The Philippines factory fire was yet another planned massacre of workers

The fire at House Technologies Industry

In the Philippines, House Technologies Industries owns a three-story factory in the Cavite Export Processing Zone, also known as the Cavite Economic Zone, south of Manila. On February 1, in the evening during shift change, a fire broke out. That fire raged for two full days before it was finally put out. Fire exits were locked, windows barred, corridors far too narrow to allow for quick passage: this was no accident. Yet again, as in the Kentex fire two years ago, this fire and those workers burned to death and the workers critically injured are part of the brutal architecture of industrial production. Every report covers up more than it reveals, and the workers, charred beyond recognition, wait for nothing now. What have the owners, including the State, learned in the years since the Kentex fire? They’ve learned the art of cover-up.

According to a report released by the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, “Nearly all those interviewed … believed that many were trapped inside and have died. The stream of people desperately seeking to go out of the building was too big for the employee’s passageways and fire exits to accommodate. There were accounts that the fire exits were locked, forcing escaping workers to break windows as their means of egress. Workers claim that the company’s exit stairs land inside the building, or in the delivery section within the company compound. There was no exit that lands on the streets. A witness shared that he did not see anyone who escaped using the same exit he went out of, only through passageways and windows.

“There were accounts that windows were tightly screwed on window sill and witnesses saw workers including a pregnant woman jumped out from the third floor window. Other witnesses narrated that on their way out, they left behind workers on the floor, unconscious. They also saw flames rapidly chasing the escaping workers. Relatives of those who were injured also told that their relative was able to escape by crawling over and stepping on unconscious bodies on the floor, whom they presumed dead.

“The National Building Code of the Philippines (Republic Act 6541) and the Occupational Safety and Health Standards prescribed specific design, size, width and dimension for fire exits and passageway, particularly in structures for different loads and those that contain highly combustible materials for safer egress and other. Examining the accounts, the law’s prescriptions were amiss in the HTI fire, the biggest fire in the country’s history of Export Processing Zones (EPZs).”

In its conclusion, the Commission notes, “There were more women working in the Quality Control in the 3rd floor including a pregnant woman who jumped out from the 3rd  floor window and more possibly trapped. From the reported 126 workers injured brought to hospital … there were 25 women … Where were those women workers? What happened to that pregnant woman? The distance from the ground floor to the third floor is high, as vertical clearance alone from the 1st to the 2nd floor, where containers are brought in, is estimated to about 18 feet (5.49 meters) high.”

We have been here before. The State can find violation of safety regulations, or not, and the trade unions can protest working conditions and demand an independent investigation, but the factories and sweatshops go up, bars cover the windows, doors are locked from the outside, and no one does anything. This is the second fire at the HTI factory in four years. In the first fire, HTI was exonerated of any fault. After this fire, HTI called in employees and told them to keep quiet. Some say the company forced them to erase video and photo evidence from their phones. Some say the company only counted full time employees in its tally. HTI is the largest employer in the Cavite Economic Zone.

From the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, in New York, to the Kader Toy Factory in 1993 Bangkok, to the Zhili Handicraft Factory in 1993 Shenzen, to the Tazreen Fashions Factory in 2012 Dhaka, and to the Kentex Manufacturing Corporation in 2015, to the House Technologies Industries in 2017, the architecture is the same, as are the smoke, stench, exploitation, workers and bosses. The factory was built as a slaughterhouse. When the flames burst and the workers’ bodies exploded, there was no accident. Today, March 26, 2017, we begin the 117th year of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Era, in which we can eradicate epidemic diseases and yet stand by and watch as the factory fires grow larger, more intense, and more lethal, and women jump from windows to the hard earth below.

