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


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

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

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

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

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

(Photo credit: Mark Pazniokas / Connecticut Mirror)

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

 

Gloria Kente

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everywhere, women domestic workers are on the move.

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

 

(Photo Credit: IOL / Jeffrey Abrahams) (Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France – Press / Getty Images)

 

Domestic workers in Lebanon organize a union!

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo Credit: AFP/ Anwar Amro)

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

(Photo Credit: Sunday Express / EPA)

Women cleaners and domestic workers confront violence against women

Gloria Kente

From Hong Kong to Qatar to Greece to the United States, domestic workers and women cleaners are under attack. They are under attack because they are women. In South Africa this year, domestic workers and women cleaners have confronted the attack head on.

Delia Adonis works as a cleaner in a mall in Cape Town. Last month, Adonis saw five men attack a sixth. She called the police, who intervened. She then went to the parking lot, where the five men encircled her, knocked her to the ground, and beat her. Throughout the assault, the men used racist and sexist epithets.

Adonis called the police and laid charges on the five men. It turns out they’re UCT students. Adonis claims that the police came to her and offered her money to drop the case. The officer allegedly said that the men were afraid of being kicked out of school. Adonis rejected the offer, and all it represented: “I’m really angry about this. I’m traumatised and still in pain. These youngsters verbally abuse us every weekend, and now this? I’m a mother of six – how would they feel if someone beat up their mothers like that? There was so much blood pouring from my face I couldn’t see. When I washed my face. I just thought to myself: ‘Boys, you can run but I leave you in the hands of the Lord’.”

Cynthia Joni works as a domestic worker in Cape Town. One morning, Joni was walking to work, when a white man leapt out of his car, slapped and threw her to the ground. She screamed, and he drove away. He was later identified and charged. His `explanation’ was that he mistook Cynthia Joni for a sex worker and `snapped.’ To no one’s surprise, it turns out that Cynthia Joni is not the first woman he’s assaulted. Now others are coming forth.

While the toxic mix in both the physical violence and then the subsequent violence that passes for explanation are important, the women’s response is more important. Domestic workers, sex workers, women workers reject the violence and call on the State to address it … forcefully and immediately.

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

Today’s stories echo the past. Over six years ago, four white students at the University of the Free State videotaped their assault on five cleaners, Mothibedi Molete, Mankoe Phororo, Emmah Koko, Nkgapeng Adams and Sebuasengwe Ntlatseng. The video went viral, as did disgust, and the cleaners, four women and one man, fought back. This June, the five cleaners launched their own company.

Today, however, domestic workers and women cleaners are making demands on the State. Domestic workers and women cleaners reject the protectionism that would see them as a separate class in need of help. They are workers with rights, women with rights, and humans with rights. As women workers increasingly demand their civil, labor, and human rights be respected, they consolidate power. The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: IOL)

My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih

Over the weekend, hundreds of feminist and women’s rights organizations and networks gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, for the Asia Pacific Civil Society Forum on Beijing+20. Participants strategized, organized, talked and listened. They listened to former domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. Here’s what Erwiana said:

“My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. I am 23 years old, and come from a poor peasant family of Indonesia and am a former domestic worker from Hong Kong. I did my high school and then wanted to go to the University, but because my family had no money for this I started working as a restaurant service worker in Jakarta. The pay was very low. I still dreamt of going to the University because with a graduation degree it would be easier for me to find a good job. As I really wanted to bring a change in my life, and the pay in Jakarta was not enough I decided to be a migrant worker abroad.

“I chose Hong Kong because it is said to be a safe country and I had heard no news about migrant workers being abused there. So I applied through a private recruitment agency and I stayed in a training centre for 8 months and finally I flew to Hong Kong in 2013. When I arrived in Hong Kong all my papers, such as my passport and employment contract, were taken by my agency and I began working as a domestic help. My employer was very rude, beat me up, would only let me sleep only for 4 hours a day and did not give me sufficient food to eat. I was not allowed to go out or speak with other people or use the telephone. So I decided to run away from her. I called up the agency in Hong Kong for help. But they told me to go back to the employer’s house. 8 months of abuse and torture left my body badly bruised and in pain. So one day she decided to send me back to Indonesia. She brought me to the airport, helped me check-in, and then left. She threatened to kill my family if I ever spoke of my plight to any other person. Abandoned at the airport and unable to walk, I luckily met an Indonesian lady who not only helped me reach home but also took a photograph of my injuries and posted it on her Facebook.

