Why did Adelina Lisao have to be tortured to death before anyone sought justice?

Indonesian Consulate officials wait to claim Adelina Lisao’s body

On Saturday, February 10, 2018, 26-year-old Adelina Lisao was “rescued” from her employers’ house. She was taken to hospital, where she died on Sunday. Adelina Lisao was one of hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in Malaysia. Most of those workers are Indonesian and Filipino. For weeks, Adelina Lisao was tortured, often in plain sight and earshot of neighbors. The sort of violence visited upon Adelina Lisao is not an unusual occurrence for Indonesia and Filipina domestic workers in Malaysia, as has been documented for decades. Adelina Lisao died on Sunday. On Monday, the Indonesian government demanded “justice for Adelina.” On Tuesday, the press announced, in headlines, “Death of maid treated ‘like a dog’ casts spotlight on migrant abuse in Malaysia”. Just because there’s a glimmer in the dark doesn’t mean that a light is shining. If history is any guide, by Friday, Adelina Lisao’s named will be filed away and forgotten, and the mass abuse will continue.

In 1997, Christine B.N. Chin, a scholar of transnational migrant women’s labor, studied “the distinct ways in which public walls of silence continue to surround the absence of labor rights and benefits for foreign female domestic workers in the receiving country of Malaysia.” Chin noted that, despite the best efforts of Malaysian ngo’s, “efforts to break down public walls of silence surrounding the absence of labor rights and benefits for foreign female domestic workers have met with little success.” Twenty years ago, the situation of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia was recognized as an already longstanding issue. Since then, the public walls of silence have only grown thicker and higher. There is no spotlight nor loudspeaker breaking through that wall, not as yet.

In 2004, Human Rights Watch published a report on abuses against women domestic workers in Malaysia, which began: “In May 2004, graphic photographs of the bruised and burned body of Nirmala Bonat, a young Indonesian domestic worker in Malaysia, were splashed across newspapers in Southeast Asia. In a case that drew international attention and outrage as well as a prompt response by both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments, Bonat accused her employer of brutally beating and abusing her.” Who remembers Nirmala Bonat? What is the life span of “international attention”? Where is the outrage today?

According to the ILO, in 2016, Malaysia employed 300,000 to 400,000 domestic workers, almost exclusively from Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines. In 2010, approximately 230,000 Indonesian women worked, legally, as domestic workers in Malaysia. In 2015, Malaysia and Indonesia met to discuss “ways to improve protection of Indonesian domestic migrant workers in Malaysia.” Where was that “protection” while Adelina Lisao was being abused, tortured, demeaned, starved, beaten, and all in plain sight?

Indonesia should have demanded justice for Adelina Lisao long before she arrived in Malaysia. Malaysia should have demanded justice for Adelina Lisao as well. Adelina Lisao, this week’s moment of “international attention and outrage”, cannot be merely another empty sign. She is the brick and mortar of success in the now-decades-old new economy. A specter haunts the world … and her name is Adelina Lisao.

 

(Photo Credit: Sayuti Zainudin / The Malay Mail)

FIFA and the maids

 


The 2010 FIFA World Cup is drawing to an end. On the pitch, it has been filled with thrilling moments and surprising turns. Off the pitch … not so much.

Ever since South Africa won the bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the government has been feeding promises and creating expectations about how good this is for the country, for the economy and for the workers and the poor.

This World Cup will make more money than any in the history of the event. A total of $3.3bn has been raised by FIFA from television and sponsors, dwarfing the amount made in Germany.

It has also been one of the most expensive World Cups ever. FIFA has spent $1.1bn.  South Africa has paid out $5bn getting the Rainbow Nation ready for its biggest moment since the 1995 Rugby World Cup, building stadiums, roads and public transport links.

The Cape Town seaside stadium, with 37,000sq m of glass roofing to protect spectators from the elements, is the most expensive building. It rises amid mounting claims that South Africa – where half the population still survives on an average of £130 a month – has mortgaged itself to host a football spectacular that will bring little benefit to its people.

