Around the world, domestic workers demand decent, living wage and work conditions NOW!

Across the globe, domestic workers are struggling and organizing for decent work conditions, a living wage, respect and dignity. In 2011, the International Labour Organization passed C189, Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers. In 2013, the Convention went into effect. As of now, 24 countries have ratified the Convention. And yet … Yesterday, domestic workers in Tamil Nadu, in India, gathered to demand a living wage and legally enforced protections. Yesterday, in Mexico, the ILO reported that 1% of domestic workers in Mexico have any kind of social security. Yesterday, a report from England argued that the way to end exploitation of migrant workers, and in particular domestic workers, is a fair and living wage. Today, an article in South Africa argued that Black women domestic workers bear the brunt of “persistent inequality”. Today, an article in France argued that economic indicators systematically exclude “domestic labor” and so exclude women. What’s going here? In a word, inequality. Women bear the brunt of urban, national, regional and global inequality, and domestic workers sit in the dead center of the maelstrom.

Today, the inaugural World Inequality Report was issued. Since 1980, income inequality has increased almost everywhere, but the United States has led the way to astronomic, and catastrophic, income inequality. In the 1980s, inequality in western Europe and the United States was more or less the same. At that time, the top 1% of adults earned about 10% of national income in both western Europe and the United States. Today in western Europe, the top 1% of adults earns 12% of the national income. In the United States, the top 1% earns 20% of the national income. It gets worse. In Europe, economic growth has been generally the same at all levels. In the United States, the top half has been growing, while the bottom half, 117 million adults, has seen no income growth.

According to the report, the United States “experiment” has led the a global economic, and state, capture: “The global top 1% earners has captured twice as much of that growth as the 50% poorest individuals …. The top 1% richest individuals in the world captured twice as much growth as the bottom 50% individuals since 1980.” The authors note, “The global middle class (which contains all of the poorest 90% income groups in the EU and the United States) has been squeezed.”

Call it global wealth – state capture relies on expanding “opportunities” for the global poor – particularly in countries like China, India, and Brazil – while squeezing the global middle class, and that’s where domestic workers come in. Paid domestic labor has been one of the fastest growing global labor sectors for the past four decades. Women have entered the paid labor force thanks to other women who have tended to the household work. After its preamble, the ILO C189 opens, “Recognizing the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy, which includes increasing paid job opportunities for women and men workers with family responsibilities, greater scope for caring for ageing populations, children and persons with a disability, and substantial income transfers within and between countries …”

That language was formally accepted in 2011. Six years later, domestic workers are still waiting, and struggling, for that recognition. In Mexico, groups are organizing to include domestic workers into Social Security programs as well as to ensure that employers pay the end of year bonus that all decent, and not so decent, employers in Mexico pay. In India, domestic workers are marching and demanding protections as well as a living wage. Domestic workers are women workers are workers, period. Today’s Inequality Report reminds us that the extraordinary wealth of those at the very top has been ripped from the collective labor and individual bodies of domestic workers. Structured, programmatic ever widening inequality, at the national and global level, begins and ends with the hyper-exploitation of domestic workers, through employers’ actions and State inaction. Who built today’s version of the seven gates of Thebes? Domestic workers. It’s past time to pay the piper. NOW is the time!

 

(Photo Credit: El Sie7e de Chiapas) (Image Credit: World Inequality Report / Quartz)

Children trafficked into domestic servitude in Zanzibar

Girls and women in a Zanzibari shelter

With the promises of better lives and opportunities for their children, parents are being tricked into sending their children to become domestic servants for various wealthy employers in Zanzibar. Unfortunately, the promise of wages and educational opportunities for children do not come to fruition, and many child domestic workers endure long hours, no salaries or education as promised, and have to endure slave-like working conditions.

Children like Rose became the victim of the traffic of girls into domestic servitude. With the promise of economic and educational opportunities in Zanzibar City, Rose left home to work in a wealthy family’s home. There she was subject to long hours of work, physical abuse, and inhuman punishments for not completing a job. For example, Rose was locked in a fetid, tiny outdoor latrine for more than 11 hours. She had not finished washing the dishes the night before.

