26: The infinite mirroring of the horror we have created

Sutherland Springs

“Whose grave’s this, sir?”
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

“Mourning. We will be speaking of nothing else.”
Jacques Derrida. Specters of Marx

26. Two mirrors face each other. “Sutherland Springs: Texas church shooting leaves 26 dead”. “Italy probes deaths of 26 Nigerian women from migrant boats”. These headlines both appeared on the BBC news website today. In Texas, the Governor said, “This will be a long, suffering mourning for those in pain.” In Texas, half of the people killed were children. In Italy, most of the women were between 14 and 18 years old. This is the fearful symmetry we have produced. No immortal hand or eye would dare produce such horror. This is completely ours. 26. We should all be in pain, and not just today. Who will remember the day in which 26 innocents here and 26 innocents there became specters, objects for the work of mourning, subjects for the never-too-soon debates? Who will claim responsibility, for the wholesale mass production of guns, refugees, asylum seekers, and corpses? 26. Whose world is this? Whose grave’s this, sir? 26.

Salerno

 

(Photo Credit 1: BBC / AFP) (Photo Credit 2: BBC / EPA)

Domestics: I am myself and my circumstances

I am a member of a women’s group called Woman, Action and Change. We are part of Tenants and Workers United of Northern Virginia. We are predominantly Latina immigrant and migrant women from all parts of Latin America. Our members include Mexicans, Dominicanas, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chileans, Argentines, many women from many countries. I am from Nicaragua. I have been living continuously in the United States for only 16 months.

When the group selected me to talk about domestic work, I was worried about how to approach a subject of which I am not an expert and then I remembered an expression of José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher, who said: “I am myself and my circumstances” so I decided to approach it from my own experience.

I’m from Nicaragua. My mother came from a poor farming family. As a single mother she raised 5 children alone. My mother was an entrepreneur. She had a store and all of us had to work ever since we could remember. I grew up with the image of a strong, working woman, and in an environment where domestic work was part of an effort to sustain the family. I grew up working and studying, got married and, as my mother did, I took care of my home and my children as part of my duties to support and protect my family.

Antecedents

As we all know, in developing countries, domestic work has been used as a mechanism to preserve machismo. In most of these countries, girls are educated to manage the home and boys are educated to have jobs and participate in the greater world.

Under these conditions, domestic work is a form of subjugation of women because their principle duty is to look after the home. Often, women are exploited and in the case of working women, they work the equivalent of triple shifts in order to manage a career and take care of the home. This represents an obstacle to professional development because many women drop out of school to find jobs to solve the needs of their family. For Latin American women like me, completing household chores in addition to our career responsibilities is a source of identity and pride.

There are countries that have incorporated legislation for domestic workers and social security. In some cases this is an appeal by the ruling parties to provide a progressive image and appear concerned about this part of the electorate marginalized by all public health policies.

This is a way to hide the inability to create better jobs. However, the inclusion of the domestic worker in the social security system provides them with medical care benefits and pension rights.

Domestic work in the USA

In this country domestic work has become a job for immigrant women to allow them to survive and meet the needs of their family. Except for in the movies, where we see an elegant butler, well trained and educated for these tasks, this “profession” seems to be exclusively for poor immigrant women.

A little while ago, the National Domestic Workers Alliance convened in Washington, D.C. This organization deals with the work of humanizing domestic work. It has brought to the table an interesting proposal to give more substance to this career.

Estimates are that the Baby Boomer generation reached 13 million in 2000 and in 2050 will be 27 million. This will require over 3 million healthcare workers to take care of them as they gradually age, making geriatric care a moral imperative for this country. Thousands of people, who have built the economic success of this country, will enter old age alone and without help as a result of globalization and the global economic crisis.

We have heard a lot about the budget cuts to social services in the media and the only proposals for jobs seem to focus on technology. In my opinion, there is no effort being made to support real people living in this country today. This is very irresponsible. Domestic workers can help resolve major societal issues through the care of the elderly, disabled and young members of our community. In the long run, this is much more important for building our quality of life because each of us will eventually be old and need help, too.

