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“And we continue to meet”: domestic workers stand up in France

In a realm where many employers ignore their responsibilities, domestic workers’ best chance is to empower themselves.

As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the author’s union SAMSSAP CFDT IDF, domestic workers performed a theatre play illustrating the story of how domestic workers created the union and gained access to many rights, including the right to collectively bargain. Credit: SAMSSAP CFDT IDF. Photos provided by author. All rights reserved.

I was born in a family of nine children in a rural village in the northern part of the Philippines, where life was miserable. Being the second eldest and with no means of continuing my studies due to poverty, I was compelled to find employment to help the family survive. It was at the age of 13 that I first worked as a domestic worker in my home country.

Having grown up in poverty, I dreamt of a better life, especially later on when I started my own family and became a mother to four children. In order to offer them a different life and give them the opportunity to finish their studies, I made the bold decision to work abroad. Young, naive, innocent, and full of hope, I was the perfect candidate for exploitation and abuse. Of course, I didn’t know it at that time. It was only later on that I realised that I was a victim of:


'Domestic workers speak: a global fight for rights and recognition' showcases the diversity and power of the domestic workers' rights movement. Featuring contributions from 23 worker-led groups, it details the struggle of domestic workers, explores their solidarity and methods of resistance, and calls for comprehensive rights for the world's most invisible workforce.
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• The pernicious and irresponsible smugglers who put my life in danger during my journey from Manila to Paris;

• The dishonest employers who exploited me without scruple;

• Isolation, language barriers, and the ignorance of my rights;

• And, above all, the burden of responsibility, shared by the vast majority of migrant women from the Philippines who leave their families and countries to offer a better future and a decent life to their children.

The World Bank stated in 2013 that the Philippines received more than $26 billion in (officially recorded) remittances that year, the third largest recipient after India and China, an amount equivalent to 10% of the GDP of the Philippines in that year. For many years, Filipino women, many of whom are mothers, have risked their lives by working abroad as domestic workers with the hopes of alleviating difficult living conditions for their children and extended families in the Philippines. They put their families before their own safety, health, and psychological well-being. They accept unsuitable working because they feel trapped by the many obligations they take on. They feel as though they do not have any other options besides becoming domestic workers abroad.

These people who send monthly remittances to their families back home – otherwise known as overseas Filipino workers (OFW) – have been not only helping their families, but also the economy of the Philippines as a whole. Being the largest labour-exporting country in the world, the Philippines has been able to stay afloat despite many economic challenges in the Asia Pacific region partly because of the stable and predictable contribution of OFWs working all over the world. However, despite reports of a stronger economy in the Philippines in recent years, there has been very little to no effort by the government of the Philippines to protect and look after OFWs. The government of the Philippines describes the economic situation in the country as a miracle, and its migrants as ‘heroes’. However, it does nothing to help OFWs rebuild their lives in their own country upon their return. For the economic value we represent, the government must acknowledge that we are paying for it at the highest price, through the exile and sacrifice of love, family and friendship – and that, at best, when we are not victims of trafficking.

Fighting back in France

In the midst of this painful experience as an OFW, I was lucky to find a family among members of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) that supported me as I took steps to escape from slavery. The CFDT is a professional union in the Paris region for domestic workers that is mainly funded by membership fees. I started to advocate for domestic workers’ rights in 2000 and was elected as the general secretary of the CFDT in October 2003. It was the place where I began to realise my full potential through the various trainings they offered on topics ranging from learning the French language, to managing the organisation, and organising domestic workers. The CFDT, which was founded on 7 May 1965 and to which I proudly belong, is now covered by three national collective agreements to protect the rights of domestic workers. If I am an advocate today, it is not only for me, but for all those who are trapped, as I had been in the past, in inhumane working and living situations.

If I am an advocate today, it is not only for me, but for all those who are trapped, as I had been in the past, in inhumane working and living situations.

