Looking back nineteen years, I don’t even know if I made the right decision in leaving the Philippines to become a migrant domestic worker. All I know is that I had to find a way out to keep my children alive in the hope of a better life and future. As a mother I couldn’t bear to see my children crying of hunger and with nothing to eat. I couldn’t bear to see them sleeping on the floor and to see them in pain with no medicine. I couldn’t bear the drips of rain inside the house which was made of pieces of cardboard and wood; and which we called home. Most of all I couldn’t bear the pain of not knowing what kind of future awaited my children.
During the years of painful forced separation that followed, I experienced the terrible torture of living miles away from my children and of not being able to be part of their growing-up. This torture, and the countless struggles and failed attempts to reunite with them, defined my first years as a migrant domestic worker in Britain. Throughout this time I never lost hope that one day we would be together again.
The long journey of migrant domestic workers to Britain is not something most of us have planned or wanted, because no mother would ever leave her children to care for another person’s children, or leave her own household to care for another’s household of her own volition. The truth is that the economic poverty of domestic workers, who are mostly women, has built a bridge between the labour shortage in our own countries and the labour demand for domestic work in first world countries while at the same time providing a temporary solution to family needs.
For many migrant domestic workers, work that began as a one-off solution to an unemployment crisis becomes permanent as our countries - and families - become dependent on remittances. Many migrant domestic workers find themselves trapped and vulnerable to exploitative situations with no rights and protections. One fellow worker in this position once told me how hopeless she felt in this position. Her employer would press the lid of a hot pot filled with boiling water all over her body for every little mistake she would make. ‘It was torture’, she said, ‘I would scream of pain voicelessly, because I wasn’t even allowed to cry’.
Another fellow worker was recently raped by her male employer. He threatened to accuse her of harming the child that she was looking after if she reported him; this was a child that she loved like her own. Some women domestic workers bear scars on their faces due to hot beverages thrown at them and scars on their arms from flat irons. Many of our sisters are given utility rooms, bathrooms or boiler rooms as their sleeping quarters and have few hours of sleep. It is not new to hear of workers living on leftovers and water in the place of a daily meal.
When I arrived in the UK almost ten years ago now, I had already experienced and suffered different forms of abuse and exploitation as a domestic worker in Singapore and Hong Kong previously. Yet life was not easy in the UK either.
The hardest part was separation from my children. I longed to be like a normal mother, and to be able to work to provide a decent living for my children while looking after them myself. Yet in reality I had to fight through the courts for my children to join me. I was able to do this with the help of an expert solicitor and much additional support. I couldn’t measure how many barrels of tears I shed every time I would work on my statements with my solicitor. Sometimes I would tell him, ‘I have to stop first’; my eyes filled with tears to such an extent that I couldn’t see any letters at all. Emotionally I found it hard to look back at every detail of my life and even now, while writing this, I’m still very emotional.
Marissa's first Christmas with her children in Britain
I now have my children with me. They are 22, 21 and 20 years of age, but for me they will always be my babies. People tell me, ‘they are not children anymore!’. But perhaps they don’t really understand what our awful separation of seventeen long years really means. I’m just beginning to be a normal mother who can personally attend to their needs, when they need help with their homework or need me at their school. I can cook for them sometimes and enjoy being together with them. Rebuilding our lives together in the UK is a great challenge but I am beside them now and ready to defend them whenever they need me. It may be too late to make up the time we’ve lost but it’s never too late to rebuild a new life together.
It is my work as a domestic worker that still allows me to meet my family’s needs. Through this decent job I feed, educate and provide for them.
Domestic work is the beginning of all labour. Domestic workers enable others to do their jobs, because domestic workers look after their children, the elderly and households. And yet, domestic work is often undervalued and unimportant. It does not always fit in, but in fact, domestic work is central to our lives and is at the heart of our families, economy and society.
‘We care for families but we love and need our own families too’ is one of the core slogans of Justice 4 Domestic Workers (J4DW), an organisation that I was involved in founding in 2009 to fight for the rights of all migrant domestic workers. The organisation grew out of my hurt and anger at that time when I wouldn't trust anyone; when I was crying and wandering the street; when the life I’d hoped for was far away from me.
J4DW was part of a growing voice I found through the support of a number of people, and organisations such as Unite the Union who gave me hope in darkness. It was Margaret Healy SSL, co-founder of Kalayaan and J4DW, who first gave me a leaflet about a short story competition organised by Unite; I wanted to join in not for the prize, but because through writing about my experiences I thought I could help and contribute. I realised that I couldn't shut my arms, my eyes, my ears and my heart; I realised that I could do so much just by speaking out.
My winning article, ‘Cry of a Migrant’, was published on openDemocracy 50.50 in 2010, shortly after the establishment of J4DW. The way I see it, my writing and my campaigning were two parts of the same fight for justice, because my dream for writing ‘Cry of a Migrant’, of being able to reach-out to the world, actually happened. People would invite me and members of our organisation to speak and share our stories, not just in the UK, but in other parts of the world too.
J4DW is now a campaigning organization of more than 600 migrant domestic workers of all nationalities, including Filipinos, Indonesians, Indians, Moroccans, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Ugandans, Brazilians, Nepalis and Nigerians. With the support of individuals, Unite the Union and Kalayaan, we fight for the welfare and rights of all migrant domestic workers so that no one ends up like I once did: alone, afraid and wandering the streets wondering ‘where are my rights?’
Members of J4DW
Our challenges remain many. As has been reported on openDemocracy 50.50 previously, in 2011 the UK Government proposed to abolish the rights of migrant domestic workers, arguing that they are best protected with the same rights as any other workers, and refused to support Convention 189 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Similarly, on April 6 2012 the Government removed the basic rights of migrant domestic workers, including the single most important protection - the right to change employer.
Migrant domestic workers entering the UK are now increasingly obliged to suffer in silence; to endure long working hours without rest and pay; victimised, criminalised and increasingly in fear of detention and deportation. They are now even more afraid to speak up, concerned for their safety and losing their jobs. They worry that they will be sent home if they leave their abusive employers. In addition, the precious right to family reunion is now being measured in line with earnings. Every member of a family now has a price tag. Low waged migrant domestic workers who are settled in the UK and even those who are British citizens are automatically unable to afford family reunification. Forced family separation is a heavy punishment indeed for being poor.
Is this the kind of society we live now? We should reclaim our rights.
With my fellow domestic workers in J4DW, my hope is to denounce this unjust system and to continue the fight for justice and equality for migrant domestic workers just like any other workers; to create a more just and caring society in the UK in which all domestic workers, migrants and migrant domestic workers are recognised as key contributors. We’re calling for the restoration of the old overseas domestic worker visa, specifically the right to change employer; for in-country extensions of the domestic worker visa; and for family reunion and settlement rights following five years of lawful continuous work in the UK. We demand that these rights be extended to all domestic workers, including those working in diplomatic households, and for the UK to ratify and implement the ILO Convention 189 - decent work for domestic workers.