Domestic Workers Receive Human Rights Award

At least 50 domestic workers from seven countries marched into the main hall at the AFL-CIO quadrennial convention in Los Angeles Sunday, singing their signature song, to accept the George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka presented the annual AFL-CIO award to the International Domestic Workers’ NetWork (IDWN) for supporting local domestic worker movements, building bridges between unions and domestic worker organizations and providing a voice for domestic workers at the international level.

Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African domestic workers union SADSAWU, accepted the award on behalf of the world’s domestic workers. In 2011, the international coalition of domestic workers secured passage of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C. 189). Convention 189 for the first time recognizes that the 53 million workers who labor in households, often in isolation and at risk of exploitation and abuse, deserve full protection of labor laws. The award proved timely: On September 5, the convention officially went into effect, providing millions of domestic workers worldwide with fundamental labor protections.

Witbooi’s emotional speech, in which she chronicled her experiences, said the struggle is far from over. But at least she no longer has to tell the owner of houses where she worked, “Thank you,” for the wages she earned.

“They say, ‘but Myrtle, you are a member of the family. And I say, ‘if I were a member of the family, I’d be sitting at the table, eating your food and you’d be washing the dishes.”

The domestic workers’ struggle is far from over, she said. “We need a living wage and to be able to educate our children.”

Trumka promised the labor movement will continute to fight on behalf of domestic workers, who are some of the most marginalized and exploited workers in the world. They often toil alone in an environment exempt from many labor standards. They serve as professional caretakers for millions, providing health and happiness for others, yet they often live in precarious and vulnerable situations. Many domestic workers are mistreated by their employers who deny them proper pay and compensation for their work. Others are subject to enslavement and human trafficking, sent far from home to toil alone.

Before the domestic workers left the stage, hundreds of convention participants joined them in singing: “My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, that’s why I’m a unionist.”

Many Solidarity Center partners are also members of the IDWN, which formed in 2006 by a group of domestic workers’ unions together with support organizations.

Established in 1980, the Meany–Kirkland Human Rights Award recognizes outstanding examples of the international struggle for human rights through trade unions. Named after the first two presidents of the AFL-CIO, the award honors leaders and organizations who have overcome significant hurdles to fight for workers’ rights.