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)

Maria Mahlangu is still dead. How many Maria Mahlangus died without justice?

Maria Mahlangu is still dead. We do not know how many Maria Mahlangus died without a voice, without their story making news, without justice. Many domestic workers are in jeopardy because our homes (their workplaces) are not always safe workplaces. We can end this, by joining the call of thousands of domestic workers to end the era of exclusion, of them being treated as third-class workers. 

Domestic workers, predominantly Black women, make up “more than 8%” of Black workers in South Africa, far outnumbering Black professionals in our workforce. The way we treat domestic workers (in law and in our homes) is an expression of our disdain for Black bodies, for Black women’s bodies and their labour as a nation. The extent to which we continue to extract their labour with little recognition of their dignity and rights, and even less legal recognition, is a moral outrage, a profound injustice. This is a cause we are obligated by our morality and our sense of justice to get behind. If there are more than 2million domestic workers in this country, this is a cause of millions of us in this nation. 

Let this be where we begin our full stop to injustice, gendered injustice. It is an outrage that this had to go to court to begin with, but it has come to that. Tomorrow domestic workers will be in court to defend what should be a constitutional right. How will you stand with them? It is not enough to be nice to Mavis, although Mavis deserves all the respect you should give. We can do something more fundamental than that, that improves the lives of all the Mavis’s. So, dear friend, how will you show up for the people who show up for millions of our families every day? 

Domestic workers, their union formations and those who support them started the campaign under the Domestic Workers Rising banner. They are co-founders of #Shayisfuba, an intersectional movement of womxn individuals and formations who’ve come together to build solidarity with each other, to learn about and fight common struggles. The movement is saying a feminist government would have prioritised equal protection for all workers, particularly the least protected, domestic workers. It is not too late!

(Image Credit: New Frame)

Why I support the demands of domestic workers!


I was born from a mother of multiple identities. The daughter of a farmer who had no land but grew her own food in the space she was allowed on the farm where I was later born, Kwantaba Ziyatsha (place of burning mountains), or Seven Fountains to some. It was only when my grandmother was forcefully removed from the farm where she worked, birthed some of her children and farmed that she could have her own piece of land to grow more food to feed the troop of us grandchildren and many more in our village eMgababa. She was forcefully moved because she was getting old, wasn’t as “efficient” as Baas Robert needed her to be. All her children had left the farm to work in the mines or other farms or the “kitchens” in the towns.

By the time we moved to eMgababa (a village near Peddie), my mother had long left school to go and work in the neighbouring Grahamstown, eRhini or Makhanda as is now known. I am told she was a promising bright student who could have been one of the country’s best netball players. But for a young black girl who didn’t finish school, domestic work became the most obvious avenue and soon enough, she was working in white people’s hotels and homes.

Back then, the story of the “domestic worker” in South Africa was more black and white than it is today. Black women in the towns cleaned white people’s houses, looked after their children, maintained their households, releasing the family to go to school and engage in “productive” economic activities. Black women have always been central to the formation of the white economy in this country. They continue to be in contemporary South Africa’s black middle-class economy. It is still black women (South African born and migrant) who are the majority domestic workers today, an estimated one million of them working in the white suburbs and in the homes of today’s bourgeoning black middle classes.

My mother started domestic work at age 14, was a live-in domestic, which is code for a 24-hour worker available at the madam or master’s ring of the bell. Later we got to witness how she lived alongside her bosses. The family which she served the longest loved her alright. She was the real mother of the household, the one the children cried to when they fell or were hungry. In all the ways she was positioned as the stereotype: walked the dogs in her pink overalls, sometimes fetched the children from school in her pink overalls. She preferred blue but if she didn’t go with the Madam to choose the colour she wanted she got pink. Had to wear her overalls when serving family friends by the pool. Stayed in the garage even though there were enough bedrooms inside the house she cleaned and made a home for the family everyday.

I did not want to know too much about what else happened to her there. Her mood told it all when she came home. I got to experience and observe some of her daily life myself on the days I went to help her. Also, when I worked on my own for her “master” of 27 years during school holidays or weekends to make a little money, and when my mother was no longer well enough to work so I had to replace her when I could.

But my mother was not the stereotype. She was “cheeky”. Baas tolerated her as long as the Madam was alive. When Madam died suddenly the husband persecuted her out of a job of 27 years and robbed her of her entitlements. Madam was a truly nice woman who loved my mother in her own way. She helped save me from dying of a botched appendicectomy in the hands of an apartheid Surgeon who insisted I had an STD at 14 and would not let anyone else disagree with his untested diagnosis. Afterall, Master was the lawyer and she had no real rights under the law, or the ability to fight back against his cunning.