Today anti-immigrants accuse immigrants of taking jobs from Americans. I don’t think anyone is taking anything from anybody. The jobs filled by immigrant women, in particular, are low-wage domestic workers. These women work in horrid conditions for the chance to feed their families.

It is important that we discuss the legislative opportunities available to improve working conditions and educational opportunities for domestic workers. Improvements in those areas are connected to the outcomes and improvements in the care and wellbeing of our health, for the elderly, disabled and children. By supporting the development of women we will make our society stronger.

 

(Photo Credit: D.C. Intersections / Kate Musselwhite)

Protection stalks transnational women workers

For many transnational women workers, life in the global economy is hard. They often deal with separation and alienation, abuse, isolation, and more, and worse. For some, the monetary rewards make it worthwhile. For others, the periods of autonomy, however partial, and the developing mastery of strange and foreign cultures is a kind of reward. For others still, over the years, they develop bonds, ties, community, intimacy. And for many, after all is said and done, they did what they felt they had to do, and really there’s nothing to be said, as far as they’re concerned.

That the contemporary world is a hard place for transnational women workers may be worth repeating, but it’s not news, and it’s not new. The `birth’ of the global economy, of world-systems of development and trade, with its reliance on women’s cheap and available labor, produced new species of vulnerability, precariousness, exploitation, hardship; and women workers have developed new strategies of survival with dignity and of struggle. We know this already.

The contemporary world is not only a hard place for transnational women workers. It’s an unforgiving place. Ask those whose names must be withheld. Ask them about `protection.’

There’s a woman from Moldova whose name must be withheld. At 14 she was abducted, forced into prostitution, and shipped from Moldova to Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Israel and the United Kingdom. For seven years, she was regularly beaten, raped, threatened with death. According to various reports, she was treated as a slave.

In 2003, she was arrested in a brothel in England. No one bothered to listen to, or to ask for, her story. No one asked if she needed, wanted or could use `protection’, and none was offered. Instead, she served three months in Holloway prison, and then was summarily turned over to the UK Border Agency. At Oakington detention centre, she was shot through the Detained Fast-Track system, and then ejected. It was all very efficient. Seek protection in this world, and ye shall find deportation.

The woman was shipped back to Moldova. The men who had kidnapped her in the first place knew she was coming, found her, savagely beat her, and forced her back into prostitution. Four years later, in 2007, she was again arrested in England and sent to Yarl’s Wood. There, someone from the Eaves Housing Poppy Project identified her as a refugee, and helped her to make a successful asylum claim. At last, someone saw her, identified her, as a woman, as a human being.

This week, four years later, the United Kingdom Home Office finally agreed to a `groundbreaking’ settlement with the woman, paying her a `substantial’ amount for having so efficiently sent her back into a place where she was destined to encounter extraordinary violence against her person.

Today, the woman remains anonymous, her name is withheld, because the men who kidnapped, tortured, and exploited her are still out there, and her life and the lives of her family members are in danger.

There is a woman from the Philippines whose name likewise must be withheld. She is a domestic worker in Dubai. She is 42 years old, the mother of one. She has worked as a maid for three years. She has worked in one household, where the conditions have been intolerable. And yet, for three years, she tolerated the intolerable. Finally, in January, she gave her boss a one-month notice, after three years of mental abuse, 16-hour work days, 7 days a week. Her boss refused to accept her resignation. He told her she must stay.

He said he controlled her. Her visa depended on her employer. He placed a visa ban on her, and informed the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department. The Department concurred. In Dubai, as in all the United Arab Emirates, a visa ban means one must leave and one can never return.

The employment agency that had placed her offered to replace her with a new maid. The employer refused.

Having exhausted every possible legal means, the woman fled. She sought refuge at the Philippines Overseas Labour Office. They offered to help her fight, to help her stay and find another job, to help her get the visa ban lifted.

But they could not offer the woman protection. In Dubai, every month, over fifty domestic workers appeal to their various embassies for help, for protection. This was just one more case.

