Domestic workers—at great risk during the pandemic crisis—are mobilizing to secure rapid relief and protection says the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). This International Domestic Workers Day, more than 60 million of the world’s estimated 67 million domestic workers, most of whom are women of color working in the informal economy, are facing the pandemic without the social supports and labor law protections afforded to workers in formal employment. And, during a period of heightened infection risk, tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers are being forced to live in their employers’ homes, housed in crowded detention camps or have been sent home where there are no jobs to sustain them or their families.
The health and economic risks to domestic workers during the pandemic and compulsory national lockdowns are high. At the margins of society in many countries, most domestic workers are excluded from national labor law protections that require employers to provide paid sick leave and mitigate workplace infection risks through provision of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and appropriate social-distancing measures. And, if they get sick, many domestic workers cannot access national health insurance schemes.
“Domestic workers are among those most exposed to the risks of contracting COVID-19. They use public transport, are in regular contact with others… and don’t have the option of working from home, especially daily maids,” says Brazil’s national union of domestic workers, FENETRAD.
Without adequate personal savings due to poverty wages, many domestic workers and their families are suffering food insecurity because of income interruption or job loss.
“We can’t have many domestic workers left out in the cold,” says Myrtle Witbooi, founding member and first president of IDWF, and general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU).
“Let us shout out to the world: We are workers!” she says.
In Mexico, where 2.2 million women are domestic workers, most of them are being dismissed without compensation. In a recent survey of domestic workers, the national domestic workers union SINACTRAHO found that 43 percent of those surveyed suffered a chronic condition like diabetes or hypertension, increasing their vulnerability to COVID-19.
The United Domestic Workers of South Africa says their members report that some employers refused to pay wages during the country’s compulsory lockdown unless staff agreed to shelter in place with their employer, and that domestic workers who could not report to work were not paid.
In Asia, women performing care work were excluded when countries launched COVID-19 responses and stimulus packages, says Oxfam.
In the Latin American region, where millions of people who labor in informal jobs rely on each day’s income to meet that day’s needs, the pandemic lockdown is causing an economic and social crisis.
Globally, unemployment has become as threatening as the virus itself for the world’s domestic workers, reported the ILO in May.
Meanwhile, migrant domestic workers—who often leave behind their own children to care for others to support their own families back home—are in peril. Some are being sent home without pay, some are subject to wage theft. Others are being quarantined by the thousands in dangerously crowded conditions or in lockdown in countries where they do not speak the language and have little access to health care, local pandemic relief or justice. For example:
Thousands of Ethiopian domestic workers are stranded in Lebanon by the coronavirus crisis.
At least one-third of the 75,000 migrant domestic in Jordan had lost their incomes and, in some cases, their jobs only one month into the pandemic.
For millions of Asian and African migrant domestic workers in the Middle East, governments restrictions on movement to counter the spread of COVID-19 increased the risk of abuse, reports Human Rights Watch.
Several Gulf states are demanding that India and other South Asian countries take back hundreds of thousands of their citizens. Some 22,900 people were repatriated from the UAE by late April, many without receiving wages for work already performed.
On June 16, International Domestic Workers Day, we honor the majority women who perform vital care work for others. Every day, and especially during the pandemic, the Solidarity Center is committed to supporting the organizations that are helping domestic workers attain safe and healthy workplaces, family-supporting wages, dignity on the job and greater equity at work and in their community.
“International Domestic Workers Day is a great opportunity to talk about power and resistance, and how we survive now and build tomorrow,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director, Shawna Bader-Blau, who applauds actions by all organizations dedicated to supporting and protecting domestic workers during the pandemic. These include:
Domestic workers who are leaning into organizing and advocacy efforts during the pandemic, including in Peru, where they won the right to a minimum wage and written contracts by challenging the constitutionality of failing to implement the ILO domestic workers convention after ratification; in the Dominican Republic, where they mobilized to register 20,000 domestic workers into the social security system and lobbied for their inclusion in government aid, gaining new members in the process; in Brazil, where they successfully fought to remove domestic workers from the list of “essential workers” to limit their exposure to COVID-19 because of their limited safety net.