“Finally my case was taken up by the Indonesian Network of Migrant Workers and Asian Migrant Workers’ Coordinating Body to fight for justice for me. Around 5000 people marched on the streets of Hong Kong demanding justice, and finally the Hong Kong government took up my case. My case is under investigation and the trial will be held in December next month (December 2014) in Hong Kong.

“The system enforced by my own government and Hong Kong government has made me suffer this way. In my orientation done at the training centre I was not given any information about my rights and about the justice system in Hong Kong. There is no direct hiring and we are given only 14 days to stay after visa termination and have to leave to re-apply if we want to find another job. These unjust government policies damage our lives as migrant workers. It is not only me who has suffered exploitation, but there are thousands of migrant workers who get into similar situations and are forced to stay in silence”.

“My case was finally exposed because of the unity of the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong. I am happy that through my case more such cases of exploitation are being exposed and given more attention. I hope that both—the sending as well as receiving governments– will give more attention to the protection of migrant workers. I hope there is no more exploitation against migrant workers, against women and no more cases like me”.

When Erwiana left Hong Kong, she weighed around 55 pounds. She was covered with burns and scars. She was so weak and injured she couldn’t walk. How could an injured, incapacitated woman pass through immigration without any officer wondering about her condition? The Immigration Department’s Director explained: “It is difficult to judge whether there were injuries because of her complexion. We cannot blame the officer.”

We cannot blame the officer … because of her complexion. This is the complexion of violence against women workers that empowers employers to torture and inspires the State to pretend to look the other way while academics and pundits go on about the `invisible workforce.’ There is no invisible workforce. Women workers are part of an altogether visible and public regime of violence that airbrushes the scars, bruises and burns, and then declares itself blame free. The women know better, and that’s why they flooded the streets of Hong Kong and will do so again.

 

(Photo Credit: Nora Tam/South China Morning Post)

Migrant and immigrant women workers want democracy, too!

 

Can migrant and immigrant workers demand democracy, and if they do, who will listen? This question arises, again, out of the news coverage of the Hong Kong protests, which has demonstrated an ambivalence, if not an anxiety, about where immigrant domestic workers fit in, or not, in the Umbrella Revolution. At heart, the problem is that many find it difficult to understand that migrant and immigrant women workers, domestic workers, “helpers” want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

Hong Kong boasts one of the highest densities of domestic workers in the world. The overwhelming majority are Filipina and Indonesian. They are famously underworked, overpaid, and often suffer the full gamut of abuse. They are also organized, into various national-ethnic associations as well as into pan-Asian domestic workers’ associations, most notably the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body. Typically, the “news” about these women is [1] a story of abuse, [2] a story of seeking higher wages, [3] a story of getting slightly higher wages, and then the cycle begins again.

Abuse and wages pretty much cover the “domestic worker” front. And that’s why the Occupy Hong Kong protests have caused a ripple in the surface of the common sense. Where are the maids in Occupy Hong Kong? Where are domestic workers in the struggle for democracy?

Everywhere: “On 29 September, the first day of the general strike, unions representing dock workers, bus drivers, beverage workers, social workers, domestic workers, migrant domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, radio producers, and teachers took to the streets. They are not only protesting against the police suppression of the students. They are not only campaigning for universal suffrage. They are also demonstrating a more down-to-earth wish: social justice.”

Domestic workers, like 60-year-old Filipina domestic worker Vicky Casia, understand that political as well as economic wealth and well being in Hong Kong depend on the labor of migrant women workers: “We are proud of what they are doing right now. This is history. It would be another achievement for us, if soon they would also include in their fight the rights for migrant workers.”