As reported in the documentary, Fahrenheit 2010, the £68 million Mbombela Stadium has been built on the site of a school serving a poor community in Nelspruit, near the Kruger Park. It seats 46,000 and will be used for four matches, while local residents live in dwellings without water or electricity.

The stadiums are magnificent, the atmosphere and anticipation is heard through the sounds of the vuvuzela. But Dennis Brutus, late sports-justice activist, predicted that the World Cup would result in a shocking waste of resources. He said, “When you build enormous stadia, you are shifting those resources from building schools and hospitals and then you have these huge structures standing empty. They become white elephants.”

Former president Thabo Mbeki also predicted. He claimed the 2010 World Cup would be the moment when the African continent “turned the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict“. Such ambitions were never likely to be fulfilled by a sports event, no matter how big and how lucrative. But the claim was grand, almost as grand as the bill paid for the event.

In the end, will South Africa have spent billions of dollars on a 30-day advert that quickly fades as the sporting world moves on? If so, South Africa will have missed a great opportunity, a defining opportunity, to think through and act on celebration.

Thabo Mbeki’s words could have provided that opportunity. The conflicts that mark South Africa today — include poverty, xenophobia, racism, sexism, environmental degradation, violence, health and well being — are not exclusively South African or African conflicts. While the world press and much of the South African press has suddenly discovered the poors of South Africa, from Blikkiesdorp to Khayelitsha to Barracks and beyond, who has discovered the particularly South African celebration?

What is there to celebrate? Since the transition from the apartheid regime, South Africa has celebrated and been celebrated for democracy, freedom, rule of law. These are fragile and important structures, which have been avoided in the current State discussion and even more in those of FIFA.

In 1994, for example, South Africans celebrated democracy, meeting by meeting, engagement by engagement.

When the Reconstruction and Development Programme was presented, in 1994, it emerged from RDP councils that had tried to include everyone. While the RDP itself has had mixed results, the process of a national critical conversation was important. It involved domestic workers and their bosses as equal participants, if not always partners.

The 1994 Women’s Charter for Effective Equality, organized by the Women’s National Coalition, emerged from a creative research and inquiry campaign that, from 1992 to 1994, attempted to include all women, where they were, not where they were meant or imagined to be. It too involved domestic workers and their bosses, and their inputs were of equal and interrelated value and weight.

And today? Other than a few very transitory jobs, what has the World Cup done for domestic workers in South Africa? Has it promoted their rights? Has it engaged or consulted them? Has it told them that, irrespective of legal status, they are full and free citizens who are covered and cherished by the Law? No.

If anything, the private lives and domestic spaces in which real democracy either begins or founders, have gone untouched and uncelebrated. Not only by FIFA but also by the media and by advocates for social justice.

There has been no engagement in any kind of consultative democratic and democratizing process. And so the poor and disenfranchised simmer with resentment and a yearning for democracy.

What is there to celebrate? The games have been exciting, but games are always exciting. South Africa could have offered a precious space to witness transformation in process. South Africa once gave transformation a new importance. It was a gift the Rainbow Nation offered the world. This World Cup was an opportunity to live it at home. An opportunity squandered.

 

(Photo Credit: Reuters / Paul Hanna / Daily Maverick)

The socialism of those who wash others’ underwear

Eridania Rodriguez

Maids fill the rooms and haunt the stories in Petinah Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly, a brilliant and evocative narration of living and dying in Zimbabwe.

“The Maid from Lalapanzi” tells the heartbreaking story of SisiBlandina, a revolutionary, tragic, ordinary woman. Read the story and you’ll see. The next story, “Aunt Juliana’s Indian”, focuses on the complex relationships between Indian Zimbabweans, particularly male employers, and `African’ Zimbabweans, particularly women employees. Juliana is herself a revolutionary who strikes out against oppression and unreason … literally. The story of Mr. Vaswani and Juliana is the story of a nation being born, despite the Big Men who were already trying to kill it in the name of liberation.