The woman was arrested and taken to Al Wasl immigration holding prison, where she now awaits imminent deportation. “All I want to do is work hard for a good family. Now I have to go back with nothing. I can’t stand to tell my family in the Philippines, they rely on me for financial support.”

These stories of abuse are altogether unexceptional. They are absolutely ordinary stories of ordinary violence committed by ordinary employers, States, everyone against ordinary transnational women workers, women whose names must be withheld. They are part of the everyday, of the parable of protection that is global, intimate, and everywhere. In the global economy, protection stalks transnational women workers.

 

(Photo Credit: scholarlymartyr.wordpress.com)

We can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them

 


Saturday, 5th of March 2011

It is wet and foggy in the fields of Bedfordshire and our shoes fill with mud as we walk away from the group of policemen that have followed us in a circle along the fences of Yarl’s Wood migrants’ detention centre. This Saturday, the 5th March, as women demonstrate in London at the start of International Women’s Week, a group of migrant rights, no border and feminist activists travel to Bedford to bring our solidarity to the migrant women (and men) detained in Yarl’s Wood. We manage to reach the women locked in one of the units. At a distance, we can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them. We cannot hear exactly what they say but one message arising across the barbed wires is simple, loud and clear: ‘freedom, we want freedom’.

Yarl’s Wood is one of the seven privately run ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ in the UK, detaining ‘irregular migrants’ on behalf of the UK Border Agency. Initially the building accommodated 900 people in two blocks, making it the largest immigration prison in Europe. In February 2002 the capacity of the centre was reduced after one of the buildings was burnt down during a protest organized by detainees against staff harassment. At present the centre is composed of 4 units ‘hosting’ about 400 people.

In February of last year, the situation in the removal centre again exploded. The horrible conditions of detention were denounced by migrant detainees as some women decided to start a hunger strike demanding an end to indefinite and abusive imprisonment. In an attempt to end their protest, the management subjected many of the women to violent attacks and various forms of punishment. At that time six women detainees, accused of being ‘ring-leaders’, were moved into isolation and prisons.

On the 25th January, after almost a year in Holloway prison, Denise McNeil, one of the `leaders’, was granted bail at an immigration court. Two women still remain in jail without charge: Aminata Camara and Sheree Wilson. Activists from the campaign to Free the Yarl’s Wood 3, including members of No One is Illegal, No Borders, Crossroads Women’s Centre, Communities of Resistance, Stop Deportation Network and members of the RMT, filled the court for Denise’s bail hearing. They provided an important support and will keep campaigning ‘for Sheree and Aminata and all the people in Yarl’s Wood until the centre will be closed’. (For updates, see Free the Yarl’s Wood 3 campaign Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Free-Denise-Now/174533002581566 and Twitter feed: @freedenisenow. Also see the NCADC site: http://www.ncadc.org.uk/campaigns/DeniseMcNeil.html).

The reasons for the detention of people in centers like Yarl’s Wood are multiple, and sometimes quite different. One of the activists involved in the campaign to support the hunger strikers explained to me that many of the women who end up in detention have already served a prison sentence, often for a minor offence, such as using fake documents to travel or work. Rather than being released, these women are transferred back to detention as a ‘second punishment’ where they wait for their immigration case to be cleared and eventually granted status or deported. They are trapped in an indefinite space of juridical and existential limbo, from one prison to the other, on the grounds that their migration case is still ‘pending’: they cannot be returned to their country of origin (on complex juridical or humanitarian grounds), and yet their status as asylum seekers is not recognized either.

Denise has just been released on bail, and her status, as well as her future stay in the UK, remains uncertain. However, her case shows how important the external support of migrants’ rights activists to sustain legal individual cases can be by helping access legal advice and to build publicity around their otherwise invisible stories.  While it may appear only a small achievement, these forms of solidarity provide the migrant women with encouragement and help instill confidence as they engage in the hard battles for freedom of movement and the right to stay in a country where they have worked and toiled for many years. In many cases the women are ‘caught’ by the UK Border Agency after many years of residence in the country, where they have probably built a family, found work and made a home. This is a typical story for the women detained in Yarl’s Wood.

