Invisible Workers, Global Struggles

From the home to the streets, domestic workers organize to counter abusive job conditions.

Like countless other migrant girls toiling far from home, her life was invisible--except for the chilling way it ended. Earlier this month, Rizana Nafeek, a young Sri Lankan migrant in Saudi Arabia, was executed after being convicted of killing a baby in her care. The case drew international condemnation not only because of the severe punishment and opacity of the legal proceedings--she was reportedly just 17 at the time, not 23 as her falsified passport indicated, and advocates said her confession had been coerced--but also because the girl's brief life exposed the consequences of the invisible struggles facing domestic workers in the Middle East and beyond.

Nafeek's case symbolized the severe treatment of migrants in Saudi Arabia (human-rights watchdogs report that numerous other domestic workers have faced the death penalty after unfair accusations--sometimes stemming from cases of self-defense against abusers--pushed them into a biased and abuse-ridden legal system). But Nafeek represented one extreme of a continuum of abuse of transnational, precarious migrant labor, channeled through legal "sponsorship" programs and black-market networks.

More than 50 million domestic workers cook, clean, and care for households around the world, according to recent statistics, though that's likely an undercount. They work in silence, shuttered in the places usually seen as a refuge from the outside world. For countless nannies and housekeepers, the home can be a place of extraordinary vulnerability, where the workday sometimes never ends, where the head of the house pays wages whenever he feels like it, or where rights exist only on paper, or not at all.

A new survey published by the International Labor Organization (ILO), a global body that monitors labor rights, illuminates a burgeoning workforce that is overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly excluded from basic labor and social protections. One of the first comprehensive analyses of the sector, the survey complements recent efforts to strengthen protections for domestic workers.

According to the ILO's data, more than one-quarter of domestic workers are not covered by any national labor laws; just one in ten have the same general legal protections covering other workers. More than 40 percent are excluded from national minimum-wage laws, and even greater percentages are not covered by either limits on weekly work hours or guaranteed weekly rest time. The uneven legal landscape exposes workers to myriad forms of exploitation, and the isolated and precarious work environment enables many employers to ignore basic human-rights standards, cheat employees on wages, or press them to work excessive hours. Coercive conditions often spill into physical and psychological abuse, sexual assault, or outright enslavement.

According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch investigation, each year in Saudi Arabia the embassies of labor-exporting countries--Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines--field thousands of complaints of labor abuses, including physical and sexual violence. Many other abuses never come to light, due to migrants' reluctance to report abuse to authorities for fear of losing legal status, which is in many cases tied to the employer. Moreover, many migrant domestic workers in the Middle East and Asia are shackled to massive debts incurred through predatory fees charged by labor "recruiters."

Domestic work is also a pillar of the global economy: The workforce has swelled by an estimated 19 million since the mid-1990s, to roughly 52.6 million domestic workers worldwide (most of them in Asia), representing about 3.5 percent of women's employment worldwide.

In the U.S., the sector has historically provided a major, and minimally regulated, source of employment for women of color and immigrants. A recent survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and other groups of more than 2,000 nannies, housekeepers, and other household workers in 14 metropolitan areas found that about a quarter of respondents, and about two-thirds of those who are live-in domestic workers, make less than the state minimum wage. Most lack health insurance; the vast majority do not even have basic paid medical leave (an acute hardship for working mothers). Workers reported being routinely denied overtime pay for extra work hours. For about half of respondents, their primary job pays hourly wages "below the level needed to adequately support a family."

Because the vast majority of U.S. domestic workers are immigrants, their vulnerability is compounded by legal and social barriers. Undocumented immigrants, according to the survey, were especially affected by issues like job-related injuries, and most of those who reported experiencing workplace problems in the past year "did not complain because they feared their immigration status would be used against them."

But there are some signs that domestic workers' struggles are finally being recognized on an international scale. A coalition of advocacy groups pressured the ILO in 2011 to pass a major accord on domestic workers' rights, Convention 189, which enshrines principles like freedom of association, gender equality, and fair employment terms and establishes standards for regulating recruitment agencies and enforcing labor laws. About 20 countries have initiated or completed the ratification process (the U.S. not among them).

The convention may also influence national labor laws. Human Rights Watch reports that several countries, including Lebanon, Indonesia, and the Philippines, have initiated potential regulatory reforms for domestic workers, with the convention now serving as a legal framework. At the same time, future progress on raising labor standards requires continued vigilance from grassroots groups, advocates for migrants, and labor unions.

Workers are forging their own international consensus by organizing across borders. The global campaign leading to Convention 189's passage crystallized in the creation of the International Domestic Workers Network, which enabled unions and rights groups from different regions to coordinate and build solidarity.

"In the countries that have been able to take steps towards the ratification of the ILO convention and towards improving the laws for domestic workers in their own countries," NDWA field director Jill Shenker notes, "most of that is happening is because of the collective power of organized domestic workers putting pressure upon their government to improve working conditions."

The U.S. domestic workers' movement, led in large part by immigrant women of color, highlights the often-overlooked intersection between labor-, gender-, and immigrant-rights struggles. In New York, the grassroots organization Domestic Workers United campaignedsuccessfully for the landmark Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights in 2010, which established standards for wages and rest time as well as anti-discrimination protections. The NDWA and a coalition of grassroots groups in California nearly pushed through a similar bill of rights last year, before being upended by Governor Jerry Brown's controversial veto.

The country's shifting demographic realities are spurring demand for national labor reforms. Though the need for home health-aide services for aging baby boomers has soared, about 2.5 million home health-care workers are exempt from key federal wage and overtime rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Collaborating with community and labor groups and advocates for seniors and people with disabilities, the NDWA has launched a nationwide campaign to pressure the Obama administration to extend federal protections as part of a broad effort to create sustainable jobs in the swelling senior-care industry. So far, the White House has initiated but not finalized a rule change to close the gap.

The political mobilization of domestic workers underscores the parallel experiences of women in the U.S. and in other countries. Juana Flores, a co-director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a California-based advocacy group for Latina domestic workers, commented on the recent domestic workers' surveys via e-mail: "We cannot back down until we are treated with dignity and respect. These reports show the scope of the problem, they are a call to action for our governments." While officials may be slow to act on that call, workers in every corner of the world are surging ahead on their own.

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