Susan, the neighbors’ daughter, is a minor character. She works as a maid in a white household. She and Juliana spend their time arguing about who has the worse boss and who suffers the most. Whoever suffers the most wins.

When the first real elections are impending, the air is filled with the promise of change.  Juliana dreams of a raise, better treatment, time off, so that she might complete her secretarial studies. Only Susan has doubts: “`It may well be that there will be this socialism, Juliana,’ she said, `But I can tell you right now that no amount of socialism will make my madam wash her own underwear” (191)

Maids, domestic workers, nannies, babysitters, care providers, housemaids, cleaners haunt stories of the world, of the everyday, of everything important and everything ordinary. They are present and yet absent, valuable and yet worthless. They are the stuff of national liberation, of revolution and socialism, of feminism, of development. They are as unmentionable as the dirty underwear that somehow gets washed.

As Petinah Gappah noted in a recent interview, “Zimbabweans are more than just victims of Robert Mugabe….We are also horrible to each other. We’re not very nice to women. We don’t treat our maids very well.” When it comes to the oppression and exploitation of maids, if Robert Mugabe didn’t exist, we’d have invented him, a Great Man. Who washes his underwear?

In Burma/Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is on trial this week. Aung San Suu Kyi is a great woman. July 5, 2009, marked 5,000 days in captivity for Aung San Suu Kyi. She spent the day “with the two women she has been detained with since 2003.” Who are those women? They are her co-defendants, her two “housemaids”, her two “maids”, and most reports don’t mention their names.

“On May 14, Special Branch police arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and her two live-in party supporters and domestic workers, Daw Khin Khin Win, and her daughter, Win Ma Ma, at Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Rangoon, and transferred the three to Insein Prison.”

Daw Khin Khin Win. Win Ma Ma. Mother and daughter. Party supporters and members. Maids. There is no Aung San Suu Kyi without them. This does not take away from the value and accomplishment of Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, it enriches it. But do a Google news search for Daw Khin Khin Win, and what comes up? Nothing. Unmentionable and invisible as the washing of dirty underwear.

Everyone needs a maid. In South Africa, there’s a white squatter camp, where the white residents are mostly unemployed. It’s located near Krugersdorp, in the West Rand, Gauteng. It’s a historic site. The British built a concentration camp in Krugersdorp, during the Anglo-Boer War, for Afrikaans women and children. But the camp is not all white: “The camp is also home to a few black people, mostly maids and handy-men of the white squatters.” A place called home, by Whites only, requires Black maids and handymen. Whose names go unspoken. As unmentionable as the dirty underwear they wash.

They are like maids everywhere. They are exploited and betrayed. Recently, the New York Times Magazine featured a lengthy interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg tells a story about maids: “The very first week that I was at Columbia, Jan Goodman, a lawyer in New York, called me and said, Do you know that Columbia has given layoff notices to 25 maids and not a single janitor? Columbia’s defense was the union contract, which was set up so that every maid would have to go before the newly hired janitor would get a layoff notice.”

Bosses and unions collude to protect men and sacrifice maids. Again.

They are sacrificed. That Ginsburg interview appeared in the July 12th edition of the Magazine. The night before, on July 11, the body of Eridania Rodriguez was found. Eridania Rodriguez was an office cleaner in a building in lower Manhattan. Eridania Rodriguez was one of the thousands of women who clean offices, alone, at night. Elizabeth Magda continues to clean offices in the same neighborhood, night after night, alone, largely unnoticed and unknown by those who work in the offices: “Few people pay attention to the workers who clean their offices, as long as the desks are clean in the morning and papers are not tampered with. But every once in a while, something happens to cast a spotlight on their relatively solitary, uncelebrated occupation. On July 11, there was a grisly discovery that did just that: the body of a cleaning woman was found stuffed in an air-conditioning duct in the Lower Manhattan office building where she had worked at night.”

