Cherrylin Reyes, Titin Rohaetin Suryadi, Fatima Benkharbouche, and Minah Janah say NO! to slavery … and win!


In the United Kingdom, today, October 18, is Anti-Slavery Day. Today, October 18, in two separate decisions, England’s Supreme Court decided that domestic workers employed by diplomats have the right to sue their former “employer”. These rulings have been hailed as landmark decisions, and hopefully not only for the United Kingdom. For migrant domestic workers, they could be the shot heart in capitals round the world.

The first case involves Cherrylin Reyes, directly, and Titin Rohaetin Suryadi. Cherrylin Reyes, a Filipina worker, worked for the al-Malki household from January 18, 2011, until March 14, 2011. Titin Rohaetin Suryadi, an Indonesian worker, worked for the household from May 16, 2011, to September 19, 2011. Both women have described inhuman working conditions. They worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and were not allowed to leave the house, except to take out the trash. Cherrylin Reyes reports that the al-Malkis took her passport and prohibited any contact with her family. Titin Rohaetin Suryadi says that her payment, such as it was, was sent directly to her family, rather than being given to her. The two also allege that they were trafficked, and have letters from the UK Border Agency that note that there are “reasonable grounds” for the claim. Additionally, Cherrylin Reyes and Titin Rohaetin Suryadi argue they were paid below minimum wage, and that they were subjected to racial discrimination.

On March 14, 2011, Cherrylin Reyes reported the situation to the police, after which she fled. On September 19, 2011, while the ambassador was away and his wife was asleep, Titin Rohaetin Suryadi escaped. In 2011, Cherrylin Reyes tried to take the al-Malkis before an Employment Tribunal. The Tribunal and then lower courts held that al-Malki, who was a diplomat from 2010 to 2014, had diplomatic immunity. With the help of the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) and Kalaayan, an organization that works for justice for migrant domestic workers in the United Kingdom, Reyes appealed the decision.

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the employment of domestic workers in the diplomat’s household was not part of the diplomat’s official function, and so residual diplomatic immunity was lost once al-Malki left his post. Further, a majority of the Court added that human trafficking is a ‘commercial activity’, and so also falls outside of the diplomat’s functions and therefore outside of the reach of diplomatic immunity. Both ATLEU and Kalayaan are pursuing other cases that will challenge so-called diplomatic immunity of domestic worker employers while they are in post.

In the second case, two Moroccan women, Fatima Benkharbouce and Minah Janah, had worked for employees of Sudan’s and Libya’s embassies, respectively. The two claim they were forced to work unlawful hours and were paid far below the minimum wage, and took their employers to the Employment Tribunal, which denied the claims, again on the basis of state and diplomatic immunity. The claims were based on both UK and EU laws. The Supreme Court today ruled that the claims based on EU laws had to be considered.

This means that Cherrylin Reyes, and ultimately Titin Rohaetin Suryadi, and Fatima Benkharbouche and Minah Janah can proceed, as regular workers, to take their cases and cause to the Employment Tribunal.

Avril Sharp, Policy Officer for Kalayaan, explained, “These cases were about access to justice for domestic workers, including those who had been trafficked to the UK and exploited in domestic servitude and forced labour. Human trafficking and modern slavery are grave human rights violations … Kalayaan will continue to support domestic workers and assist them to bring cases before the employment tribunal to ensure their employers are held to account. Diplomatic immunity should not act as a bar to enforcing rights and is at odds with the UK’s stated aims of combatting and preventing modern slavery.”

Cherrylin Reyes added, “I am delighted that the supreme court agrees that I can take my claim against the al-Malkis. I know there are lots of other domestic workers who have suffered like me and I am delighted that they will be able to use this case to get redress, and that they will not have to wait as long as I have done. I see myself as a fighter. Bringing this case has made me stronger.” Bringing this case has made us all stronger, and that much closer to justice for all.

 

(Photo Credit: Kalayaan) (Image Credit: Lexisnexis)

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)

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)