Invisible and Isolated No More? Global Domestic Workers and the Age of ICT

CNN Money recently dubbed the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Studio REV domestic worker app one of “5 apps to help change the world” – calling apps “the newest tactic for tech-savvy activists.” The domestic worker app is part of an education project that began after New York passed the first domestic worker bill of rights in the United States in 2010, and it’s an exciting development to be sure. From providing information to answering common questions and collecting important data, it is certainly a useful tool for workers, organizers and researchers.

But where does the app and information and communications technology (ICT) like it fit within the broader – and global – effort to empower domestic workers and ensure the legal and cultural changes necessary to ensure this essential work is valued? Do tech-savvy tactics really have the potential to “change the world,” particularly when it comes to domestic work?

Numerous historical accounts, ethnographies and analyses of domestic workers worldwide have well documented that domestic workers are often made invisible through laws and state policies, through economic pressures that reduce them to exports, through the denial of their identities – both cultural or ethnic and human – and through employer control of their bodies. They are similarly isolated through legal barriers and the denial of full citizenship, but also through physical separation within communities, countries, and on a global scale. They often experience extreme social exclusion due to race, class, and employer-based control of information, mobility, and nearly every aspect of their lives.

On both of these fronts – invisibility and isolation – ICT seems to have great potential to expose the private sphere of domestic work, helping workers to identify each other and be made visible to governments, NGOs, the public and more. Imagine something as seemingly simple yet powerful as a crowdsourced map that tracks the presence of domestic workers and serves as a way for them to say “Here I am!” to other workers and/or their embassies. ICT could help to identify and track human rights and labor violations. Here again, a map of good and bad employers would be a powerful resource that could lead to legal action and increased accountability.

ICT also has the potential to reduce the isolation of domestic workers by breaking down barriers between them, their fellow workers, their families and their host countries through the creation of virtual networks. Collectives are often seen as a way to improve labor conditions, but why must spaces where people can meet and exchange views exist physically? Through ICT, people can connect and share experiences, find commonality and coordinate no matter where they are.

There is also inherent value and power in the sharing of information. For domestic workers, this could include news, knowledge of the world outside the home in which they work, relevant labor laws, wage rates, information on support groups, and other resources. The National Domestic Workers Alliance and Studio REV app seems to do this well for workers in the United States, as new state-based protections have created the need for educational materials.

The app also gets at one of the more exciting aspects of ICT: the potential for new forms of organizing and resistance. Many scholars who have spent time with domestic workers emphasize that they already have the will to engage and mobilize to make changes in their lives. To the extent that mobile phones and ICT can make collective action, demonstrations or protests easier to coordinate, they would be – and already have been – transformative. The potential power of turning the virtual into the physical cannot be overstated.

Of course, there are significant barriers to the use of ICT for domestic workers. And that’s where advocates and researchers cannot fall into the trap of some ICT-based campaigns. With the rapid rise of mobile telephony and ICT, many scholars and development practitioners have sought ways of leveraging the technology to generate behavior and social change. “Mobile 4 development” (M4D) and “Information and Communication Technologies for Development” (ICT4D) campaigns range in focus from health to the environment, disaster relief, electoral participation, sanitation and financial services.

But as enthusiasm for these campaigns has grown, so has awareness of the fact that data on their effectiveness is sparse. Possible reasons for the mismatch between reality and high expectations include limited access to a technology among a specific population, a lack of knowledge about how a community uses it and/or problems with connectivity. It seems there is much work to do to better evaluate these efforts, bring them to scale and make them sustainable.

And this is why it’s worth emphasizing that the rush to conclude that ICT can change the world is worthy of careful consideration, especially when it comes to domestic work. The ability of ICT to transform the lives, laws and practices surrounding this exploited workforce rests almost entirely on workers’ access to mobile phones and other technology. And, in some countries and homes, that is no small hurdle. Domestic workers are routinely subject to strict employer control of nearly every aspect of their lives, including their mobility and the information and technology they can access.

So, ICT may not be the end-all-be-all when it comes to addressing the global mistreatment of domestic workers. But when used carefully and with an awareness of the community or country involved, it does have the potential to challenge the invisibility and isolation of an essential workforce. In the case of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Studio REV app, if the technology helps spread important information and creates a sense of community among domestic workers in the United States, it may not “change the world,” but it is a win for some – and an important learning opportunity for others.


(Image Credit: CNN Money)