You have struck the woman farmer and farm worker …

It’s Women’s Month in South Africa, and the news from government is predictably grim. Women are still suffering, announced Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulama Xingwana, and in particular for `rural women’. This comes a year almost to the day of the Human Rights Watch report, Ripe with Abuse Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries. The report described and documented the face of the abused farm worker in the Western Cape, and, to no one’s great surprise, the face is a woman’s.

A year later, the struggle continues.

For example, Worldwatch Institute issued a report this week that finds that investment in women farmers, globally, is too low. Remember, women produce half of the agricultural output in South Asia and 80 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Further, women farmers produce more than half of all food and comprise 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force. `Forgetting’ women endangers food security as it threatens food sovereignty. Beyond that, and perhaps more to the point, excluding women farmers and farm workers imperils democracy, locally, nationally, regionally, globally. Remember that the next time you bite into a piece of fruit, wherever you are.

While the situation is grim, the news is not all bad. In the United States, undergraduate women enrolled in agriculture programs outnumber undergraduate men by more than 2,900 students. That’s out of a sum of around 50,000 students. This trend corresponds with the increase in women farm operators.

In Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal, the Philippines, Nepal, and beyond and between, women farmers, women farm workers, rural women activists and organizers, ordinary rural women, are breaking new ground … literally. They are moving from a field not quite her own to a field of her own. And that’s good news … for food security, for food sovereignty, for democracy. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: Phuong Tran/IRIN)

Does David Cameron support slavery? Ask the domestic workers.

Last year, England declared October 18th as Anti-Slavery Day. Today is the second Anti-Slavery Day. How will Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha Cameron celebrate this day? Let’s ask their nanny, Gita Lima.

Gita Lima is originally from Nepal. She worked, in England, for a family that proved to be abusive. She received assistance from Kalayaan, an advice and advocacy center for migrant domestic workers. Lima’s situation was all too familiar to Kalayaan. According to Kalayaan, nearly 70% of migrant domestic workers work seven days a week, almost half work 16 hours a day, and nearly 20% have been physically abused. More than half of the transnational domestic workers report that their bosses seize their passports and do not let them leave the house unaccompanied. Many report being denied food, many report sexual abuse.

Among its services, Kalayaan runs an ethical employment agency. David and Samantha Cameron came to that agency and hired Gita Lima, a number of years ago. Lima cared for their four children. In particular, she took care of the eldest child, Ivan, who had been born with a combination of cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy, and required round the clock care. Ivan died in 2009, at the age of six. Gita Lima continued to work for the Camerons, moving with them to 10 Downing Street.

The government, David Cameron’s government, recently proposed a change in visa regulations. This change would require migrant domestic workers to stay with the employers who sponsored them. Like the song says, “You’d better dance with the one that brung ya.” Or else.

Many domestic workers, and their allies like Kalayaan and the trade union Unite, understand the removal of the limited protections provided by the current system, the elimination of the right to change employers, as slavery.

They’re right, it is slavery, and it’s the Parliament of the United Kingdom that says so, in its Anti-Slavery Day Act: “In this Act “slavery” includes—
(a) trafficking for sexual exploitation,
(b) child trafficking,
(c) trafficking for forced labour, and
(d) domestic servitude.”

Domestic servitude. Gita Lima, Marissa Begonia, Noor, Mira, and all the transnational domestic workers did absolutely nothing wrong, did everything right, in fact. They have worked hard, they have taken care of children and households, and in the case of some, like Gita Lima, they have wept at and mourned the loss of a loved one. Who is the criminal here, the one placed in slavery, in “domestic servitude”, or the one who holds the woman worker in bondage?

 

(Photo Credit: BBC)

 

Domestic workers Mwanahamisi Mruke and R Pranathi haunt labor

R. Pranathi’s relatives argue with police

Mwanahamisi Mruke and R Pranathi are two faces, two names, for global domestic labor. Perhaps they are the same face, the same name.

R Pranathi is a domestic worker in Ennore, a suburb of Chennai, India. For the last four months, she has worked as a household worker in a constable’s family. She comes from a poor family. She has worked in the house and taken care of the couple’s child. Pranathi is known as “a brave girl who would fight eve teasers in the locality.”

Pranathi is 14 years old, and she is dead.

The couple’s story is that the girl suffered stomach pains and hanged herself. People from her hometown and members of the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers’ Union have a different story: the girl was raped, murdered, and then `translated’ into a suicide.

Whether or not Pranathi’s death was murder, and one suspects it was, the story of domestic workers being killed and then translated into suicides occurs every day, all over the world. Some gain some notice, such as the 31-year-old Nepalese domestic worker Samoay Wanching Tamang, who died by hanging in Lebanon in late February. Others simply vanish into the void. Some deaths are said to be mysterious, others are allegedly clear-cut. What is not mysterious is that domestic workers are dying, at work, across the globe, at an alarming rate.

Domestic labor is a growth industry, but it is also a labor killing field. And the ways of dying are many, some swift, others slow.

Mwanahamisi Mruke suffered the slow death. In October 2006, Mruke left Tanzania for England, where she had been promised employment as a domestic worker. She left her home and homeland for higher wages that would allow her daughter Zakia to attend college. She went to work for Saeeda Khan, a widow with two adult disabled living children, a hospital director with a good job. Khan kept Mruke a slave for the past four and a half years. Mruke’s passport was taken away, she was not allowed to leave the house, she worked from six am to midnight, sometimes more. Mruke was forced to sleep on the kitchen floor. After the first year, Khan stopped paying the worker. She was “treated like a slave.” Slavery, as sociologist Orlando Patterson explained in his magisterial work, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, “the slave’s powerlessness was that it always originated (or was conceived of having originated) as a substitute for death, usually violent death.”

On Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in a groundbreaking case, Saeeda Khank was found guilty of trafficking a person into the United Kingdom for exploitation. Mwanahamisi Mruke is now pursuing a civil suit.

These stories are an intrinsic part of the fabric of global waged domestic labor, one of the major growth industries of the past three decades worldwide. On one hand, they tell the story of terrible employers. Venal, corrupt, violent and vicious. It’s an important story to tell.

But there’s another story as well, that of the isolation, the silence, the exclusion of domestic workers from the world of workers and of labor.

This year, on May 1, 2011, Hong Kong will implement a Minimum Wage Ordinance. The new legislation will apply to full-time and part-time employees, regardless of whether they are employed under continuous employment contracts. Anyone who has been employed continuously by the same employer for four weeks or more, with at least 18 hours worked in each week, will be covered.

Almost anyone, that is: “the MWO does not apply to certain classes of employees, including live-in domestic workers, certain student interns and work experience students.”

In British Columbia, in Canada, this week, the minimum wage has been increased for the first time in ten years. This is good news, but does it cover domestic workers? Jamaica awaits a government study on livable wages. Will the study consider domestic workers?

In June 2011, the International Labour Organization may adopt a Convention on the rights of domestic workers. If so, it would aim to strengthen legal protection for the billions of paid domestic workers around the globe. The ILO Convention could be an important step. But it depends on the language of respective member countries’ labor laws.

Until the trade union movements formally include domestic workers in every worker protection campaign, in every campaign and action, billions of paid domestic laborers will remain super-exploited and under a death sentence. Employers have indeed been known to isolate, imprison, torture, and even kill domestic workers. But the rest of us, in our day-to-day failures and refusals to see domestic workers as real workers, and domestic labor as real labor, exclude, silence, and isolate precisely those workers.  Mwanahamisi Mruke and R Pranathi haunt us.

(Photo Credit: The New Indian Express)