After the fire

 

(Photo Credit 1: CTUHR) (Photo Credit 2: Rappler / Naoki Mengua)

The Philippines factory fire was a planned massacre of women workers

A new collection of specters haunts the earth today: 72 workers killed yesterday in a slipper factory fire in the Valenzuela district of Manila. There was no accident. That fire and those workers burning to death are part of the brutal architecture of industrial production. Every report covers up more than it reveals, and the workers, charred beyond recognition, wait for nothing now.

The fire “started” when sparks set off an explosion. The slaughter of the innocents began long before the spark. The windows were covered, sealed tight, by metal gratings. Even now, the local mayor isn’t sure the building had any fire escapes.

Dionesio Candido, whose daughter, granddaughter, sister-in-law and niece were among the missing, said iron grilles reinforced with fencing wire covered windows on the second floor that `could prevent even cats from escaping’.”

Those workers – daughters, granddaughters, sisters-in-law, nieces – were deemed less valuable than cats, and far less valuable than the chemicals, the machinery, and the slippers in the building.

None of this is new. The State can “investigate quickly”, if it likes, and the trade unions can protest “working conditions”, but the factories and sweatshops go up, the bars and grills cover the windows, and doors are locked from the outside, the flammable materials are next to the welding machines, and no one does anything … until the fire explodes.

From the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 New York, to the Kader Toy Factory in 1993 Bangkok, to the Zhili Handicraft Factory in 1993 Shenzen, to the Tazreen Fashions Factory in 2012 Dhaka, and now to the Kentex Manufacturing Corporation in 2015 Manila, the architecture is the same, as are the smoke, stench, exploitation, workers and bosses. The factory wasn’t a factory; it was a slaughterhouse. When the flames burst and the women workers’ bodies exploded, there was no accident. There was an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people, a massacre, and it was always part of the plan.

 

(Photo Credit: Reuters / Ezra Acayan)

The case of Bonita Baran

For many years, household helpers or “kasambahays” have been playing significant roles in many Filipino families here and abroad. They take care of our everyday needs, our household, serves as second parents to our children and sometimes they become our confidants, our friends. Every day, they make our lives easier but some of us tend to forget of that they have their own needs, they have their own families who were the very reason why they are in our household. Some have become insensitive and sometimes abusive of our kasambahays.

In the Philippines, there are about 600,000 to 2.5 Million domestic workers. Majority of whom are women and girls. Due to the very nature of domestic work which is within the private sphere of the employer’s household and informal arrangements, abuses of household workers still remain rampant and hidden, making them one of the most vulnerable sectors. This is exactly what happened to Ms. Bonita Baran. Ms. Baran who hails from the province of Catanduanes came to Manila in search for work at the age of 16. She was employed by the Marzan’s in 2007. For 5 years, she was confined in her employer’s home doing all-around work, received a meagre salary of P700 a month, physically and verbally abused, no day off, no any social insurance benefits and disconnected from her own family and the outside world. Her employers basically trampled and stripped her of her rights.

The Philippine Commission on Women where i am presently employed vehemently condemns this unjust and inhumane treatment of household helpers. Ms. Baran is just one of the estimated 2.5M in the country. You can just imagine how many more of her are currently being abused and hidden in their employer’s private homes.

Urgent actions from the lawmakers have to be made especially at the lower congress where the legislative bill known as “Kasambahay Bill” has been pending for months. These lawmakers have yet to realize the significance of enacting this bill into law which will ensure rights and welfare for our “Bonita Baran”s.

(Jemelle Milanes works for the Philippine Commission on Women. This piece originally appeared at Pulse Wire’s Voices Rising. Thanks to World Pulse and Jemelle Milanes for this collaboration.)

(Photo Credit: Rem Zamora / YouTube)

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)

 

Evangeline Banao Vallejos will not go gentle into that flight

Evangeline Banao Vallejos won a “landmark decision” today in Hong Kong. It was a women’s victory, and hopefully not temporary, in the War on Women. She won the right to abode, the right to stay, the right to permanent residency. She won the right to be, the right to live with her family, the right to unpack her bags and stop living in fear.

