Sick and tired: Sri Lankan domestic workers fight back against violence

As protesters demand justice for domestic workers after a brutal assault, isn't it time we all became sick and tired of violence and exploitation hidden away from the public sphere in the home?

Yasmin Gunaratnam
6 July 2015
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Union members protesting and collecting signatures. Credit: Sri Lankan Domestic Workers Union.

The Sri Lankan Domestic Workers Union, along with other trade union and women’s groups, has organised a picket for Monday 6th July, outside the Supreme Court in Colombo. The protesters are demanding that action is taken against Justice Sarath Abrew who is alleged to have raped and brutally attacked a domestic worker at his home on or around the 26th June. The woman’s injuries included a fractured skull. She was admitted into hospital as an emergency.  

If an attack like this had been in a public place it would be just as horrific. That violence and degradation can happen in the home and within a working relationship underscores the profound susceptibility of women domestic workers. As The International Labour Organisation has recognised, ‘domestic workers, whether working in their home countries or abroad, are vulnerable to many forms of abuse, harassment and violence, in part because of the intimacy and isolation of the workplace’. 

In Sri Lanka, such experiences are tacitly acknowledged, but can still be trivialized in similar ways to how domestic violence was culturally accepted in Britain until the feminist campaigns of the 1970s and 80s . “Sarath Abrew becomes boisterous again” is how one on-line newspaper reported the case last week, referring to Abrew’s ignoble record, “Four such similar assaulting incidents were reported about this judge before. That was against another domestic maid and three police officers.” What is likely to make a difference this time is that the allegations of violence against Abrew have been taken up by the Domestic Workers Union (DWU). The union has been able to mobilise support from fourteen other civil society organisations and trade unions, including the International Domestic Workers Federation and the Women’s Political Academy

As well as organising Monday’s picket, the groups have written to the President, Maithripala Sirisena, demanding financial and therapeutic support for the woman and calling for Abrew’s immediate arrest and sacking. “This brazen attack is an opportunity for the government to send a clear message that violence against domestic workers won’t be tolerated”, a spokeswoman for the DWU said. “Women domestic workers have long been telling us about the abuse they have faced in homes, including sexual violence. There are good stories too, about workers being treated with respect, but we can’t afford to leave it to chance. Only when domestic workers have stronger legal rights will they be safe.”

The vast majority of domestic workers in Sri Lanka are women with low levels of education. The feminization of housework means that domestic work is considered low skilled, not ‘real work’. It is subject to the idiosyncratic standards and whims of each household, where varying degrees of docility and acquiesce are encouraged. I have seen domestic workers in Sri Lankan homes managed through the smallest of gestures – the nod of a head, a glance, the movement of fingertips. 

This whole sector of employment is characterised by paternalistic informality. Contracts for domestic work are mainly verbal and workers have limited legal rights. Domestic work does not come under the parameters of national wage fixing mechanisms and the gaps between local laws and international standards mean that access to social security and maternity benefits are at best tenuous.  A report, ‘Decent Work for Domestic Workers’, produced by the independent think tank Verité Research in March this year, recommended a comprehensive overhaul of policy and law to improve the rights and protection of domestic workers in Sri Lanka: an expansive interpretation of existing legislation, amending existing laws and introducing new laws.

For those of us living in the global North it can be relatively easy to feel removed from the seemingly archaic politics of domestic work in places like Sri Lanka. I have only recently become aware of the extent to which the anomalous persistence of domestic work in its diverse forms – whether through the global care chain or through home based cleaning, au pairing or tuition – plays an increasingly vital part in how inequalities are maintained across the globe. 

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Union members campaigning. Credit: Domestic Workers' Union.

Using figures from the International Labour Organisation, Verité Research has highlighted a worldwide increase in demand for domestic workers. Verité  estimates that one in every thirteen women in the labour force will be a domestic worker. To use statistically crude imagery, on a packed London double decker bus, which at full capacity takes 84 people, you would be rubbing shoulders with at least six women domestic workers.

The power to capture and consume the time of others is what maintains and fixes modern class differences and the accumulation of status, the sociologist Bev Skeggs has argued recently. Skeggs cites a 2013 survey by the elite estate agent Wetherell that found that there are more domestic workers in the London area than there were 200 years ago. In Mayfair 90 per cent of the 4,500 people who own houses, and 80 per cent of those with flats, had their own domestic worker in 2013. In 1790, 48 servants lived in Mayfair and worked for 1,500 residents. Wetherell observe, “wherever the multiple between the wages of the rich and the poor grows, so does the number of servants.”

The connection that the Domestic Workers Union is making in Sri Lanka between the treatment of domestic workers and the moral health of a society is an important argument. In her rousing Birkbeck Annual Law Lecture in 2013, the scholar Angela Davis suggested that in the twentieth century, the situation of black women domestic workers in North America approximated that found in slavery. For Davis, the “very concept of freedom must have been first imagined by slaves”. Davis believes that domestic workers played a crucial, but historically unrecognised role, in the emergence of the Black Freedom and Civil Rights movements through such actions as the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Davis quotes Fanny Lou Hamer, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, “all my life, I have been sick and tired”, Hamer said, “Now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Isn’t it about time that we all became sick and tired of the exploitation of the vulnerability of all those who live and work in our homes? 

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