Domestic workers were at the demonstrations, openly, proudly and happily, as their photos show. Likewise, domestic workers formally supported the protesters: “The Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB), is one with the people of Hong Kong in condemning the brutal response of the Hong Kong government, through its Police Force, to the protest – predominantly youth and students – calling for full universal suffrage in choosing the city’s Chief Executive … The movement for universal suffrage has been gaining steam for the past years and is further being propelled by the government’s lack of effective response to the problems besetting many of the Hong Kong people. Cuts in social service, disregard of the condition of workers, and the prioritization of the government of the interests of businesses, especially in times of crisis have contributed greatly to the desire of the HK people to have a more direct say in the election of the Chief Executive …The right of the people to assemble and protest is being wantonly violated; and activists for democratic rights cannot stand by and watch … We are one with the people of Hong Kong in the call to stop the repression against their democratic rights. We call for the immediate release of the arrested protesters. We call for the HK government to respect the people’s rights … We extend our solidarity to those who uphold the people’s rights and democracy.”

Migrant and immigrant women workers want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

 

(Photo Credit: Varsity CHUK / Common Dreams)

A time of challenge and opportunity for U.S. domestic workers

The past few months have been marked by both progress and setbacks for domestic workers in the United States, especially those who provide in-home care to seniors, people with disabilities and others in need. The developments have made it increasingly evident both that there is much work to do to generate the policy and cultural changes U.S. domestic workers need and deserve – and that now is the time to make it happen.

Home care is one of the United States’ fastest-growing and lowest-paying industries. More than 90 percent of U.S. home care workers are women, more than half are people of color, nearly a quarter are foreign born, and more than half rely on public assistance. The vast majority are also paid through public funds, primarily from Medicare and Medicaid. When combined with misguided views of women’s work and caregiving, these factors have long made the workforce especially susceptible to cutbacks and exploitation.

A major recent setback happened this June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that 26,000 Illinois home care workers are only “partial” public employees because they provide in-home care for private clients through a publicly funded state home care program. As a result, according to the ruling, these workers are no longer entitled to the same labor protections and union representation as other workers, specifically those who provide care outside of a private home.

The decision brings to light notions of both the home and the workplace that are routinely used to justify the devaluing of women’s labor: The home is not a workplace and, therefore, even basic labor protections do not apply to it or those who work within it. This is the same flawed rationale that resulted in home care workers being classified as “companions” and denied minimum wage and overtime protections under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1974. That classification isn’t supposed to change until next year.

Another setback came a few weeks ago. In what should have been a monumental victory for working families, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the nation’s second statewide paid sick days law, which will guarantee an additional 6.5 million workers the right to earn paid sick time. But, just before the bill passed, the governor negotiated an amendment to exclude one critical group from its protections: 400,000 workers who provide in-home care through the state’s publicly funded home care program.

Governor Brown’s actions may not surprise some. The first two times the state’s domestic workers’ bill of rights came across his desk, he vetoed it. He eventually signed the law – the nation’s third – in 2013. He also previously sought hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the state’s home care program. This time, the governor cited cost as the reason to exclude home care workers from the new paid sick days law. Viability of that concern aside, there is simply no excuse for making cuts or special exceptions at the expense of the workers who can least afford it, and whose health and well-being have such a widespread impact.

So why did the governor of one of the more progressive states in the country do it? Because he can. Home care workers are still positioned as easy targets in the United States, and it is not unusual in the nation’s history (or globally) for women’s work to be undervalued and excluded from even the most basic protections. That is part of what makes the most recent potential setback so disappointing.

In 2013, in a major victory for domestic workers, the Obama administration announced official changes to the classification of home care workers under the FLSA that would extend minimum wage and overtime pay protections to two million home care workers. It also gave employers and states at least 15 months – until January 1, 2015 – to prepare. Now, some state and private home care industry officials are lobbying for more time. If they are successful, it will mean that the needs of home care workers will come last, yet again.