In my family, we used to joke that my mother was like Mandela, she did a 27-year sentence at her last employer. Difference was she got out of it with little if anything while Mandela got a presidency and a saintly status. She didn’t think the joke was funny, but it was too good a joke to not taunt her with. Afterall, she was the queen of mock.  She was so good at mocking others she could reduce a big man to a flimsy little straw with one joke, she wasn’t afraid of anyone. I think this was part of the reason the very tall Baas couldn’t tolerate her in the end, cheeky, old domestics aren’t attractive, nor pleasure to have around.

My mother’s experience, and by extension ours, was as complex, unique as it was typical. When I started to work for Baas, he was very quick to comment how I reminded him of my mother when she was young. How she “followed instructions”. How she would moan but wouldn’t talk as loudly back. How she cleaned “more thoroughly”, didn’t demand extra pay and was just how they all should be, visible only through the work of their hands. Bust she changed, and he “didn’t know what got into her”.

After my mother recognised certain signs in me she demanded I stop going there. Luckily, I got another weekend and holiday job somewhere else where it was just me and the Madam, and my mother was always with me. She was always clear, no daughter of hers was going to become a fulltime domestic worker. She insisted she would sell anything of hers for me to complete my studies. But I knew she had already sold everything, including her health. So, when she got sick, I was happy for her to stop working and we had to find other ways to make do. By then, she had met a wonderful spirit who became many things to us. This one, we didn’t call her Madam. She was daughter and sister and companion to my mother. She shared with us everything she could. One cannot pretend race, class and history away, but she presented an alternative way. When she moved away my mother could not do the work anymore. She was 14 years old when she began this work. It had marked her life, our perceptions of interpersonal relationships and familial intimacies. She was done, but reckoning with its impacts on her emotional and physical wellbeing was only beginning.

October is the month my mother died 6 years ago. She was 54. A feisty, towering tree of our family. With her around we had a stem on which to anchor ourselves. It is a very heavy month for us her children and her siblings. Last month we performed the big ritual of returning her spirit back home, Simbuyisa. Among other things, my mother was a serious Healer. In my tradition people get called to be healers. I do not know how our ancestors decide who to call. Perhaps it’s a combination of one’s life trials and tribulations and a resilience or purity of spirit despite it all might have something to do with it. So, by tradition we perform these rituals, for the healing of her spirit as well as of those of the living. But it is Pinky, Myrtle who raised my mother from the grave for me, and began the healing of my spirit.

A few months ago, I got introduced to Pinky Mashiane, a domestic worker warrior who is leading the charge for domestic workers to receive the same protections under the law. She fights alongside Myrtle Witbooi, the stalwart of the domestic workers movement in SA and the world over. Myrtle has been everywhere carrying the placard for domestic workers rights. She has led SADSAWU, that neglected “child” of our labour movement for decades, making visible the invisible hands who clean up the proverbial mess in so many of our homes and perform productive labour without which our nation, our economy, would come to a standstill.

This month, Pinky and her sisters, my mother’s comrades and sisters in arms, will hopefully achieve a significant victory at the Constitutional Court. I had not known Pinky much before this. I still do not quite know much of her story. But I know my mother’s story and through it I know Pinky. The story of millions of women in SA and the world over who are domestic workers.

I am blessed with these mothers, these comrades, these warriors who are returning my mother to me, and justice for her beyond the grave. I am inspired by the feminists I organize with who did not hesitate to respond when these workers called. For all these reasons, I support every single demand the Domestic workers are making: Same protection under the law. Decent wages, decent working conditions, compensation for injuries and diseases contracted at work!

And no, domestic workers are not responsible for the crimes that happen in our homes. Yes, when we feel vindicated at an occasional video that goes viral of a supposed domestic worker abusing a child we should be shocked as well as look in the mirror. What do we do every day, in the most intimate spaces where we have total control over them, to recognise and affirm their humanity.

No, its not enough to talk nice about how wonderful Mavis and Violet and Zoliswa are and then send them away with a couple of thousands when they are too old or sickly for us to extract anymore of their labour. We must recognize, respect and remunerate them as legitimate workers. Treat them as human beings with dignity. We have the power of control over their lives while they are in our homes, our offices and workplaces. Our own humanity is measured in the way we treat others in general, particularly those who give to us as much as domestic workers do. Hopefully the courts will speak for them this week.