Such stories are common among the children being trafficked in Tanzania to become servants and domestic laborers. Based on reports of child labor in Tanzania, 131,741 children are pushed into domestic servitude; girls constituted the majority of domestic work with 84.2% (110,911) of the total child laborers. According to the Tanzania Mainland National Child Labour Survey,

the most common risk facts that the children face include “long and tiring working days; use of toxic chemicals; carrying heavy loads; handling dangerous items such as knives, axes and hot pans; insufficient and inadequate food and accommodation, and humiliating or degrading treatment including physical and verbal violence, and sexual abuse.”

Some few, more fortunate children more fortunate work for families that treat them well enough, but most face a lifetime of abuse and exploitation. Rose’s story illustrates the abuse that most trafficked girls experience as domestic workers. The morning of her first day of work, she was beaten mercilessly by her employers. After similar and worse punishments, such as imprisonment in a latrine, Rose finally escaped to a shelter for trafficking victims.

Likewise, Rachel, a domestic laborer at 14 years old, was forced to work for 16 hours a day, doing everything from cleaning to childcare. Her employer beat her often and raped her frequently. Finally, Rachel escaped and found a shelter.

Because of outside pressure, Tanzania has begun to take the cases of trafficked children seriously, investigating 100 suspected trafficking cases in 2016. Nevertheless, there has been no headway into the agencies that bring the children to their employers. There is no sense of how to stop the flow of children from mainland Tanzania to Zanzibar. Further, no proper organization has helped reunite survivors with their parents nor does any organization formally help trafficked child domestic laborers escape from their employers. In Zanzibar, there is one offering protection for these children, and it has only ten beds. Meanwhile, the warnings from Rose and others like her have not hindered other children from following in her footsteps. Many more children are at risk of falling into the same trap of the promise of a better life, only to be pushed into slavery.

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Rebecca Grant)

Elder Care Workers in the United States Are Fighting for Justice

The aging of the largest generation in the United States, the Baby Boomers, is creating a desperate shortage for care workers for elders. By 2024, upstate New York will need 451,000 home health workers in 2024; currently the state employs 326,000. Already, the shortage is problematic for New York. For example, Rebecca Leahy of North Country Home Services reports that, every week, it is unable to provide a staggering 400 hours of homecare services which have been authorized by the state. Leahy explains, “My fear is that in the near future most patients in the three Adirondacks counties of Franklin, Essex, and Clinton could be without services because the sole provider for most of this region will not be able to cover payroll.” That would leave thousands of elders without the physical and emotional urgent care that they need.

The current trend, pushing us into a critical shortage of homecare workers, has been caused by the lack of well-paying jobs in the elder health-care industry. That lack creates a pool of continually underemployed workers. Upstate New York, and most of the country, consistently employs workers at wages and conditions that keep them in poverty, causing a high turnover rate of workers in a health industry that needs stability. Currently, the number of people in the United States over the age of 65 is expected to double. With the urgent and pervasive need for personal-care aids and home healthcare workers, employers and the state should provide jobs that give aids decent wages and benefits, including paid time off and health insurance.

Those benefits have not been procured by employees. Ai-jen Poo, Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has highlighted the extreme precariousness and vulnerability in elder care workers. With an industry where 90% of workers are women, the majority women of color and 30-40% immigrants, the conditions are impossible, ‘The average income for home care-workers is $17,000 a year. The median income for an elder care-worker…is $13,000.” Additionally, according to Poo, because they are characterized as domestic workers, elder care workers don’t qualify for work protections such as “limits on hours and overtime pay, days off, health benefits and paid leave.” Workers are completely dedicated to the patient who needs care, but are unable to receive the benefits and pay they deserve, many taking care of our families and loved ones.

Nearly 75% of nursing home care and home health care is paid for through Medicaid and Medicare, where the reimbursement rate has stagnated for several years. With the Trump administration’s attempts to roll back expansions granted under the Affordable Care Act, those reimbursements are unlikely to increase any time soon.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is one of the leading organizations in the United States working for the inclusion of domestic workers, which include elder care employees, into the Fair Labor Standards Act which guarantees workers a federal minimum wage, overtime, sick, and vacation pay.

Caring Across Generations is a coalition of more than 100 local, state, and national organizations, working towards a policy agenda which includes, “access to quality care, affordable home care for families and individuals, and better care jobs.” The organization lists four major proposals to help address the underemployment of homecare workers and the growing need for elder care services:

  1. Increase the national minimum wage floor for domestic workers to $15.00 per hour.
  2. Improve workforce training and career mobility to ensure quality.
  3. Develop a path to citizenships for undocumented caregivers.
  4. Create a national initiative to incentivize and recruit family caregivers into the paid workforce, since nearly 85% of long term care is provided by family members.