The good news is that workers, unions and advocates are pushing back, and there are reasons for U.S. domestic workers to be hopeful. Despite the Harris ruling, the union of home care workers most impacted by the decision says 10,000 workers have signed up. Just two months after the decision, thousands of Minnesota home care workers voted to unionize. And Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ of $625,000 to support organizing and policy advocacy efforts.

So, at a time like this, when there is a tremendous amount of great work happening to elevate and address the needs of U.S. domestic workers, the challenges and opportunities made clear in the last few months are a reminder that workers, advocates and organizers must remain vigilant. The United States cannot afford to take steps backward and further ingrain archaic and inexcusable understandings of domestic labor and women’s work, especially with such great progress on the horizon.

 

Update: On October 7, 2014, the U.S Department of Labor announced that the rule extending minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers will be implemented on January 1, 2015, as planned. However, it also announced that it will not enforce the changes for six months, followed by another six months during which enforcement will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Although the move does not technically delay implementation of the long overdue rule, it will mean that some U.S. home care workers will have to wait at least a year before receiving the pay protections they deserve.

 

(Photo Credit: Melody Gutierrez, The Chronicle)

Siphokazi Mdlankomo challenges perceptions of domestic workers in South Africa

Siphokazi Mdlankomo, a domestic worker from Newlands, South Africa, is garnering international attention – and she’s using her new celebrity to call for the equal treatment of domestic workers. Mdlankomo debuted as a contestant on the popular show “MasterChef South Africa” last month and quickly became a fan favorite. The show’s contestants compete against each other in cooking challenges in the hopes of securing a future as a professional chef.

But becoming a chef is not Mdlankomo’s only goal. As noted in her biography for the show and reported last week, she also aims to use her time in the limelight to challenge global perceptions of domestic work and prove that domestic workers are not “second-class citizens.” “People, not only in South Africa, but all over the world should start taking domestic workers much more seriously,” she said. “People need to start thinking of domestic work as any other profession … it’s not just cleaning and cooking, there is far more talent in domestic workers.”

That Mdlankomo lives and works in South Africa is noteworthy. There are approximately 1.15 million domestic workers in the country. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than three-quarters of domestic workers in South Africa are female, and their racial breakdown is highly imbalanced. Ninety-one percent of the country’s domestic workers are classified as “African/black” and the remaining nine percent are “Coloured.” Domestic worker employers, however, span all races.

In many ways, South Africa has been a leader in establishing legal protections for domestic workers. The country set requirements for minimum wages and formal employment contracts for domestic workers in 2002 and 2003, and it provides domestic workers with unemployment insurance, skills development opportunities and other resources. It was also one of the first countries to ratify the standards set by the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention.

Despite these advances, abuse and exploitation of domestic workers is still an issue in the country. Some argue that this is due to a lack of enforcement of the laws. Wages remain low, 70 percent of domestic workers in the country work without a contract, and there are still reports of abuse, disrespect, segregation and racism. Researchers from the Community Agency for Social Enquiry found that many South African domestic workers think their employers view them as inferior and discriminate against them based on their race.

The recent actions of two South African university students exemplify the racism and objectification that still surround domestic work and the women who perform it. Soon after Mdlankomo’s debut, two white University of Pretoria students posted photos of themselves dressed up as domestic workers online, with their faces smeared with brown paint and pillows shoved in their skirts. The photos are a stark reminder of domestic worker stereotypes and the country’s racial history, and they make clear that legal protections do not generate social and cultural change overnight.

The university immediately condemned the students’ behavior, and there was much criticism from South Africans through social media. These reactions suggest awareness among South Africans that racism and ridiculing domestic workers are intolerable, at least in public – and therein lies a big part of the problem. Even though domestic worker employers might know that the mistreatment of domestic workers is socially unacceptable, they may not recognize more subtle forms of exploitation, and what happens in their own homes is ultimately private and hidden behind closed doors.