Hopefully the State will finally be forced to recognize all their rights as workers. We owe them nothing less!

That’s why I support the Domestic Worker’s Rising campaign. You should too.

The campaign was launched on October 15. On the same day a group of domestic workers and allied organisations gathered outside the North Gauteng High Court for the Sylvia Mahlangu hearing. In this case, Maria Mahlangu drowned in March 2012 after falling off a ladder and plunging into her employer’s open swimming pool while cleaning windows.

Her unemployed daughter Sylvia and grandchild, who were dependent on her income, were unable to claim for compensation through available legislation, even though Mahlangu had worked for the same family for 22 years. To get more details about this case and the Domestic Worker’s Rising Campaign follow it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on @OxfamSA and visit the website to see the different ways you can be involved.

(For more information, check out https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/citypress/20181014/282291026197237 and http://www.seri-sa.org/images/SERI_Domestic_Workers_Rights_Guide_Draft_2_reprint.pdf )

(This originally appeared, in edited form, in the City Press)

Where is the global outrage at Saudi Arabia’s execution of Tuti Tursilawati?

On Monday, October 29, Saudi Arabia executed, more like assassinated, Tuti Tursilawati, a 32—year-old domestic worker, mother of one, from Indonesia. According to Tuti Tursilawati’s testimony, she went to Saudi Arabia to work in a private home. She was sexually abused for months. Finally, in 2010, after nine months of abuse and in self-defense, Tuti Tursilawati killed her abuser when he tried, once more, to rape her. She ran away, was caught and gang raped, and then turned over to police. In 2011, Tuti Tursilawati was found guilty of murder. For seven years, she sat on death row. On October 19, Tuti Tursilawati was allowed to talk to her mother, via video. At that time, she said she was healthy and not worried about her execution. Less than two weeks later, without any notice to the Indonesian government or Tuti Tursilawati’s family or anyone else, Tuti Tursilawati was executed. Who cares?

The Indonesian government has responded with “deep concerns” and outrage. Indonesian activist ngo’s, particularly Migrant Care, have condemned the execution and called on the Indonesian government to take appropriate actions. And that’s pretty much the universe of concern and care for Tuti Tursilawati. Why is that? Where is the global outrage? Tuti Tursilawati’s story is a common story, for Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and the world. According to Migrant’s Care co-founder Anis Hidayah, 1.5 million Indonesians work in Saudi Arabia. Tuti Tursilawati’s story is typical: sexual abuse, long hours, inadequate and improper housing, physical and psychological torment, and the list goes on. Tuti Tursilawati’s story is also typical of the world at large as well. According to the International Labor Organization’s most recent account, in 2015, there were 11.5 million migrant domestic workers globally. Of 67.1 million domestic workers, globally, 17.2 per cent were migrant domestic workers. It gets worse: “Domestic work is a much higher source of employment for migrants than it is for non-migrant workers. When analyzed as a share of migrant workers, migrant domestic workers (MDWs) represent 7.7 per cent of a global estimate of 150.3 million migrant workers. Disaggregated by sex, this share is even higher, representing 12.7 per cent, or 8.45 million, of the 66.6 million female migrant workers worldwide.” Who cares? Why is the employer’s torture and the State’s murder of Tuti Tursilawati only of concern to Indonesians? Where is the global outrage?

On Wednesday, October 31, Mona Eltahawy wrote, “Who speaks out for a poor woman far away from home in one of the most patriarchal countries in the world who defends herself against a sexually abusive employer, is sentenced to death, spends 7 yrs on death row and is then beheaded? Where is the global outrage for Tuti Tursilawati?”

Where was the outrage when 25-year-old Tuti Tursilawati was unfairly sentenced to death for having protected herself? Where was the outrage as Tuti Tursilawati sat for seven years on death row? Where is the global outrage now? Nowhere to be seen. While there is much to be said of the Kafala system and the brutal conditions of labor in Saudi Arabia, and across the Middle East, for migrant domestic workers, we must also address our own brutal complicity through silence. Tuti Tursilawati’s execution, and the Indonesian outraged response, was reported, however briefly, in the major news outlets, often on the front page. Who cared? No one. Where is the global outrage? As of yet, nowhere to be seen. 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? Who cares about Tuti Tursilawati? Where is the global outrage? Tuti Tursilawati haunts the world. Who cares?

Tuti Tursilawati

 

(Photo Credit 1: Kompas) (Photo Credit 2: Jakarta Post)