What does it take for cleaners, maids, housemaids to be seen, to be named? Must the narrative of domestic labor, in households or in offices, be one of sacrifice and martyrdom, framed by anonymity, punctuated by sexual abuse and torture? Daw Khin Khin Win, Win Ma Ma, Aung San Suu Kyi.  Black women domestic workers in white households and neighborhoods. The Columbia 25. Eridania Rodriguez, Elizabeth Magda. They are not specters and they are not supplements to some more important national or workers’ or any other story. They are women with names, bodies, stories, and lives. They struggle to create the socialism of those who wash others’ underwear. The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: nytimes.com)

Maids: bais, confiage, mujeres unidas y activas, pigavdrag, vårdnadsbidrag

Mumbai’s bais, domestic workers, received a modicum of recognition when the state of Maharastra passed the Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board Bill at the end of December. Maharastra is the seventh state to pass a domestic workers’ bill. There are an estimated 500,000 domestic workers, mainly women, in Mumbai alone, and over a million across the state, according to government estimates. Domestic worker unions and associations, who have been lobbying for such a bill for twenty years, are supportive. Meanwhile, “State labour minister Nawab Malik, though, has termed this a “welfare measure”, adding that enforcement (punishment for violation) would not be considered at this stage.”  When it comes to domestic workers, the rule of law always translates them into recipients, or worse clients, of welfare.  The legislation emerged from women domestic workers’ decades long sustained campaigns.

There’s the rule of law and there’s the rule of household. Togo has confiage, or entrustment. Rural families send their daughters to live with urban relatives. The girls are supposed to get education, and in exchange they are to `perform’ domestic chores. Here’s what’s been documented: beatings, deprivation, rape. Guess what? The conditions of adult domestic workers, all women, is just as bad. In 2007 the Togolese government categorized domestic labor as one of the worst forms of labor. So, CARE International worked with a recruitment agency to help them improve their working conditions. Then the agency helped the domestic workers to organize a domestic workers’ union. Workers complain to the agency, and the agency places them in a different household. The offending household loses a domestic, for two seconds. No negotiations, no consultations, no strikes, no change in dominant order. No unions.

In the United States: “Employed mostly in private homes, domestic workers experience levels of exploitation and physical abuse rarely seen elsewhere. Mostly women and of color, they face those conditions without the protection of collective bargaining or other union tactics. As nannies, caregivers for the elderly, and housekeepers, they have remained almost invisible, their lives often akin to modern-day slavery. An estimated 1.5 million (U.S. Census Bureau) face these conditions.” As in Togo, as in India, domestic workers, mostly women, are organizing. In the U.S., the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Domestic Workers Congress, a myriad of local and regional organizations are women pulling women together. Mujeres unidas y activas.

In India, Togo, the United States, in recent decades, domestic labor has become a key of neoliberal economic `development.’ In Sweden, the neoliberal assault on women involved pigavdrag, maid deductions, and vårdnadsbidrag, care support. The state subsidizes private, individual childcare. Who suffers? Working class and low income women. What is under assault? Feminist political economy: “Vårdnadsbidraget delivers the final blow meant to send women back into the household. After the long struggle to free women from their homes, women are now offered 3000 Swedish crowns (ca 320 ) per month to stay at home with their children. This is obviously not an offer aimed at single mothers: it is impossible to survive on this sum in Sweden. Those lucky women who have a real man who brings home a big salary, however, can contentedly stay at home and accept the pocket money. And so women are again made financially dependent on men. The pigavdrag and the vårdnadsbidrag are both solutions only for the upper classes, who don’t want to pay the real price for a maid or send their children to a kindergarten. They represent the government’s mobilization of several types of oppression, which they have the guts to call a new `gender equality politics’.”

When it comes to domestic workers, the State translates labor law into welfare or goes on the attack. In India, Togo, the United States, Sweden, and everywhere else, women domestic workers are organizing their own structures.

(Photo Credit: The Hindu)