Will the murders of Seneng Mujiasih and Sumarti Ningsih be a wake-up call?


In the early morning hours of November 1, 29-year-old British securities trader Rurik Jutting called police officers to his apartment in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. Inside, they discovered a gruesome scene: 29-year-old Seneng Mujiasih lying naked on the floor with fatal knife wounds, and a suitcase containing the mutilated remains of 23-year-old Sumarti Ningsih who had been killed several days earlier. Jutting has since been charged with both murders.

Jutting’s privileged background and successful financial career and Wan Chai’s reputation as the home of Hong Kong’s sex industry have contributed to this incident being reported as a tabloid-style story of sex, betrayal and murder, not unlike the 1991 American novel-turned-movie American Psycho. But this narrative does grave injustice to the lives of Mujiasih and Ningsih – two migrant workers from Indonesia, and it ignores the economic, social and legal pressures threatening the lives of women like them worldwide.

Seneng Mujiasih, who also went by Jesse Lorena, came to Hong Kong in 2010 as a domestic worker on a two-year visa. Thirteen months in, her employer terminated her contract and she was given the standard two weeks to leave the city. Mujiasih couldn’t afford to go home due to outstanding debt owed to the recruitment agency she had to use to secure employment, and returning home to find a new placement meant she’d have to take on more debt through the same flawed process. According to a friend, that’s when she turned to sex work.

Sumarti Ningsih came to Hong Kong on a tourist visa that was about to expire. She was the second youngest of four children and sole breadwinner for her family in Indonesia, including her five-year-old son. She left her son in the care of her parents after her marriage ended and her family struggled to buy food and basic necessities. According to her father, Ningsih spent time as a domestic worker and a waitress in Hong Kong and had been living in the city intermittently for the past few years to support her family and pay for her son’s education.

Both women were last seen in Wan Chai, a popular drinking spot for foreigners and businessmen that has numerous “sex bars.” That backdrop led to early reports that Mujiasih and Ningsih were among the 100,000 people who work in Hong Kong’s sex industry. Family and friends deny this, and claims to the contrary have yet to be substantiated, but that’s a mere afterthought in much of the media coverage. In fact, the possibility that the women were sex workers is being used to define them and thereby diminish the significance of their deaths.

Whether Mujiasih and Ningsih were sex workers is irrelevant. First and foremost, they were women – human beings – who were trying to support their families. If they chose or were forced to turn to sex work to do so, that’s no excuse for murder, especially when prostitution is legal in Hong Kong. Sex workers can legally solicit clients at bars, but they have to leave the premises to have sex. Mujiasih’s and Ningsih’s deaths have called attention to how vulnerable and unprotected that leaves the city’s largely migrant and female workforce.

Mujiasih’s and Ningsih’s deaths have also brought to light the relationship between domestic and sex work in Hong Kong. It’s not unusual for the city’s domestic workers to get pulled into the sex industry as a way to supplement their meager wages, or because employers’ actions – usually termination of a contract or abusive practices – leave them without homes or incomes. Hong Kong requires that domestic workers live in the homes in which they work, effectively tying them and their ability to stay in the city to their employers.

Recruitment and placement agencies also play a major role. Indonesia requires that those seeking work abroad go through such agencies, and both Mujiasih and Ningsih did so. According to a 2013 report on Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong, these agencies use “deception and coercion to recruit Indonesian migrants and to compel them to work” in dangerous situations, including “confiscation of identity documents, restrictions on freedom of movement and the manipulation of debt incurred through recruitment fees.”

Clearly, a combination of policies and social and economic pressures in Indonesia and Hong Kong position migrant workers like Mujiasih and Ningsih as prime targets for exploitation, abuse and death. Domestic worker and spokesperson for the Asian Migrant Coordinating Body, Eni Lestari, has criticized both Indonesia and Hong Kong for their “exploitative migration policies.” She chides Indonesia for failing to take responsibility while actively supporting and benefitting from a deceitful and harmful system.

Lestari is referring to the benefits countries that send workers overseas reap from the money workers send home. These workers, such as Mujiasih and Ningsih, work abroad because of economic hardship, lack of jobs or insufficient wages at home. Thus, Indonesia fails its people at home, knowingly requires them to use agencies that exploit them when they seek opportunities elsewhere, and offers them no protection while gone – and then profits from their mistreatment.

