Wednesday, June 29th, 2022 00:50:08

The Global Politics Of Domestic Labour Doing The Dirty Work

Updated: November 6, 2010 2:09 pm

The globalised economy of conspicuous consumption requires the outsourcing of domestic labour to migrant women—the Thai, Filipino and Ethiopian migrant in Europe, the tribal in India. Low wages and exploitative conditions are recognised problems, but what about the ethics of passing domestic work ‘down’ to another oppressed category?

There’s a poignant story in the bouquet of short films about a cross-section of people living in the city of love, Paris, Je T’aime that I think about often. A young mother wakes up bright and early and leaves her baby in a room full of cradles a crèche of sorts, it appears and with a helpless look on her face, embarks on a long commute: on a bus, in a train, walking to finally reach her destination. She walks up a few flights of stairs and lets herself into a quiet, posh home with elegant interiors. “Are you here?” a lady’s voice calls from the deep recesses of the house. “Oui, Madame,” she answers and putting on her apron, goes into the nursery to pick up another baby, about as old as hers, and begin her job for the day.

                The ironies of such tales are inescapable. Women who leave their own children to go look after others’ children is heartbreaking, no? But other than placing a huge burden of guilt on me, it also interests me for the parallels in my life. I also leave my own children to go and work (although admittedly not looking after other children). Yet the former leads to a greater sense of unease. It isn’t just narratives like this but increasing global studies that make me uncomfortable about the issue of domestic labour. Woven into the narrative is that new category of workers—’domestic workers’—that people around the world have started to talk about.

                In the year 2000, sociologist Bridget Anderson’s seminal book Doing the Dirty Work? raised uncomfortable questions about the race and class dimensions of employing ‘servants’ in the Northern countries. Anderson’s interviews with Thai, Filipino and Ethiopian migrant domestic workers in Europe reveal the politics of domestic work how it is being outsourced to migrant female labour and is increasingly an act of ‘creating class’. It is what maintains certain class status and lifestyle, and is a part of the globalised economy of conspicuous consumption and lifestyles that need, even depend on, domestic workers to keep it going. Urban, upper class houses are filled with treasures on display, crystal that needs careful dusting, umpteen shoes, silk robes, a gazillion designer outfits that need maintenance. Anderson points out the irony: “Domestic work is vital and sustaining, and it is also demeaned and disregarded.” That it is a widespread phenomenon, perhaps one of the key features of this century, was pointed out in the edited volume Global Women: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy (Ehrenreich and Hochschild eds, 2004) that showed how economically dependent many third world countries are on the migration of their women for the work of care, domestic work and sex work.

                In India too, while systems of servitude have historically existed because of feudal social structures, newer trends of migration of young women from tribal areas to cities to do (live in) domestic work have become a dominant feature in the urban labour landscape. Apparently, domestic labour is one of our largest job categories next to farming and construction. There are over 100 million domestic workers in India, more than 50 times the number of people working in the software industry. Low wages, exploitative conditions at work and a series of rights violations led to the organising of domestic workers in various states. Since 1985 the National Domestic Workers Movement has been working to organise domestic workers in different states to enable them to ask for recognition of their labour and their rights; NDWM now has 53 branches in 23 states. Other similar movements across states have led to the drafting of the Domestic Workers (Regulation of Employment, Conditions of Work, Social Security and Welfare) Bill 2008, which tries to take into account the vulnerabilities of domestic workers (especially live-in domestic workers) and make provisions not only to hedge against exploitation, but also raise accountability for both employer and employee. The bill proposes the formation of a tripartite board that has representation from domestic workers, employers and placement agencies.

                This sort of legislation for domestic workers in particular (as opposed to other types of work in the informal sector) has become a worldwide issue. The International Labour Office (ILO) at its 99th session in June 2010, put in their agenda an item on ‘Decent Work for Domestic Workers’, with a view to adopting international labour standards, possibly in the form of a convention.

                Legislation to protect rights of domestic workers has existed for a few years already in countries like South Africa, where there is a historical culture of ‘madam’ and the ‘domestic’. Last month, New York senate and governor passed USA’s first bill for the protection of rights of over 200,000 domestic workers and care workers in New York City. The ‘landmark bill’ covers overtime, time off and addressing sexual harassment. “Those of us who do this work deserve dignity and respect,” said one of the members of the Domestic Workers Union spearheading the move. Plans are afoot to push for similar legislation in other states.

