for loadshedding; improve access to mental health; increase support for workers facing abuse at home and in their workplace. While these are all reasonable recommendations, they miss the core new element in this year’s report and the core element in every report. The core element in every report is that almost all the domestic workers are women. This is a women’s employment, security, and rights issue. While that may be obvious, it needs to be emphasized and acted upon. Thousands of women are being sent into a situation of structural violence because they are women. The new element is that those who lost their jobs lost their jobs because their employers either emigrated or semigrated. This is new, and the State as well as organized labor must address this situation. What sorts of arrangements must be made before an employer leaves? What sorts of obligations does the employer have? What obligation does the State have? What obligations do the trade unions have? What obligations do the women’s movements have? If nothing is done, the result will be more than thousands of unemployed women, which is bad enough. It will be thousands of women heads of household drowning in rising debt, which will condemn them, their families, their communities to a future without promise or hope. That is unacceptable.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Infographic Credit: SweepSouth)

Domestic workers are organizing. Call them, simply, workers


Lebanon 2023

“Yesterday was May 1, 2011. Around the globe, millions marched. Among the workers marching were sex workersdomestic workers, other denizens of the informal economy. Today is May 2, 2011. What are those workers today? Are they considered, simply, workers or are they `workers’, part worker, part … casual, part … informal, part …shadow, part … contingent, part … guest? All woman, all precarious, all the time.” Today is May 1, 2023. What will tomorrow bring for sex workers, domestic workers, care workers, and other denizens of the informal economy? Twelve years later, after so much organizing, where exactly, and who exactly, are we?

Much has happened over the past twelve years, and much has remained the same. Nation-states have recognized domestic workers as formal, or actual, workers. On June 16, 2011, the ILO ratified the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which came into force on September 5, 2013. In 2013, the ILO estimated the Convention could affect the lives of 53 million domestic workers, not including child domestic workers. At that time, the ILO estimated there were 10.5 million children working as domestic workers. Those numbers have only grown in the interim. At last count, 39 countries have ratified ILO Convention 189. Many more have not, including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Spain ratified this year.

Recently, The Monitor, in Uganda, has been running a series entitled “Maid in Middle East”, focusing on individual stories of Ugandan workers difficult lives, and often tortured deaths, as workers in various countries across the Middle East. From 2016 to 2021, approximately 24,100 Ugandans, mostly women, went each year to work in the Middle East. In 2022, that number was just shy of 85,000. Meanwhile, today, according to The Monitor, seven out of ten employed Ugandans work without a contract or any job security. As Filbert Baguma, General Secretary of Uganda National Teachers’ Union, UNATU, today noted, “We don’t have what to celebrate because workers continue to be marginalised as their employers pretend to be paying them. If you pay me whatever you want and you continue to use words like, you can take it or leave it and go, be patient, up to when?’’ Up to when? Uganda has not ratified ILO Convention 189.

Across the world, workers and allies have protested various forms of abuse, exploitation, and violence. Domestic workers have figured prominently in some of those demonstrations, in others, not so much. In Hong Kong, 340,000 so-called migrant domestic workers have faced abuse and exploitation “for decades”. For decades, domestic workers in Hong Kong have taken to the streets, courts and embassies to demand and seize dignity, respect, autonomy, recognition and power. Women like Nancy Almorin Lubiano, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Evangeline Banao Vallejos, and so many others went to court to challenge both employer and State physical, emotional, psychological and structural violence. During that same period, Baby Jane Allas, Milagros Tecson Comilang, Desiree Rante Luis suffered terrible abuse at the hands of employers and State, while, like so many other migrant domestic workers, Sophia Rhianne Dulluog died “under mysterious circumstances.” China has not signed ILO Convention 189.

In 2015, domestic workers in Lebanon organized a union. Today, with supporters and in the midst of national economic and social crisis, they marched through the streets of Beirut, demanding an end to violence against domestic workers. As did their sisters in Bangladesh and Jamaica, along with calling out the violence itself, they noted that many of the so-called protections exist on paper only. There is less than no enforcement; violators and predators are effectively encouraged to go on about their business undisturbed. Lebanon and Bangladesh have not ratified ILO Convention 189; Jamaica has.

For the past twenty years, in the larger DC – Maryland – Virginia metropolitan region, a group of Latin American immigrant women who fled their homes and homelands to escape violence. They are Madre Tierra, Mother Earth, and they have connected around 500 people seeking asylum or legal status with attorneys. They have provided support and community to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, forced marriages, and persecution for their sexual identities. The group itself numbers around 80. Many, if not most, work as house or office cleaners, at exploitatively low pay. The members realized that for them to address the violence, they had to build power, and that included economic and worker power. And so, they are forming a cleaners’ cooperative, Magic Broom. Magic Broom currently has 12 members. Jean Carla Paloma, originally from Bolivia, explained, “This will allow us to come together and make a living and hopefully get the means to be able to sustain ourselves … [It will] teach women about their rights so they can know when they’re being discriminated against and how to prevent violence.” Consuelo Barboso, originally from Colombia, agreed, adding, “Unification is what brings us power.”

From massive marches to cooperatives of 12, unification is what brings us power. Unification is a process, not a single place nor a single day. Unification means mutual recognition in the formation and sustenance of solidarity. Unification itself is work, as are mutual recognition and solidarity. Unification brings us power; call them, simply, workers.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Bilal Hussein / AP / HJ News)


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)