Nearly half of domestic workers in Hong Kong are Indonesian, and stories of abuse are familiar to either government. Recently, an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong made headlines for escaping her employers after two years of imprisonment and despicable torture. In January, TIME called Indonesian domestic workers “Hong Kong’s ‘modern-day slaves.’” Two-thirds of Indonesian domestic workers interviewed for a 2013 report said they were physically or psychologically abused while in Hong Kong.

Systemic abuse isn’t news to the public either. At a vigil honoring Mujiasih and Ningsih, attendees held signs demanding changes in Hong Kong’s and Indonesia’s laws. The event drew more than 100 Indonesians and was held in a park that domestic workers frequent on their days off. Its message made clear that people in Hong Kong, especially Indonesians, recognize the forces behind the murders and the community the women represent. Comments from friends, domestic workers and sex workers reinforce that sense of community and shared experience.

The murders of Seneng Mujiasih and Sumarti Ningsih are a chilling reminder of the plight of domestic workers worldwide. While Jutting’s guilt may not officially be determined for some time, there are others to blame. Real justice for Mujiasih and Ningsih requires action on the part of all those involved to make sure no other women are subjected to the same fate.


(Photo Credit: Sunday Express / EPA)

A time of challenge and opportunity for U.S. domestic workers

The past few months have been marked by both progress and setbacks for domestic workers in the United States, especially those who provide in-home care to seniors, people with disabilities and others in need. The developments have made it increasingly evident both that there is much work to do to generate the policy and cultural changes U.S. domestic workers need and deserve – and that now is the time to make it happen.

Home care is one of the United States’ fastest-growing and lowest-paying industries. More than 90 percent of U.S. home care workers are women, more than half are people of color, nearly a quarter are foreign born, and more than half rely on public assistance. The vast majority are also paid through public funds, primarily from Medicare and Medicaid. When combined with misguided views of women’s work and caregiving, these factors have long made the workforce especially susceptible to cutbacks and exploitation.

A major recent setback happened this June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that 26,000 Illinois home care workers are only “partial” public employees because they provide in-home care for private clients through a publicly funded state home care program. As a result, according to the ruling, these workers are no longer entitled to the same labor protections and union representation as other workers, specifically those who provide care outside of a private home.

The decision brings to light notions of both the home and the workplace that are routinely used to justify the devaluing of women’s labor: The home is not a workplace and, therefore, even basic labor protections do not apply to it or those who work within it. This is the same flawed rationale that resulted in home care workers being classified as “companions” and denied minimum wage and overtime protections under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1974. That classification isn’t supposed to change until next year.

Another setback came a few weeks ago. In what should have been a monumental victory for working families, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the nation’s second statewide paid sick days law, which will guarantee an additional 6.5 million workers the right to earn paid sick time. But, just before the bill passed, the governor negotiated an amendment to exclude one critical group from its protections: 400,000 workers who provide in-home care through the state’s publicly funded home care program.

Governor Brown’s actions may not surprise some. The first two times the state’s domestic workers’ bill of rights came across his desk, he vetoed it. He eventually signed the law – the nation’s third – in 2013. He also previously sought hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the state’s home care program. This time, the governor cited cost as the reason to exclude home care workers from the new paid sick days law. Viability of that concern aside, there is simply no excuse for making cuts or special exceptions at the expense of the workers who can least afford it, and whose health and well-being have such a widespread impact.

So why did the governor of one of the more progressive states in the country do it? Because he can. Home care workers are still positioned as easy targets in the United States, and it is not unusual in the nation’s history (or globally) for women’s work to be undervalued and excluded from even the most basic protections. That is part of what makes the most recent potential setback so disappointing.

In 2013, in a major victory for domestic workers, the Obama administration announced official changes to the classification of home care workers under the FLSA that would extend minimum wage and overtime pay protections to two million home care workers. It also gave employers and states at least 15 months – until January 1, 2015 – to prepare. Now, some state and private home care industry officials are lobbying for more time. If they are successful, it will mean that the needs of home care workers will come last, yet again.

The good news is that workers, unions and advocates are pushing back, and there are reasons for U.S. domestic workers to be hopeful. Despite the Harris ruling, the union of home care workers most impacted by the decision says 10,000 workers have signed up. Just two months after the decision, thousands of Minnesota home care workers voted to unionize. And Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ of $625,000 to support organizing and policy advocacy efforts.

