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Migrant Women Are Holding Society Together During This Pandemic

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The past year has seen several lockdowns as a result of the pandemic, which have had a deep impact on education, employment and the way we work globally. These factors have had an especially stark effect on women.

For more than 168 million children worldwide, schools have been closed for almost a year, forcing them to resort to online learning from home, according to UNICEF. In most households, it is women who have borne the majority of the burden of home schooling during the lockdowns.

Meanwhile, even as working from home has become the “new normal,” the pandemic has resulted in the loss of 24.7 million jobs, according to an estimate by the International Labor Organization. Economic inequality is likely to worsen, the ILO warns, as the jobs crisis disproportionately affects women and migrants.

In Latin America, the frequent lockdowns have come to define life during the pandemic, the social impact of which has unequally been borne by women. This has led to many women having to leave the workforce due to the mounting pressure of looking after their families, especially since the gender pay gap means they might not be the primary earning members of the household.

In cases where women try to retain their jobs while taking on the major burden of the housework as compared to men, sometimes, the only option available—if they can afford it—is to hire a domestic worker to do the various forms of care work like cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and eldercare that cannot be done easily by a working woman. According to data provided by UN Women in 2016, one in six domestic workers is an international migrant; of these workers, 73.4 percent are women. So, the domestic worker is typically a migrant woman.

Due to the precarious nature of domestic work and the insufficient political power among women domestic workers, their working conditions are appalling. According to data provided by Alliance for Solidarity, 57 percent of domestic workers have no fixed working hours. That means that these domestic workers do not control how long they work for in a day and when they can leave their workspaces, nor do they control their breaks and their meals.

Women Workers and the Pandemic

During the pandemic, the situation for domestic workers has worsened. They are presented with tough choices: either they stay in their employer’s house for the duration of the lockdown and therefore neglect their own families, or they choose to commute and risk losing their jobs because their employers fear that they could bring the virus into their households. Domestic workers’ unions have protested against this terrible choice. But their voices are not presented in the media, largely because these women are marginalized and treated as invisible parts of society.

Women domestic workers are part of a large community of informal workers, many of whom have held society together during this pandemic. It is these informal workers who have been attending to food distribution, cleaning public spaces, and working in small grocery stores and other shops. They bear the high risk of being infected not only due to the nature of their work but also because of their long commutes using public transport. In South America, such jobs are held largely by migrant women, many of whom have insecure residency status.

‘We Don’t Have Labor Rights in a Pandemic—Only Working Conditions’

Angélica Venega left Peru for Chile to earn more money so she could support her daughter’s education. A relative put her in contact with Sinducap, a trade union for workers in private households and those who work in related activities. Sinducap is part of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Domestic Workers, founded in 1988. Sinducap, Venega told me, allowed her to bargain for clearly defined working conditions in the home where she is employed. These terms of employment include working hours, provision of meals and money for transportation, payment of social security, a uniform requirement or lack thereof, and limits to what is expected during working hours.

Emilia Solís Vivano, president of Sinducap, told me that there are more than 300 people in the union. The union members are not only domestic workers but also include cleaners, caterers, gardeners and window cleaners. These workers help to sustain a better way of life for their employers. Unfortunately, the same is not possible for them.

Already precarious before the pandemic, the situation for the workers has become worse in the past few months. “Because of the stigmatization of domestic workers as possible [carriers] of the virus,” Venega told me, “many employers ask us to live in the house to avoid using public transportation. This is not exactly an offer. If you don’t accept this offer, you are fired. You are dismissed, but because they make you an offer which you refuse, they call it a resignation. If you resign, there are [no] legal benefits. In a pandemic, we have no labor rights. We only have conditions.”

The demand that domestic workers live in their place of employment, Venega said, is not just about the pandemic, fear of disease, and the protocols of health. The pandemic, she said, is being used by employers to extend the working day for less pay. When you live in the same house where you work, working hours can end up being dictated by the convenience and working conditions of the employers, who may demand more attention once they come home from work, during weekends when receiving visitors, and according to the schedule of their children.

These are conditions, Venega told me, that the employers of domestic workers would not tolerate in their own workplaces, where they are employed, but they are not afraid to impose such terrible conditions on the domestic workers. Employers often reduce the wages of the domestic workers, saying that their own salaries have been reduced due to the pandemic.

If a worker is infected by the COVID-19 virus, then they are summarily fired. Workers are responsible for paying for their treatment and where they spend a quarantine period in these cases. This is even more terrible for a migrant, who might not have a house to go to or a family to shelter with. Being fired could mean deportation.

The “new normal,” Venega told me, is not so “new.” It is part and parcel of how things were even before the pandemic. “What is being made normal,” she said, “is greed.”

