Remember and recognize Alem Dechasa-Desisa and her sisters

Ethiopian women hold a mass in memory of Alem Dechasa in Beirut, March 21, 2012

March 30 is International Domestic Workers’ Day. Around the world domestic workers, overwhelmingly women, work to clean households, cook, mend, care for children, for elders, for the sick, for those with disabilities. Around the world, domestic workers, millions upon millions of women and girls, travel to or wake up in other peoples’ homes and take care of their employers’ emotional well-being. Around the world, domestic workers organize and struggle with denial of payment, denial of social security, unpaid extended workdays, mistreatment, exploitation, abuse. So, when Ai-Jen Poo, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, wishes her sisters happy international domestic workers’ day, the wish is as aspirational as it is of the present moment. It’s as hopeful as it is courageous.

Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s life story demonstrates that all too well. On March 8, a video started circulating. The video showed a young Ethiopian woman, presumed to be a domestic worker, pleading for help outside the Ethiopian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. A car pulls out. Men jump out, attack the young woman, kick her, knock her to the ground, and worse, and then force her into the car and disappear. All this was caught on video and then shown on Lebanese television news.

Later it was reported that the young woman was indeed an Ethiopian domestic worker, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, 33 years old. She was from Addis. She was the mother of two children. She arrived in Beirut in December 2011, less than three months earlier.

Dechasa-Desisa was suffering. According to her employer, she was suffering a nervous breakdown. Many in Lebanon doubt that was the case. Her employer dumped her at the Embassy, who did nothing. Worse, the Embassy told the employer to take Dechasa-Desisa to a mental health hospital. Take her anywhere. Take her away.

When the police found the young Ethiopian woman, they took her to the immigrant detention center, with the intention of deporting her. She cried so much she was taken … to a mental health hospital. Two days later, she was dead, by hanging. Suicide. Structural homicide. Alem Dechasa-Desisa was dead.

The video shocked Lebanon. The video shocked Ethiopia as well. The death of Alem Dechasa-Desisa disturbed Europe as well, and received some mention in the United States. But what exactly is the shock, the scandal?

The abuse of domestic workers is systemic. The abuse of transnational, migrant workers is, if possible, even more systemic. This new form of a very old situation is intensified by nationalism, racism, sexism. It is also intensified by the structurally induced greater vulnerability of the transnational migrant domestic worker. More often than not, she is a live-in worker. Her `home’ is her employer’s home. Live-in for a transnational migrant worker means more than being on-call 24 hours a day, although that would be bad enough. It means the worker is homeless. If she’s kicked out … there’s no place to go. If she leaves, there’s no place to go. Her very being on the street becomes a criminal act.

All domestic workers struggle with exploitation and abuse. All domestic worker struggle with the absence of any real possible response to exploitation and abuse, other than personal resistance. They know that no State will aid them. Quite to the contrary.

For transnational domestic workers, it’s worse.

The vulnerability of the transnational domestic worker is intensified by the reliance of the home country on the money earned and sent home by the workers who have traveled to richer countries. The home countries also rely, heavily, on the absence of those workers, the reducing of pressures to employ them. The home country needs its workers in other countries and it needs them `to behave’.

The Ethiopian Embassy responded to Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s pleas. It closed its doors.

Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s story is the story of young women on the move, around the world. Hers is the story of modern labor, young women workers struggling to make a living. Without strong unions, women domestic workers are left to their own devices. Without strong unions, women domestic workers’ stories only come to the surface when someone is abused in public and caught on video. Without strong unions, women domestic workers’ lives are defined, by the public, by `suicide.’

Women domestic workers define their own lives differently. Hard work. Advancement. Struggle. Shared laughter and tears.

Yesterday, Friday, March 30, 2012, was International Domestic Workers’ Day. Remember and recognize Alem Dechasa-Desisa and her sisters. Honor them as builders, as the women who have built the everyday lives of the entire planet, and support their organizing efforts. Happy International Domestic Workers’ World!

(Photo Credit: Daily Star)

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)

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)