According to Ai-jen Poo, domestic workers, including elder care workers, “need fair wages, decent working conditions and access to reproductive health care, including abortions”. It seems a simple request, considering these workers provide physical, mental and emotional care for our elderly family members while sacrificing their time with their own families. Given the emerging crisis, the time to help these workers is now!

 

(Photo Credit: Caring Across Generations)

A Band-Aid on a Gaping Wound: Limits of the Law in Domestic Work in India

Domestic workers fighting abuse and slave-like conditions need legal protection. While India’s labor ministry has begun preparations to provide social security for domestic workers, further protections for workers to demand better treatment from their employers and justice for abuse and mistreatment are still needed.

Recent instances of severe abuse of domestic workers in India include a 26-year-old domestic worker from Bangladesh who was held captive by her employer, based on false accusations that she had stolen from them. She had not been paid in two months. Elsewhere, a domestic worker was tortured and then murdered by her employers, a legislator and his wife.

Even if workers organize and rights have been won, the threat of retaliation from employers remains. For example, domestic workers in a complex in Mumbai went on strike for their underpayment by employers. The, employers conceded defeat and then months later fired the maids.

Domestic workers are vulnerable because of their lack of other employment choices. According to social activist Pratchi Talwar, “Many resort to domestic work because of decline in employment opportunities in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors.”

A poll in India conducted about workplace harassment highlights domestic workers’ vulnerability, claiming that these women do not retaliate from employment abuses because of the fear of losing their jobs, fear of being stigmatized, the absence of a means of filing complaints at the workplace, and the lack of awareness about redressal mechanism. These reasons, and the lack of means to address these problems, produce a continued pool of workers vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment form their employers.

India’s labor ministry has begun the process of addressing the concerns over the mistreatment of domestic workers by defining domestic workers as workers and providing the legal protection and social security that comes with the new legal status. The introduction of the policy is intended to “set up an institutional mechanism for social security coverage, fair terms of employment, addressing grievances and resolving disputes.”

According to Sonia Rani, project coordinator of the Self-employed Women’s Association, “These are just guidelines which are not legally enforceable. What happens when there is sexual abuse, withholding salaries and denying leave? Can the workers go to court? There also has to be a non-negotiable salary regime.’

Domestic workers continue to experience higher turnover rates and can be fired at will because there is no legal protection and no national law documenting domestic work as work, giving them all the protections of workers from such legal status. There are only two laws in India concerning domestic workers, the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act of 2013. Neither law recognizes domestic workers as having legal rights. Though India is a signatory to the International Labor Organization’s 189th convention on Domestic Workers, the country has not yet ratified it.

Policy shifts concerning domestic workers do not become concrete implemented law unless domestic workers are recognized as part of the labor force. Only when domestic work has been recognized as work can there be legal protections for women and girls employed as maids. Unions and organization have argued “that the mindset of regarding domestic workers must shift from a policy paradigm to one that focuses on workers’ rights. Only then, can domestic workers’ rights be defined and protected.” Until then, the actions are but a Band-Aid on a nationwide gaping wound.

 

(Photo Credit: PBS News Hour / YouTube) (Image Credit: The Economic Times)

Nancy Almorin Lubiano challenges Hong Kong’s live-In maid rule

 

For migrant domestic workers living in Hong Kong, live-in work continues to be one of the most precarious forms of work. In a new court hearing, lawyers for Nancy Almorin Lubiano, a domestic worker from the Philippines, are challenging Hong Kong’s live-in domestic rule that could affect her and 350,000 other women.

Lubiano’s lawyers are suggesting that the rule, put in place since 2003, is unconstitutional because “it heightened the risk of breaching the fundamental rights of helpers, violating international charters.”

Hong Kong’s regime originally had a more liberal stance for workers, which allowed domestic workers to provide outside living accommodations, so long as they had their employers’ permission. A year before the rule was put into place, of the city’s 200,000 maids, 100 worked as live-out employees.

Today, the rule that mandates live-in domestic help face the consequence of, “administrative sanctions in future applications for a visa or employment, and criminal prosecution over charges such as furnishing false information, which is punishable by a HK$150,000 fine and 14 years’ imprisonment.” Domestic workers face extreme precarity being forced to live in the home of their employers, always at the beck and call of their employers, and anyone attempting to flee a dangerous situation could be moved from one prison to the next.