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Taroa Zúñiga Silva is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the Secretaría de Mujeres Inmigrantes en Chile. She also is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.


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Facing Common Struggles, Domestic Workers Mobilize Across Borders

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Michelle Chen The United States isn’t unique when it comes to political and social crises related to immigration. Migrants in other parts of the world face similar, sometimes much harsher struggles. Even those who are “legal” are often extremely vulnerable to economic exploitation, racial discrimination, and physical and sexual abuse. Abuse and enslavement of migrant and domestic workers from Asia and Africa has become epidemic in the Middle East.  In the wake of the suicide of an abused Ethiopian worker, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, whose story helped galvanize migrant rights campaigns, the issue has moved into the media spotlight lately:

Justice for Alem D

Stories of migrants dying on the job or taking their own lives are not uncommon, underscoring how their lives can be undervalued once they’re swept into a “disposable” household workforce. Migrant women in particular struggle often with abusive employers and sexual harassment.

This video is part of a grassroots anti-harassment media campaign led by women in Lebanon:

Resist Harassment

Some migrant women are organizing and documenting their struggles in their own voices. One Ethiopian domestic worker-turned-filmmaker, Rahel Zegeye, has created a feature film, Beirut, which narrates the wrenching struggles of migrant women in Lebanon. In an interview with Tadias, Zegeye describes a plight that may sound familiar to domestic workers in the United States:

TADIAS: What are the biggest problems that Ethiopian domestic-workers face with their employers?

RZ: There are many. Most common issues include bad treatment, abuse from employers, no rest and no day off. It is also very common that the maids are not paid on time or at all, and that the employers limit their food or let them stay without food. Many employers are very racist and do not treat their workers with respect, dignity or humanity. Sexual harassment and abuse by employers also occurs. For example I know three girls who were made pregnant by their mister and were threatened not to tell their madam, and had to leave the house to go to the hospital to make an abortion.

TADIAS: How true are some of the horror stories we hear and read about in the media? And what can women do to protect themselves from such violence?

RZ: The horror stories are real and they occur. There are many more horror stories that are not reported and written about. There is very little protection for the women coming to work in Lebanon. She can try to communicate with her employer but many times there will be language problems and if the employer is abusive then there is little chance they will listen to her. She can ask them to let her go to the embassy and to return home. If she returns to the agency that brought her here they will not help her, just change employers, which may be for the better or for the worse. If she runs away from her employers she will not have her passport and papers and cannot go back to Ethiopia.

On the eve of May Day 2012, many migrant workers from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sudan and other countries came out from behind closed doors and took to the streets to rally for fair treatment. As with many “guestworkers” in the U.S., one of the critical policy issues tied to the systemic abuse of migrants is the structure of labor sponsorship. As legal guarantors, employers can basically impose legal shackles on workers to make it all but impossible to leave or challenge abuse.

Domestic workers across the United States, many of them women escaping hardship in their home countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, also suffer from poverty, harsh conditions and sexual abuse. And they’ve also used grassroots organizing and media to bring to public light to the injustices they suffer day-to-day on the job.

The Caring Across Generations Campaign—an initiative for home health care workers led by National Domestic Workers Alliance—has shown that here, too, giving workers a media platform to tell their own stories is crucial for educating and mobilizing the public.

Video

Last summer, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, together with migrant workers’ groups from around the world, pushed through the groundbreaking International Labour Organisation Convention for Domestic Workers. The accord codifies basic labor rights for domestic workers, including the right to organize, and sets standards for the treatment of workers in households, like a mandate for a genuine employment contract and immigration relief for victims of abuse.

But the challenge facing globalized concepts of labor rights is that they’re eclipsed by the laws of nation states. Despite campaigns for pro-migrant labor protections on the local and national level, like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights initiative, the absence of strong international standards makes workers everywhere more vulnerable. While multinationals assert corporate sovereignty over national systems, workers see their rights shredded by the sharp borders they’ve traversed.

The irony of the global economy is that the suffering comes from the two extremes of economic mobility. The workers who are stuck in Rust Belt towns, while behemoth manufacturing companies ship job overseas, find their communities devastated by “capital flight.” Meanwhile, wealthy communities absorb droves of migrants who chase the fleeting promise of higher-paying jobs—only to become ensnared in a marginal underclass. Until the workers abandoned by capital, and those held hostage by it in a foreign land—realize that their plights are interlocked, labor remains fractured across divides of language, race and politics.

Still, domestic worker campaigns show that global communications can counter global exploitation. Creative protest through film and media are forming a common language for a dialogue on migrants’ rights, breaking their silence with one collective voice.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.


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