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Domestic Workers Sow a New Global Movement

Across the world, domestic workers are organizing to protect their rights as workers and as women.

In Argentina and Brazil, a sector of workers that has long labored invisibly is moving out of the shadows and gaining legal protections. Their counterparts in Jamaica and Uruguay are sparking a new political consciousness from the friction between tradition and globalization. Around the world, private homes are becoming labor’s latest battleground as domestic workers stake out their rights.

Despite stretching into every region of the world, domestic work has historically been excluded from conventional labor laws, regardedly merely as “women’s work.” A breakthrough came in 2011 with the passage of the groundbreaking Convention 189 on domestic workers’ rights by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN special agency for labor rights. The convention lays out principles for fair treatment at work, including the right to a fair labor contract and a safe work environment, freedom from exploitation and coercion, and legal recourse against abusive employers.

The Convention was adopted in 2011. Since its establishment on an international level, domestic workers have been organizing more comprehensively on the ground. Advocates in various countries have been building up national frameworks for codifying the rights of domestic workers. The ILO reported this month that “Since the Convention’s adoption, a total of nine countries have passed new laws or regulations improving domestic workers’ labour and social rights, including Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Singapore.”

In Brazil, new legislation enshrines the ILO Convention’s principles, including an 8-hour workday and overtime. Significantly, the legislation targets a sector that has historically been dominated by black women, building on the government’s other recent efforts to dismantle racial barriers in the economy. The measure has been hailed by activists as an extension of the nation’s abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

In Argentina, where 17 percent of working women are domestic workers, the legislature passed an act in March granting domestic workers standard labor protections, including limits on working hours. In the official announcement of the bill’s passage, Labor Minister Carlos Tomada described it as a corrective for an entrenched social imbalance:

For decades, private household workers had an unfavourable legal scheme which, added to a shameful social security evasion, deprived them of a basic principle as is labour citizenship. This act, therefore, comes to compensate a fifty-year debt with a social sector, a group which lacked the rights everyone else had.

Domestic workers in Colombia also just established their own union, based in the city of Medellin, with the help of international and local non-governmental organizations. The Union of Domestic Service Workers is the first union led by Afro-Colombian women, who have historically faced severe discrimination and who, according to surveys, are mostly single mothers whose typical workday stretches between 10 and 18 hours.

In Uruguay, the first to affirm the convention, the ratification came about through uniquely women-centered tripartite negotiations. The government hammered out the details with the country’s existing domestic workers union and the “Housewives’ League,” which represents domestic employers. This is woman’s work of a different caliber: transforming the gendered informal labor of the domestic realm into a formal labor-management structure.

Another development in the Latin American-Caribbean region is the launch of Jamaica’s first domestic workers’ union, with about 2,000 members out of a workforce of some 58,000. Now that it has upgraded from a workers’ “association” to a full-fledged union, the Jamaica Household Workers Union plans to build its base with its own training institute and a financial assistance fund for workers in need.

Union head and former domestic worker Shirley Pryce says the union operates as a support network for women workers who typically don’t even have a contract, much less the resources they need to fight a labor dispute.

“Although there is some legislation in place that could protect domestic workers, it is not easy to monitor in private homes,” Pryce says, noting that currently household employees don’t have equal access to maternity leave or to compensation for on-the-job injuries. “In forming a union we have more bargaining power and more respect,” she tells Working in These Times via email. The union also provides a practical service by helping “to mediate between employers and employee to resolve disputes in an amicable way.”

Though only a handful of countries have ratified the ILO convention, the fact that Latin America and Asia have been centers for political advancements for domestic workers reflects the significance of those regions as both hubs for global labor migration and seedbeds for women’s labor activism, particularly in gendered sectors of the service and informal economies.

That isn’t to say there has been no pushback—there has, mainly the usual arguments about the rising cost of labor undermining job security. Some Brazilian household employers have warned that domestic workers will simply be fired if their employers are forced to pay them more.

And in Hong Kong, a court just ruled against immigrant domestic workers who demanded the right to apply for legal residency, which they are explicitly denied under current law, even though other categories of migrants can become residents after seven years.

Ip Fish, Hong Kong-based regional director for the International Domestic Workers’ Network, says that the case reflects widespread anxiety about new immigrants from poorer regions settling permanently in Hong Kong. Conservative politicians, she says, had campaigned strongly against residency rights for migrants and whipped up anti-immigrant fears among locals. “They said migrant domestic workers, once they can get the right to apply for right of abode, will have massive influx of migrant domestic workers… They attacked migrant domestic workers [by] saying that they will take away [the] welfare of Hong Kong people, like housing, education, medical services etc. These selfish campaigns by pro-establishments and loyalists have worsen[ed] xenophobia in Hong Kong.”

The pushback against domestic workers underscores the need for a two-front approach that combines ground-level agitation and legislative change. Empowerment of workers within the home, coupled with tighter regulation of household labor practices by the state, can dismantle the paternalism that has historically kept domestic workers from establishing equal labor rights.

Even a relatively rich country with established labor laws can be deeply regressive in the way it treats “the help.” The United States has long exempted many types of domestic workers from protections like health and safety regulations or maternity leave. There has been some progress on the state level, with the enactment of New York’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights a few years ago and similar legislation pending in California. But enforcement of the New York bill remains a challenge, as many workers don’t have the resources or legal savvy to invoke their new protections. And without a concrete collective-bargaining system, a one-woman workforce isolated in a private home remains vulnerable to maltreatment and exploitation.

But as they work through these challenges, domestic workers are actively representing a new convergence between two social spheres: work and home. The household is a deeply traditional and extraordinarily modern, intensely global and local, workplace. Linking work and family, public and private, domestic workers are schooling the labor movement in new concepts of respect, self-determination and social equity.

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