So, at a time like this, when there is a tremendous amount of great work happening to elevate and address the needs of U.S. domestic workers, the challenges and opportunities made clear in the last few months are a reminder that workers, advocates and organizers must remain vigilant. The United States cannot afford to take steps backward and further ingrain archaic and inexcusable understandings of domestic labor and women’s work, especially with such great progress on the horizon.


Update: On October 7, 2014, the U.S Department of Labor announced that the rule extending minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers will be implemented on January 1, 2015, as planned. However, it also announced that it will not enforce the changes for six months, followed by another six months during which enforcement will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Although the move does not technically delay implementation of the long overdue rule, it will mean that some U.S. home care workers will have to wait at least a year before receiving the pay protections they deserve.


(Photo Credit: Melody Gutierrez, The Chronicle)

Siphokazi Mdlankomo challenges perceptions of domestic workers in South Africa

Siphokazi Mdlankomo, a domestic worker from Newlands, South Africa, is garnering international attention – and she’s using her new celebrity to call for the equal treatment of domestic workers. Mdlankomo debuted as a contestant on the popular show “MasterChef South Africa” last month and quickly became a fan favorite. The show’s contestants compete against each other in cooking challenges in the hopes of securing a future as a professional chef.

But becoming a chef is not Mdlankomo’s only goal. As noted in her biography for the show and reported last week, she also aims to use her time in the limelight to challenge global perceptions of domestic work and prove that domestic workers are not “second-class citizens.” “People, not only in South Africa, but all over the world should start taking domestic workers much more seriously,” she said. “People need to start thinking of domestic work as any other profession … it’s not just cleaning and cooking, there is far more talent in domestic workers.”

That Mdlankomo lives and works in South Africa is noteworthy. There are approximately 1.15 million domestic workers in the country. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than three-quarters of domestic workers in South Africa are female, and their racial breakdown is highly imbalanced. Ninety-one percent of the country’s domestic workers are classified as “African/black” and the remaining nine percent are “Coloured.” Domestic worker employers, however, span all races.

In many ways, South Africa has been a leader in establishing legal protections for domestic workers. The country set requirements for minimum wages and formal employment contracts for domestic workers in 2002 and 2003, and it provides domestic workers with unemployment insurance, skills development opportunities and other resources. It was also one of the first countries to ratify the standards set by the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention.

Despite these advances, abuse and exploitation of domestic workers is still an issue in the country. Some argue that this is due to a lack of enforcement of the laws. Wages remain low, 70 percent of domestic workers in the country work without a contract, and there are still reports of abuse, disrespect, segregation and racism. Researchers from the Community Agency for Social Enquiry found that many South African domestic workers think their employers view them as inferior and discriminate against them based on their race.

The recent actions of two South African university students exemplify the racism and objectification that still surround domestic work and the women who perform it. Soon after Mdlankomo’s debut, two white University of Pretoria students posted photos of themselves dressed up as domestic workers online, with their faces smeared with brown paint and pillows shoved in their skirts. The photos are a stark reminder of domestic worker stereotypes and the country’s racial history, and they make clear that legal protections do not generate social and cultural change overnight.

The university immediately condemned the students’ behavior, and there was much criticism from South Africans through social media. These reactions suggest awareness among South Africans that racism and ridiculing domestic workers are intolerable, at least in public – and therein lies a big part of the problem. Even though domestic worker employers might know that the mistreatment of domestic workers is socially unacceptable, they may not recognize more subtle forms of exploitation, and what happens in their own homes is ultimately private and hidden behind closed doors.

That’s what makes the reaction to Mdlankomo’s message, her popularity, and her efforts significant. Her presence on the hit show and commitment to using it as a platform to call for respect for domestic workers is helping to make domestic workers more visible to a popular audience. Scholars worldwide have well documented the legal, economic, physical and social forces that contribute to the invisibility and isolation of domestic workers. Pushing domestic workers’ stories, talents and struggles into the public sphere might help counter harmful and dangerous representations that appear all too common, even among a younger generation of university students.

As we noted previously, scholars have long studied media’s impact on public understanding and opinion. For this reason, groups like Migrant Rights have criticized the way media portrayals of domestic workers perpetuate degrading stereotypes that contribute to the mistreatment and abuse of workers. From this perspective, Mdlankomo and her message offer a positive alternative depiction.