 

(Photo Credit: Open Democracy / IndyMedia.UK)

(Re)Producing Gender: The paradox of China’s feminine labor


Last week, The People’s Republic of China celebrated the 60th anniversary of its successful revolution. To commemorate the occasion, the Empire State building was aglow with the red and yellow of markings of the Communist Party. This, in itself, is not overly spectacular, since the lights regularly highlight days of importance for other nations. What is more interesting, are the implicit subtleties.

It is no secret that the endeavors of the Empire have been made possible in whole by the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party, to the extent that they have paid heavily into the US Treasury in the wake of the “crisis” of globalized capitalism. It should equally be no secret that our era of insatiable consumerism has been built upon the low-cost Chinese labor force. And cheap labor is almost always gendered in the feminine.

Before the era of “reform,” there is no way that this could have been possible as there was no such thing as gendered labor. All workers were regarded as the genderless gongren, working people. Official rhetoric told women that they could hold up half the sky, and they were expected to do just that (often with disastrous results). But then, things began to change. The role of women (d)evolved from unspecified comrades to subordinates. They became dagongmei, little sisters who sell their labor. The new identity is not only gendered, but it also designates status, since a little sister is explicitly single and younger. Their employment is regarded as temporary, with the tacit understanding that the job is only designed to last until they found a husband. Like their labor, their lives are transient – most of the dagongmei are migrants from the rural reaches of China.

The individual reasons for migration are as diverse as the cultural bodies coming into the export processing zones, their migration patterns forming their own transnational communities within a singular border. Some are environmental refugees, others are looking for an escape from village life. Some are fleeing forced marriages. Others go to the factories to send back remittances so that their siblings can get an education that has potentially been denied to them, or to fund their own educations. Ultimately, the goal is the same. To produce. The result is also ultimately the same – the social and ideological conditions which led to their migration are reproduced by their labor for continuing generations.

While the factories are producing the various commodities, they are also (re)producing an equally commodified hyper-sexualized femininity. This commodified identity that seems to go hand in hand with the schizophrenic logic of capitalism, the logic of an episodic and contradictory existence that is required to be a good cog in the great social machine. This logic is particularly interesting, and contradictory, in China since the nation is still to some extent guided by Marxist principles.

In exchange for their time, migrant women receive discipline in submission and training in urban modernity so that they may change their social registration ironically, through marriage. Only this time the marriage is to a modern urbanite, rather than a village boy. This matters because social services and potential jobs derive from the locale in which an individual’s home is registered.

Dagongmei are encouraged by both their peers and aspirations to spend their salaries on make-up, clothes, and public socializing. The ideological subtext is that sexualization and modernization will allow them to escape the stigma of backwardness attached to a rural upbringing, cushou cujiao, (rough hands, rough feet), which is a decidedly unfeminine trait. Or so the ideologies say. To be free meant to become more feminine. “Gender became a means of discipline and self-discipline, invoked so that they (dagongmei) would learn to police themselves. The feminine was not only imagined and inscribed but also self-desired. Objectifying and self-subjectivizing became the same process.” These contradictions inherent to the identities of the dagongmei, are at the center of the dialectical nature of Chinese women’s labor under the schizophrenic logic of capitalism. Whereas social conditions encourage labor outside of the home, the only labor available is that which will ultimately result in a return to the “acceptable,” domesticized, labor of the home. The result is that the dagongmei become acculturated to the ideological demands of capitalism, that women’s labor be understood as temporary and of a lower standard.

The benefit of such contradictions are that they present the opportunities to organically develop a more liberated consciousness that cannot be enforced by the top-down methodology used by the Party in its past social experiments in revolutionary society. Is the Party creating the paradoxes so that the people will resist and resolve themselves in such a way as to be in line with the ultimate goals of their society? Maybe, but at what cost? Where will the long march of ideology from gongren down to dagongmei lead? Will they bring their rough hands and feet with them?

 

(Photo Credit: Libcom.org)