According to the law in Hong Kong, non-Chinese who have entered Hong Kong with a valid travel document, have stayed in Hong Kong for seven continuous years, and have taken Hong Kong as their place of permanent residence have the right of abode. That is, they can become permanent residence, with all the protections and privileges that allows.

Unless they’re domestic workers. Another law excludes foreign domestic workers, officially called “foreign domestic helpers”, from becoming permanent residents … ever. Hong Kong has a little under 300,000 foreign domestic workers, the vast majority of whom come from the Philippines and Indonesia. The rest come from Thailand, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Hong Kong totals around 7.1 million residents. That means 4% or so of those living in Hong Kong are foreign domestic workers.

Evangeline Banao Vallejos went to Hong Kong, from the Phillipines, in 1986, and has worked, continuously, for the same employer since 1987. In 2008, Vallejos applied for permanent residency and was rejected. In 2010, she applied for judicial review of the law that excludes foreign domestic workers from being … ordinary people. She is not alone in her cause. Organizations, such as the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body and United Filipinos in Hong Kong, have supported her case.

Other foreign domestic workers are also suing for admission into the world of ordinary people. Irene Domingo, for example, arrived in Hong Kong, from the Philippines, in 1982 and, except for a brief period where she had to wait for a visa, has lived in Hong Kong continuously ever since. Josephine Gutierrez has been working and living continuously in Hong Kong for twenty years. Ordinary women seeking the status of the ordinary.

Here’s how, by law, the “extraordinary” are treated. Foreign domestic workers are subject to two-year employment contracts. They must live in the homes of their employers. They cannot bring in their spouses or children. This is the price of being extraordinary in the midst of the “miracle” of economic growth. For women in the global economy, being extraordinary means being disposable, deportable.

What is the threat constituted by Filipina women, by Indonesian women? Flood. Influx. That’s how the State, that’s how the media, describe the possible consequences of treating foreign domestic workers as anything but ordinary women. Give them rights and they will flood the labor market. Recognize their ordinary humanity and a flood, a tsunami, of “others” – family members – will come crashing down on the island city.

Evangeline Banao Vallejo. Irene Domingo. Josephine Gutierrez. These are not the names of tropical floods. They are the names of terrifically ordinary women workers who haunt the world economy. And for now, they’re staying put.

 

(Photo Credit: AP / Asian Correspondent)

Domestic workers declare war on the War on Women

Last week, domestic workers declared war on the War on Women.

The current domestic laborers’ market has been forged in the most recent phase of globalization – understood, too briefly, as the political economy of globalized production serving a global market – that began in the 1970s. The last four decades have been marked by the rise of global cities, and mega-slums. Already, more than half the world population is urban. Soon, very soon, more than half the world population will live in slums. A planet of slums beckons.

Cities are the place, and slums are the face of urban poverty in the new millennium. And that face is a woman’s face “Women bear the brunt of problems associated with slum life.”

Global cities produce mega-slums and slum cities. Meanwhile, global cities’ 25-hour-a-day, 8-day-a-week so-called service economies require large numbers of easily available, and replaceable, and cheap domestic workers who make sure the beds are made; the food prepared and tasty; the children and the elders cared for; the houses swept; and the structures of household, community, regional, national and global patriarchy solidified and intensified. Political economists tell us that the new economies produced social workers, workers in the information sector whose work is more than and different from the binary of boss and worker. Tell that to the maids and nannies, childcare and eldercare providers (as well as the hotel and office cleaners, and sex workers) across the globe who every day, and every night, make sure everything is neat, tidy and available. It’s a world economy in which women, especially women of color, are forced to care.

In order to meet this demand, nation-States, the Philippines most notably, have turned themselves inside out and, presto, turned into mega-brokerage houses for mass migrations of domestic workers. Global cities demanded, and created, transnational domestic labor, which became one of the fastest growing, and largest, labor sectors of the world economy.