News media coverage of Mdlankomo has so far framed her comments as “causing a stir,” “striking a nerve” and “heating up the black servants’ debate.” The fact that her common sense message is controversial and discomforting makes clear that it is necessary. Whether it will have a major impact remains to be seen. In the meantime, Mdlankomo is challenging South Africans’ understanding of domestic workers and confronting them with the need for equal treatment, and that has the potential to generate important and valuable conversations within households and beyond.


(Photo Credit: 702)

Why the Pope’s Domestic Worker Tweet Matters

Leading domestic worker organizations and thousands of people from around the world praised Pope Francis last week after he tweeted a message of support for domestic workers to his 4.3 million followers. “May we be always more grateful for the help of domestic workers and caregivers; theirs is a precious service,” the tweet read. Since then, at least 5,100 people have shared the message with their followers.

The fact that millions of people could see the pope’s message is reason enough for domestic workers and advocates to be excited about it. It could inspire employers and lawmakers to consider their roles in the treatment of domestic workers. But even more important is what the tweet represents: concern and commitment from a global leader who has a unique ability to raise awareness and influence public opinion – in a way that could lead to policy and culture change. And that’s why the tweet matters.

Views on the papacy and Catholicism aside, Pope Francis undeniably speaks to a large, global audience. There are an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, primarily in Latin America and Europe. As Jack Jenkins of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative argues, “the pope has a built-in listening audience that rivals that of most heads of state… he has the opportunity to push issues into the global spotlight just by mentioning them in his public addresses.” This is significant for a workforce often considered invisible.

The pope’s built-in audience also includes and is magnified by the media. In March, Pew Research Center released the results of an analysis of U.S. media coverage of Pope Francis’ first year and found that he appeared in nearly 50,000 stories in top digital news outlets, ranking fourth most popular among international leaders – behind President Obama, South African leader Nelson Mandela (who died in December) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The potential for the pope’s global audience and news-making ability to generate support for domestic workers seems obvious, especially among Catholics. But media scholars have also long argued that the media itself has an agenda-setting effect, which means it can make topics more salient for the public and lawmakers simply by covering them. This media effect, combined with the newsworthiness of the papacy, could make the pope’s messages and support of domestic workers even more influential.

The popularity and favorability of Pope Francis (including on Twitter) is also significant. In the United States, for example, two-thirds of the public overall and more than eight in 10 Catholics favor him. He was named TIME’s “Person of the Year” in 2013. And there are some signs that he receives more media coverage than his predecessor did, and that coverage of him spikes when he makes statements about social issues.

In many ways, the pope is also in command of a messaging and public policy influencing machine. As Jenkins notes, popes’ opinions are “typically reflected in the work of the church hierarchy,” in part because they can appoint like-minded bishops that can advocate in a variety of ways. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, engages in public policy debates and endorses legislation. Its support of a federal domestic worker bill of rights or legal protections for domestic workers could generate increased support from lawmakers and the public.

Finally, and importantly, Pope Francis’ concern for domestic workers has been expressed in more ways than this tweet. He made similar comments in a weekly address in June and during a recent interview. The “dignity of labor” has been described as one of his top three social issues. And in 2013, he discussed the challenges surrounding decent work in today’s global economy and the significance of the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Worker Convention with the director general of the agency.

As it turns out, ensuring dignity for domestic workers is personal for Pope Francis. His family employed a domestic worker when he was a child and he admired her greatly, even seeking her out later in life and visiting her the decade before she died. To this day, he says he wears a medallion she gave him as a reminder of her. This strong, personal commitment and his global influence make him an especially powerful ally for the domestic workers’ movement.

There are, of course, limitations to the pope’s ability to inspire widespread policy and culture change. Some people will always disagree with the pope and the church, and his influence is most likely limited to Catholics and Catholic countries. But these limitations do not diminish the overall significance of a pope speaking out about such a critical and global issue.

Last week wasn’t the first time Pope Francis reminded the world of the need to treat domestic workers with dignity and respect, and it won’t be the last. Those 108 characters matter because they just might represent great potential and promise for a sustained papal effort to shed light on the importance of domestic labor and the rights of the tens of millions of women who perform it. Catholic or not, that’s reason to celebrate.