For live-in domestic workers residing in Hong Kong, risk is ever present. According to Lubiano’s lawyers, “Key findings by Shieh included an average of 71.4 working hours per week, with more than one in three respondents deprived of their weekly 24-hor rest day as required by law. Another 40 per cent were deprived of independent rooms, some of them exposed to the rest of the household while sleeping in corridors, kitchens, and even beds above toilets.” Lubiano was given a 60 sq. ft. storeroom in a 640 sq. ft. flat shared with a family of three; because it was a storeroom Lubiano was never given privacy, since her employers had access to the room at all times. If maids in situations like Lubiano desired to leave an abusive employers, they would only have two weeks to find another employer before they are forced to leave the city.

The arguments made by Lubiano’s lawyer, Paul Shieh Shing-tai, calls the case “a challenge to the system…saying the government should not interfere with foreign maids’ private life just to achieve the purpose of monitoring and maintaining security.”

While the case is being heard by the courts, based solely on the constitutionality of the rule, the 350,000 domestic workers will live and work in a state of limbo, continuing to work in a state of insecurity. Reports illustrate that domestic workers are victims of “a range of exploitative practices that would meet the internationally recognized definitions of forced labour and trafficking.”

Lubiano and Shieh have a very narrow legal challenge for the live-in rule, as contended by Shieh himself, but the verdict of the rule has large implications for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. The ability to be given the choice to live out, as opposed to the powerlessness that some feel living in their employers’ home would mean the ability to have an escape from abuse and exploitation, and the end of a 24-hour on-call workday.

(Photo Credit: Hong Kong Free Press)

 

In Indonesia, education is the key for domestic workers’ empowerment

For many domestic workers, work is grueling and exploitative, with long hours and low pay. Some fight back. Others do not, feeling as if the life of a maid or domestic worker will forever mean unfair treatment and meager wages. Some are too afraid that they are replaceable and accept whatever is given to them. Others work because they believe they have no other form of education behind them with which to ask for raises or better treatment. Can domestic workers become empowered enough to fight for better wages and better working conditions, and if so, what are some of the ways they can organize?

Indonesian maids have illustrated one mode of organizing that leads to empowerment and courage to fight for better wages; education. In an attempt to combat the hostile working conditions, Indonesia has introduced a pilot training program which “aims to enhance domestic workers’ skills and win recognition for their work as a profession in a bid to fight exploitation and modern slavery.”

Indonesia remains a large provider of maids for countries such as a Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Middle East, while four million women are also employed within the countries as domestic workers as well. Though domestic work is one of the primary modes of employment for Indonesian women in the country, there is a larger chance for abuse for domestic workers laboring in Indonesia, because, “unlike their counterparts who work overseas, who must go through extensive training regulated by the government, there are no such provisions for local maids.” Thus, local domestic workers are in danger of exploitation and abuse, suffering from long work hours, withheld wages and a lack of formal contract, because the government does not recognize domestic work as formal work with labor protection form formal labor laws.

For women like Leni Suryani, the training program instilled the confidence to ask for a higher starting salary. As one of the first graduates of the program, “Suryani said she brushed up her skills on cooking different cuisines, housekeeping and childcare during her training, as well as learning English and using computers. At the end of the 200-hour course last year and after a test, she received a certificate given by a national professional certification board that recognized her skills.” With the certificate, she was empowered enough to negotiate a higher salary with an American family.

The International Labour Organization, which oversees the program, trains women in domestic work skills and educates them on workers’ rights so they can fight nearly slave-like conditions. Irfan Afandi, the program’s national advocacy specialist, highlighted the importance to empower women, even if it’s only with a certificate: “They think working from 6am to 8pm is normal and they should do anything they are told-from cooking to car washing and gardening. There is no clear scope of their job…They are confident because now they are professional domestic workers. They learnt the skills, it increases their employability and prospects for better work conditions.”

Training and being given such a certificate instills confidence and pride in work that is done. Like Suryani, it has empowered a once discouraged domestic worker into better wages and a better working situation. Education in workers’ rights and acquiring skill sets to help them improve the prospects empowers all marginalized women to resist falling into the trap of exploitation by means of instilling pride in domestic workers’ earned skill and labor.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Twitter) (Photo Credit 2: Twitter)

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.