Women workers built the global economy, which came to rely, violently, on women workers. The feminization of the new industrial workforce produced the feminization of migration, which in turn produced the feminization of survival, and all of it, the whole system, sits heavily, and precariously, on the shoulders and in the arms of domestic workers.

That is one reason that the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, passed last week, is called a landmark treaty, a milestone. Here is a key section from that document:

“Considering that domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights, and

Considering also that in developing countries with historically scarce opportunities for formal employment, domestic workers constitute a significant proportion of the national workforce and remain among the most marginalized …

Recognizing the special conditions under which domestic work is carried out that make it desirable to supplement the general standards with standards specific to domestic workers so as to enable them to enjoy their rights fully.”

Women and girls are “the special conditions under which domestic work is carried out.”

“Special conditions”.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, W.E.B Du Bois famously noted “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” For Du Bois the color line came down to a simple, and impossible, question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Today, the problem of the Twenty First Century continues to be the problem of the color line, and the question now is, “How does it feel to be a special condition?”

Domestic workers around the world, and in our neighborhoods, recognize that question as part of a global War on Women, and they have had enough. Domestic workers refuse to be ghosts in the machinery of “special conditions.” They have declared war on the War on Women. Step up, step up, it’s not too late to enlist.

 

(Photo Credit: Asian Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development: http://apwld.org)

 

Let them eat pesticide

There are hunger strikes and there are hunger strikes.

For the past 37 days, six pro-democracy Iranian asylum seekers have been on a hunger strike outside the central headquarters of the United Kingdom Border Agency, in Croydon, in the south of London. Some had sewn their lips shut. Sewing one’s lips is minor compared to the torture all six had suffered in Iranian prisons. They had the medical evidence to prove the torture, and yet were initially denied asylum. Finally, today, after 37 days on hunger strike, the six refugees – Ahmad  Sadeghi Pour, Morteza Bayat, Keyvan Bahari, Kiarash Bahari, Mahyrar Meyari and Mehran Meyari – were assured their cases would be reopened and they would at least be able to apply once again. They ended the hunger strikes, and proclaimed the struggle continues.

Sometimes, hunger strikes save lives and secure at least the glimmering hope of something like justice.

Then there are the hunger strikes that are fatal and ferocious drone strikes, assaults on the body, community, and land. Globally, over 900 million people go hungry every day. That’s down from one billion the year before, but the prospects for the next year are gloomy. Food prices are on the rise everywhere. In fact, food prices are at a twenty-year high. In Asia and among Pacific island nations, food prices are skyrocketing and food `shortages’ loom large. For example, in the Philippines, thanks in large part to marketization and speculation, rice is suddenly both scarce and overly expensive.  Egypt is running out of food, as is the entire Middle East and North Africa.

But it’s not all bad news. Glencore, for example, is “a leading commodities producer and marketer.” Glencore is doing fine. Along with tons of mineral, literally, Glencore controls 10 percent of the world’s wheat, and 25% of the world’s barley, sunflower, and rape seed. Glencore takes, the world slakes. And then dies … again, literally.

Across the United States, two million men, women and children work on farms, picking by hand fresh fruits and vegetables. The US government estimates that every year 10,000 to 20,000 of those workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning.

In India, over the last sixteen years, 250,000 farmers have committed suicide. That’s one farmer every 30 minutes. And this number only includes the farmers who are acknowledged as such by the national government. Those who can’t hold title, they’re not included. Women farmers, Dalit farmers, Adivasi farmers: they don’t count in life, they don’t count in death. What killed these farmers? Indebtedness. Market liberalization. The invisible hand of the market, that hand which polished shining India, provided farmers with loans they could never pay but had to assume, with dwindling access to water, with impossible competitive demands. And so the farmers die.

And they leave behind notes, addressed to the Prime Minister, to the President, to all the lofty people who are nestled in the invisible hand that killed them.