(Photo Credit: Twitter / International Domestic Workers Federation)

Invisible and Isolated No More? Global Domestic Workers and the Age of ICT

CNN Money recently dubbed the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Studio REV domestic worker app one of “5 apps to help change the world” – calling apps “the newest tactic for tech-savvy activists.” The domestic worker app is part of an education project that began after New York passed the first domestic worker bill of rights in the United States in 2010, and it’s an exciting development to be sure. From providing information to answering common questions and collecting important data, it is certainly a useful tool for workers, organizers and researchers.

But where does the app and information and communications technology (ICT) like it fit within the broader – and global – effort to empower domestic workers and ensure the legal and cultural changes necessary to ensure this essential work is valued? Do tech-savvy tactics really have the potential to “change the world,” particularly when it comes to domestic work?

Numerous historical accounts, ethnographies and analyses of domestic workers worldwide have well documented that domestic workers are often made invisible through laws and state policies, through economic pressures that reduce them to exports, through the denial of their identities – both cultural or ethnic and human – and through employer control of their bodies. They are similarly isolated through legal barriers and the denial of full citizenship, but also through physical separation within communities, countries, and on a global scale. They often experience extreme social exclusion due to race, class, and employer-based control of information, mobility, and nearly every aspect of their lives.

On both of these fronts – invisibility and isolation – ICT seems to have great potential to expose the private sphere of domestic work, helping workers to identify each other and be made visible to governments, NGOs, the public and more. Imagine something as seemingly simple yet powerful as a crowdsourced map that tracks the presence of domestic workers and serves as a way for them to say “Here I am!” to other workers and/or their embassies. ICT could help to identify and track human rights and labor violations. Here again, a map of good and bad employers would be a powerful resource that could lead to legal action and increased accountability.

ICT also has the potential to reduce the isolation of domestic workers by breaking down barriers between them, their fellow workers, their families and their host countries through the creation of virtual networks. Collectives are often seen as a way to improve labor conditions, but why must spaces where people can meet and exchange views exist physically? Through ICT, people can connect and share experiences, find commonality and coordinate no matter where they are.

There is also inherent value and power in the sharing of information. For domestic workers, this could include news, knowledge of the world outside the home in which they work, relevant labor laws, wage rates, information on support groups, and other resources. The National Domestic Workers Alliance and Studio REV app seems to do this well for workers in the United States, as new state-based protections have created the need for educational materials.

The app also gets at one of the more exciting aspects of ICT: the potential for new forms of organizing and resistance. Many scholars who have spent time with domestic workers emphasize that they already have the will to engage and mobilize to make changes in their lives. To the extent that mobile phones and ICT can make collective action, demonstrations or protests easier to coordinate, they would be – and already have been – transformative. The potential power of turning the virtual into the physical cannot be overstated.

Of course, there are significant barriers to the use of ICT for domestic workers. And that’s where advocates and researchers cannot fall into the trap of some ICT-based campaigns. With the rapid rise of mobile telephony and ICT, many scholars and development practitioners have sought ways of leveraging the technology to generate behavior and social change. “Mobile 4 development” (M4D) and “Information and Communication Technologies for Development” (ICT4D) campaigns range in focus from health to the environment, disaster relief, electoral participation, sanitation and financial services.

But as enthusiasm for these campaigns has grown, so has awareness of the fact that data on their effectiveness is sparse. Possible reasons for the mismatch between reality and high expectations include limited access to a technology among a specific population, a lack of knowledge about how a community uses it and/or problems with connectivity. It seems there is much work to do to better evaluate these efforts, bring them to scale and make them sustainable.

And this is why it’s worth emphasizing that the rush to conclude that ICT can change the world is worthy of careful consideration, especially when it comes to domestic work. The ability of ICT to transform the lives, laws and practices surrounding this exploited workforce rests almost entirely on workers’ access to mobile phones and other technology. And, in some countries and homes, that is no small hurdle. Domestic workers are routinely subject to strict employer control of nearly every aspect of their lives, including their mobility and the information and technology they can access.

So, ICT may not be the end-all-be-all when it comes to addressing the global mistreatment of domestic workers. But when used carefully and with an awareness of the community or country involved, it does have the potential to challenge the invisibility and isolation of an essential workforce. In the case of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Studio REV app, if the technology helps spread important information and creates a sense of community among domestic workers in the United States, it may not “change the world,” but it is a win for some – and an important learning opportunity for others.


(Image Credit: CNN Money)