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From anonymity to recognition: domestic workers organise in France

While unions in France have made significant strides in the advancement of domestic workers’ labour rights, the French government needs to fully recognise domestic labourers. Français

First off, let me introduce myself. My name is Zita Cabais-Obra and I am originally from the Philippines. I migrated to France as a domestic worker. Before this, I was a victim of modern slavery. It was the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (FDCL) that supported me in court, and until the day I won my case.

I became an activist for the cause of domestic workers rights. I currently lead the professional union that covers domestic workers in the Paris region, in France. My presence in this organisation is important, because the domestic workers are often anonymous. I use the word “anonymous” because their labour is invisible to the public eye and yet their work is of crucial importance, every day.

The French State needs to remember the important economic contribution of domestic workers.

Our struggle is to fight the inequalities and injustices faced by domestic workers, which are similar to those I faced in the past. I was fortunate to be supported by the FDCL and in the process, I discovered that this organisation could indeed help support workers in similar conditions. In France, we have around 1.4 million employees from the domestic work sector and the union I lead covers about 38–40% of these workers. This is a significant number. The majority of these workers are mostly women migrants and also undeclared workers. When I say “undeclared”, I am talking about migrant workers who are undocumented. Such circumstances make it difficult for us to know what is happening in their workplace. So I believe the organisation has an important role in helping these workers get out of their invisible work situations, obtain recognition for their labour, and have the same treatment as other workers.

Neil Howard (oD): What does the state need to do to improve the situation and the general work conditions for domestic workers?

Zita: I think that the French State needs to remember the important economic contribution of domestic workers, which is often forgotten. They need to understand the importance of social security for domestic workers, for example. In France, I can say that domestic workers are somewhat recognised, since we have collective agreements and a few social protections. However, many domestic workers lack rights as union members. Let’s say, for example, I am caring for an elderly or frail person. Like any other worker, I need to be unionised because I need to know my rights. To do so, I would need to be absent from my workplace, but I wouldn’t get paid. My demand is that employees who are in this situation could have the right to do their work as unionised workers in the world of work.

Neil: It must be very important for you to be here (at the Venice Symposium “The Global Struggle for Domestic Workers’ Rights”) during this International Domestic Workers’ Day?

Zita: It is very important for me to be here today, it makes me happy and I am thankful to the symposium organisers that invited me. I am honoured because it allows me to share our work in France with domestic workers from the around the world. We need to support domestic workers around the world. After all, there are around 55 million domestic workers that are not recognised. It is important for me to be here and to tell them that they are not alone. We are here to support them. It’s important to be united and have a collective voice in order to achieve rights for us all.

♒ ♒ ♒ ♒ /flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As I was saying earlier, it is important to recognise the labour of domestic workers. This is a profession that requires trust, because employers entrust domestic workers with the responsibility to care for people who are vulnerable, for their households, etc. I can say that these employees have a very important role in society. We need to elaborate a concrete project and to call on the government of France ratify the International Convention 189 (C189), as they have yet to do so. 

Neil: In your struggle for the rights of domestic workers, have you made any tactical or strategic alliances with other labour movements?

Zita: In France, we have we call a social dialogue. This is how we managed to negotiate the collective convention for domestic workers, health insurance and professional classification, so that people who work in this sector could obtain salaries depending on their level of qualifications. We work across unions. The FDCL is the first union in France for the private sector. The union that I am currently directing is a professional union for childcare assistants and personal caregivers. I have about 1000 members in the region, but there is still a lot of work to do. This Saturday, we are also organising an event to commemorate the International Domestic Workers’ Day, like we are doing here, in front of the Eiffel Tower. It’s going to be a very nice event and it’s the first time we're doing this, so we could ask the French government to ratify the C189 and also ask them to fully recognise domestic workers and their labour, so they can be treated like any other worker. 

About the authors

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.

Neil Howard is an academic activist and Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.

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