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Workers, not slaves: domestic labourers against the law

The global non-recognition of domestic and care workers in law and social policy intensifies their exploitation. Their international movement exposes the gendered structural and legal violence of global capitalism.

“Take us out of slavery!” “I am not a slave.” “Invisible no more.” These were the slogans used by personal attendants and home care aides in the United States during the 1970s to campaign for workers’ rights. Excluded from national wage and hour laws due to the nature of their work, which was seen as identical to women’s household and family labour, these workers, then disproportionately African American, were misclassified by the US Department of Labor as “elder companions” and treated as nothing more than casual teenage babysitters. This remained true even when they were employees of for-profit franchise health care and manpower firms, and their non-recognition as workers made them appear to many as ‘slaves’. The Obama administration’s attempt to rectify this designation has met fierce resistance from employers, who have gone to court to block any change in the exclusion.

Thus, forty years later, the circumstances of care and other domestic workers—wage theft, long hours, sexual harassment, and personal abuse of all sorts—remain hidden in the home, still venerated as a private family space. Isolation magnifies ill treatment, especially for live-in labourers, a group in the US increasingly composed of immigrant women of colour. Tales of passports confiscated, food and sleep denied, imprisonment in residences, and constant monitoring additionally defines what commentators across the political spectrum lament as a new slavery.

The continued exclusion of home care workers from US labour law makes them part of the nearly 30 percent of domestic workers worldwide who toil apart from national labour standards. Most are women, and those who are migrants are often unable to obtain the status of worker because law and policy deny rights to ‘sojourners’ in Canada, Hong Kong, the Arabian Gulf, and elsewhere. But forced labour exists not merely as an anomaly within the market, a residue of earlier modes of production. It is an outgrowth of global capitalism, in which governments enact policies that both facilitate and reinforce precariousness, extending the low wages and temporariness of feminised jobs to the economy as a whole.

A global movement

Even when the law provides rights, as in six US states since 2010, enforcement rarely happens due to the intimacy of the employment relationship and the inadequacy of state agencies. Fear of retaliation and job loss keeps live-in domestic workers from lodging complaints even when aware of the law, while labour and human rights bureaus lack money and personnel to investigate. On the basis of research and consultation with governments, NGOs, employers, and worker organisations, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has called for eradication of the conditions of poverty and inequality that lead to such exploitation, real aid to those victimised, and support of worker organisations. The ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, (Convention #189) promulgated in 2011 and currently ratified by twenty-two countries (more than half of which are from Latin America), calls upon nations to include migrant workers in their labour codes and provide guarantees against forced labour through written contracts in the language of the worker specifying hours, remuneration, benefits, and means for redress.

The new international domestic worker movement fights the denial of bodily integrity and individual worth as part of its struggle for better working conditions, worker self-determination, and humane care. Organized in late 2013 as the International Domestic Worker Federation (IDWF), the first woman-dominated labour organisation of its kind, the movement gives support to national and regional efforts to improve terms of employment, with a special focus on child and migrant workers. It mobilises campaigns for ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention and aids local groups to establish associations and unions. It has protested the lack of freedom of domestic workers, as in Qatar, and their mistreatment by individual state officials, as in Sri Lanka.

Though it sometimes refers to “modern day slavery,” the IDWF frames household labour as not only work like any other but as a type of employment that is essential to economic life as a whole: housekeepers and careworkers make it possible for all other workers to do their jobs by maintaining the quotidian aspects of life. This sustaining of people, what theorists name reproductive labour and assigned as women’s work in the sexual division of labour, has become the focus of worker struggles.

The US National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) understands the connections between household work and the social good. It promotes a cross-class alliance called “caring across the generations”. Its member associations of nannies, housekeepers, and elder care workers see linkages between their working conditions and criminalised immigrants, a low-wage service economy, declining unions, enhanced racism, and persistent gendered ideologies. Furthermore, they argue, the conflation of domestic employment with unpaid labours of love and obligation performed by wives, mothers, and daughters has been a prime justification for inadequate compensation.

It will take a worldwide effort of progressive forces, led by those seeking redress and self-determination for themselves, to right the upheavals that push people to migrate for dignity and daily bread. Until then, we must heed the main thesis of NDWA 2015 report Beyond survival: organizing to end human trafficking of domestic workers: “forced migration, spurred by economic necessity, social and cultural discrimination and gender-based violence, puts people at risk for trafficking and exploitation”. But governments as well as employers must be made accountable for the lack of social protections and inadequate enforcement of existing rights, for laws that turn migrants into outlaws and make them invisible, and for piecemeal and uncoordinated social services. Labelling unregulated household labour as slavery dramatises what is more accurately a manifestation of the structural violence of global capitalism anchored by gendered inequalities within and between households as well as within and between nations. While it might generate publicity, such naming too often substitutes moral indignation for political action. Better to give material and practical aid to the IDWF, the NDWA, and other local domestic worker associations and unions.

About the author

Eileen Boris is Hull Professor of Feminist Studies and Professor of History, Black Studies, and Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes on the home as a workplace and the racialised gendered state. She is the author, with Jennifer Klein, of _Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State. _She tweets @eileen_boris.

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