                In countries like Lebanon (where many migrant women work as domestic help) and Indonesia (which sends out many women as domestic workers), discussions are on to draft legislation after Human Rights Watch brought out shocking reports about the abuse of domestic workers in these countries. The deaths of migrant workers (predominantly Filipino and Nepalese young women) under suspicious circumstances, including ‘suicides’ and falling from buildings while trying to escape their employers, led to the creation of an official committee in Lebanon comprising police, international and national NGOs and government officials, to devise ways of protecting the rights of these migrant domestic workers.

                In Indonesia, the proposed Domestic Workers Protection Bill is being drafted by Parliamentary Commission IX, and is due to be introduced in parliament this year. The Indonesian government is also looking at Memorandums of Understanding with countries like Malaysia and Kuwait, where many Indonesians are employed as domestic workers.

                Without a doubt, domestic workers face a range of vulnerabilities given the unique nature of the ‘workplace’ on the cusp of the public and private domain. Reports show that there exists a wide net of exploitation, especially in the case of migrant domestic workers. There are dubious ‘placement agencies’ that traffic women to work in circumstances that are slavery-like. There are employers who abuse women, lock them up, sexually harass them or make them live in less than human conditions. These are realities we cannot ignore, and without a doubt mechanisms need to be put in place to address these.

                At the same time, we have to think about some deeper questions about the existence of this sort of work itself. Is it a trend that is here to stay, a product of globalisation’s pushes and pulls as much as anything else? Or can it phase out as societies become more self-sufficient and equal? In a study that also looked at the demand side of domestic work (Anderson and O’Connell Davidson, 2003), we found through our interviews with women who employed full-time domestic workers, that women of a particular socio-economic background—hire domestic workers primarily so they can go out and work. The most crucial reason though is to arrange for childcare in the absence of any state or corporate mechanisms. It’s another difficult issue for feminists—on one hand, women should be able to go out and work and have fulfilling lives, on the other hand, which women are we talking about?

                Surely not all women, because women of a certain race/class/caste have to fill in for you to perform those gendered domestic tasks. This outsourcing helps paper over the question of gendered division of labour, and maintains harmony in relationships between the woman of the household and her husband, or others in the household. The unpleasant questions remain: the ethics of passing domestic work ‘down’ to another oppressed category. Whose work is domestic work? In the discussion to give visibility to the status of domestic workers, are we making invisible the status of domestic work?

                This return to looking at the actual work itself, and valuing domestic work regardless of who is doing it (domestic workers, housewives, men, women of whichever nationality) is important for the overall aim too: to imbue household and care work with the recognition and value that is due to it. Legislation is well and good, but can a bill ensure dignity and respect? Will the bill extend to other care activities and care-givers like housewives? How do we recognise their work?

                Not taking this ‘arrangement’ and the existence of ‘domestic workers’ as a category for granted will also help us exert and keep up pressure on the state and on companies to recognise this labour as valuable, and help support women and men to do it, creating institutions and policy that demonstrate this crèches, maternity laws and policies, schemes for working women and childcare support systems. Legislating for domestic workers cannot mean complacence on these fronts.

                This re-imagining of domestic work can enable us to imagine different relationships between the ’employers’ and ’employee’ (in my opinion, a fully employee-employer relationship is untenable and a fully patron-client familial one, unfair) if this system of outsourcing continues. A popular cartoon series Madam and Eve immortalises the sparring yet amiable relationship between Madam, a typical white South African madam (whose new year resolution is to learn the difference between the washing machine and the dishwasher) and Eve Sisulu, her house-help (who calls herself the ‘domestic maintenance assistant’ and is forever lobbying for a wage increase) ( The iconic cartoon is read by over 4 million people daily and looks at changing relations between races and the madam/domestic in post-apartheid South Africa. Other than that it also gives us a new lens with which to look at this uncomfortable relationship, one that makes us articulate the fault-lines in this relationship, but also break into a wry smile.


By Manjima Bhattacharjya

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