That’s what makes the reaction to Mdlankomo’s message, her popularity, and her efforts significant. Her presence on the hit show and commitment to using it as a platform to call for respect for domestic workers is helping to make domestic workers more visible to a popular audience. Scholars worldwide have well documented the legal, economic, physical and social forces that contribute to the invisibility and isolation of domestic workers. Pushing domestic workers’ stories, talents and struggles into the public sphere might help counter harmful and dangerous representations that appear all too common, even among a younger generation of university students.

As we noted previously, scholars have long studied media’s impact on public understanding and opinion. For this reason, groups like Migrant Rights have criticized the way media portrayals of domestic workers perpetuate degrading stereotypes that contribute to the mistreatment and abuse of workers. From this perspective, Mdlankomo and her message offer a positive alternative depiction.

News media coverage of Mdlankomo has so far framed her comments as “causing a stir,” “striking a nerve” and “heating up the black servants’ debate.” The fact that her common sense message is controversial and discomforting makes clear that it is necessary. Whether it will have a major impact remains to be seen. In the meantime, Mdlankomo is challenging South Africans’ understanding of domestic workers and confronting them with the need for equal treatment, and that has the potential to generate important and valuable conversations within households and beyond.

 

(Photo Credit: 702)

MH’s victory is a victory for all women workers everywhere

At the end of July, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed down its judgment in the case of H (Appellant) v Allen and another (Respondents), In their unanimous decision, the Court decided to protect and strengthen the rights of women workers, and in particular of migrant and immigrant women workers, irrespective of legal status. It’s a great decision and an important victory for women everywhere.

Lord Nicholas Wilson, Justice of the Supreme Court, explained the case and the Court decision as follows. On 28 January 2007, “Mrs. Allen” brought “Miss H”, aged around 14, into the United Kingdom on a visitor’s visa. Miss H is described as illiterate. She had lived with Mrs. Allen’s brother in Lagos. Miss H was brought into the United Kingdom under two false claims. First, her age was listed as 20. Second, she was claimed as the granddaughter of Mrs. Allen’s mother. Miss H was “aware” of the false pretense. She knew that she could only stay for six months and that she could not legally work for pay.

Miss H, illiterate and 14 years old, “entered into a contract” with Mrs. Allen to help with Mrs. Allen’s children. Miss H never received any pay, nor was she ever allowed to attend school. Further, Mrs. Allen verbally, emotionally, and physically abused Miss H, and repeatedly threatened her with prison, explaining that since she was “illegal”, if she were caught on the streets, she would go to jail. Miss H lived under these conditions for a year.

On 17 July 2008, Mrs. Allen pushed Miss H out of the house, locked the door, and that was that. Miss H was found by someone, who took her to Social Services.

Miss H sued Mrs. Allen for discrimination, since she was brutally mistreated because of her Nigerian nationality and her unlawful immigration status. The Employment Tribunal agreed with Miss H and demanded that Mrs. Allen pay compensation. Mrs. Allen appealed the case, claiming “the defense of illegality.” That is, Mrs. Allen claimed that since Miss H was working illegally, she could not sue. The Court of Appeals agreed with Mrs. Allen.

The Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the Employment Tribunal’s decision. For two of the Justices, “the defense of illegality” did not hold, and so that alone sufficed to throw the appeal out. For the remaining three, the more compelling argument was that Miss H had been trafficked. They argued that the public policy of maintaining the integrity of the legal process was secondary to the public policy of opposing trafficking and protecting the rights, if not the well being, of vulnerable people. To accept Mrs. Allen’s claim of “defense of illegality” and to refuse Miss H’s appeal would be, in the words of Justice Wilson, “an affront.”

Anti-trafficking activists and others have hailed this decision as an important step forward. The immigration status of a worker has no bearing on the labor rights of that worker, including the right to sue the employer in court. In the United States, women understand that courts matter. In South Africa, women understand as well that judges matter. And in this decision, in the United Kingdom, MH, who as a child labored in virtual slavery in someone’s house, has demonstrated that courts matter, judges matter, justice matters, women and girls matter. All women. All girls. Always.

 

(Video Credit: UK Supreme Court / YouTube)