And they leave loved ones behind. Widows. Children. Women like Nanda Bhandare, a farmer, a widow since 2008. When her husband killed himself, she had to pull her two young children out of school to work the farm. The money, if there was any, has gone to pay off the predators. The land, a small parcel, no longer provides sufficient harvest in the current economies to feed even a family of three. Who will be next to drink the pesticide in that household?

There are hunger strikes and there are hunger strikes. For every hunger strike that saves a life, even temporarily, such as that of the six Iranians in England, there are literally 900 million deadly hunger strikes. The planet is aflame with hunger strikes. Farmers are poisoned and are dying, women and children in particular are starving, and the response of the global market, and of the nation-States it supports and controls, is as it has always been. Let them eat pesticide.

 

(Photo Credit: http://indiatoday.intoday.in)

 

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)

The ordinary household: Dirty little secret

I have a dirty little secret. Well, perhaps it’s not so little. And maybe, it’s not that dirty. But it’s something I like to keep secret. You see, my parents, for as long as I have been alive, have employed domestic workers. I don’t want to self-flagellate in public, but this fact of my life is something that I have come to look upon with a mixture of shame, confusion, righteous indignation and an understanding of the practical realities of the global economy.

I suppose if you’re going to understand where I’m coming from, you’ve got to know where it is I’m actually coming from. I am a citizen of a bustling South East Asian metropolis, where it’s common for members of the upper classes to employ domestic workers. There are over 250,000 registered domestic workers in this tiny yet imposing concrete-glass-steel city of 7 million. For families accustomed to the luxuries that life in this city has afforded them, a live-in maid is just another luxury accessory. In my tight knit South Asian community, our affluence has allowed us to enjoy these luxuries, and so from the time I was literally a baby to today we have always employed domestic workers.

This practice was not something I questioned; living in my upper middle class bubble everyone I knew either in my community or at school had hired help. Our school gates would be crowded at the end of the day with a sea of women’s faces, noisy chatter and swarms of fans fighting off the heat and humidity that is so common to this city. Our kitchens and homes would be busy, busy, busy with deft hands, sweaty brows and tired muscles from all their hard work. At dinner parties, we would laugh, drink and eat while our maids worked to keep us well fed.

It was normal. And I never thought anything of it.

And then my bubble burst.

It was time for me to grow up, to move away and to experience life. I moved half way around the world to the UK, where things were very different to how I had grown up, despite my home city’s British heritage. College would open my eyes to so many new things, but most importantly, it opened my eyes to all the ways my privileged experience made me different. Often when I mentioned to friends or acquaintances how life back home necessarily included year-round air conditioning, ridiculous amounts of shopping and live-in domestic workers, I received looks ranging from incredulousness to derision.

Apparently, not everyone was accustomed to employing domestic workers to carry out the daily chores of cooking, cleaning and care taking in the home.

That experience at college simply taught me that the practice of employing domestic workers was not universal. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school, however, that I really began to question the practice altogether. I had taken a class on global and domestic labour that more than opened my eyes.

It blew my mind.

I had never thought about how domestic workers’ working and living conditions are exploitative; that certain countries like the Philippines are heavily reliant on remittances from overseas domestic workers to keep their economy afloat; or that the women (and it’s almost always women) that leave their families and young children behind are profoundly affected by this distance. Of course, I knew that Maria* and Anna*, our live-in domestic workers, had children back home, whom they saw once every two years but until now I had never thought of this situation as anything other than business as usual.

It wasn’t until after I had taken this class that I realised that the women whom my parents have employed over the years, were people. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t think of them as human beings. Of course I did. But it never occurred to me that their individual stories came together to tell a much, much larger tale – a tale of loss, community, discovery, negotiation, acceptance and, most importantly, survival.

The women who have worked in our home over the years have undoubtedly had an impact on my life, intertwining their stories with mine. I realise this now, and as I share my story with you, I hope to share pieces of theirs too.