We at the CFDT are carrying out many legal actions to redress the inequalities faced by victims, for example an Indonesian young woman called Leila who worked for a foreign diplomat in France more than ten years ago and was exploited and abused by her employer. Her case was sent to us by the Paris-based Committee against Modern Slavery. We treated and defended her case before the labour court of Paris. Although we won at every stage of the proceedings, the decisions were never executed as the judicial officers stated that that Leila’s former employer was a diplomat and therefore enjoyed the right to immunity provided by the 1961 Vienna Convention. The CFDT fought for more than ten years in order for the French state to pay the sum of reparations owed to the victim – a sum which was taken from tax payers’ money.

The French penal code protects individuals from subjection to forced labour, slavery and servitude, as well as from degrading treatment and undignified work conditions, punishing those who commit these crimes from 7 to 10 years' imprisonment and from €150,000 to €1.5 million (Article 1 - 225-4-1 I). This piece of legislation has become instrumental in our fight against exploitation and abuse, as it has led 20 victims to seek support from the CFDT. However, the question of how many victims around the world do not dare to speak out still remains.

With the help of other activists, we continue to meet domestic workers in parks, in front of schools, or at open markets. We are open on Saturdays, as most domestic workers do not work on weekends. They typically come to check if their contracts and pay slips are adequate or to seek counsel if they are unfairly dismissed from their job.

Despite having won many cases over the years, there are many things that must be done to protect domestic workers. The CFDT will continue supporting migrant domestic workers and working towards better work conditions, fighting for domestic workers’ rights, and providing professional trainings and workshops for personal projects, among other initiatives.

In addition to my work with the CFDT, I manage ASF, an association for Filipino migrant workers that offers informational sessions in Tagalog or English, French lessons on Sunday afternoons, and martial arts on Saturday nights in the Paris region. Our goals are to raise awareness, provide information about different resources available to migrant workers, and continuously promote the importance of learning the French language as a means to become independent and well integrated into French society. More importantly, ASF gives migrant workers the opportunity to have a sense of community and belonging, which is important for their psychological well being. Finally, I campaign for the ratification of the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention (C189), which unfortunately France is yet to ratify.

Collective bargaining and a strong need for enforcement

In France, a national collective agreement exists for each occupation. For example, maternal assistants and their employers have their own collective agreement. This means that, if an employee and an individual employer want to enter this agreement, each party must respect the labour code outlined in the said agreement.

Each collective agreement defines the rights and duties of both parties (working hours, daily rest, minimum wage, etc.) and is negotiated on a parity basis between representatives of employers and employees. In France, there are more than 700 national collective agreements. The collective agreement for employees of an individual employer (formerly known as domestic employees) dates back to 1999 and covers approximately 1.3 million employees, most of whom are part-time workers. There are around 320,000 maternal assistants for which the CFDT signed a national collective agreement ten years ago. Despite this collective agreement, employers often violate the labour code by imposing long work hours on and breaching contracts with maternal employees. The CFDT has been actively working in national negotiations to ensure that these maternal assistants are recognised and treated like all other employees.

If I am proud to contribute a part of my experience, it is because I consider myself fortunate. Thanks to the CFDT I was able to discover the laws and the rights I now defend, which helped me become who I am today, free and committed to defending domestic workers rights. It is through my own personal experience, as a victim of slavery, that I would like to continue to encourage others to educate themselves and learn about their rights. My mission is to create awareness about the plight of migrant workers through social dialogue in the hope of restoring justice for all victims and their families and for others to avoid the same fate as mine. It is my fervent hope that those who have the means to help will also enable themselves to rise to the occasion and fight for the same cause as the rest of us at CFDT. Let us therefore work together in order to win the difficult struggle of social justice.

About the author

Zita Cabais-Obra is a an activist for the defence of domestic workers' rights in France. She arrived in France from the Philippines in 1994, and she is a unionist at the French Democratic Confederation of Labour in the region of Paris since 2000 and a part of the Syndicat des Assistants Maternels et Salariés des Services A la Personne Ile de France.


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