In Bangladesh, BOMSA, a migrant rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), is creating and distributing COVID-19 awareness-raising leaflets specifically for migrant domestic workers returning to Bangladesh from abroad. Members are distributing soap, disinfectant and other cleaning supplies, and encouraging workers to maintain social distance. Another migrant rights NGO, WARBE-DF, is distributing COVID-19 awareness-raising leaflets to returned migrant workers and their communities. And as thousands of migrant workers return, the organization is engaging in local government coronavirus response committees to ensure inclusion of migrant-specific responses. Both are longtime Solidarity Center partners.
Also in Bangladesh, in Konbari area—where garment workers who are internal migrants are not eligible for relief aid as it relies on voting lists for relief distribution—the local Solidarity Center-supported worker community center is connecting with local government officials and has provided nearly 200 names for relief, and is fielding more calls from internal migrant workers seeking assistance.
In Brazil, which has more domestic workers than any other country—over 7 million—the National Federation of Domestic Workers (FENETRAD) and Themis (Gender, Justice and Human Rights) started a campaign calling for domestic workers to be suspended with pay while the risk of infection continues, or to be given the tools to protect against risk, including masks and hand-sanitizing gel.
Also in Brazil, FENATRAD is providing legal and other advice by phone to domestic workers and delivering relief packages of food, medicines and protective gear, including masks, clothing, soap and hand sanitizer, to union members and their families.
In the Dominican Republic, three organizations representing domestic workers successfully advocated with the Ministry of Labor for domestic workers’ to be included in the country’s COVID-19 relief program.
In Mexico, to raise awareness and make the sector more visible, SINACTRAHO collected WhatsApp domestic worker audio messages about their experiences during the crisis for sharing on a podcast.
The Alliance Against Violence & Harassment in Jordan, a Solidarity Center partner, is urging the government to grant assistance to migrant workers, who have little or no pay but cannot return to their country. The Domestic Workers’ Solidarity Network in Jordan shares information on COVID-19 and its impact on workers in multiple languages on its Facebook page
The Kuwait Trade Union Federation urged the government to address the basic needs of Sri Lankan migrant workers, many of whom were domestic workers trapped in Kuwait after Sri Lanka closed its borders on March 19. Workers were eventually housed in 12 shelters while travel arrangements home were made.
In Qatar, Solidarity Center partners Migrant-Rights.org and IDWF in April helped launch an SMS messaging service in 12 languages to provide tips to migrant domestic workers on COVID-19 and how to protect their rights.
In South Africa—where many domestic workers suffer deaths and crippling injuries without compensation because they are excluded from the country’s occupational injuries and diseases act (“COIDA”), according to a recent Solidarity Center report—trade unions are demanding that employers provide their domestic workers with adequate PPE.
Without urgent action to provide relief to workers in informal employment, including those providing domestic work, quarantine threatens to increase relative poverty levels in low-income countries by as much as 56 percentage points according to a new brief from the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO).
Today marks the fourth anniversary of the United Nation’s passage of Domestic Workers Convention 189, which asserts that domestic workers are entitled to the same basic rights as those available to other workers, including weekly days off, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, overtime compensation, and clear information on the terms and conditions of employment.
As long-time union activists helping domestic workers form unions and get a voice on the job, Andrea Del Carmen Morales Pérez and Librada Maciel found themselves fighting burnout—from stress, from nonstop work and from unrecognized trauma they carried with them for decades after the abuse they experienced cleaning homes and caring for employers’ families.
But through a unique multi-phase program focused on building leadership skills and, even more importantly, on developing strategies for healing deeply embedded trauma, both activists say they are renewed and have the tools to ensure they carry on the struggle—while taking care of their own physical and mental well-being.
The two activists are among more than 40 domestic worker leaders from 17 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean who took part last year in Leadership for Unity, reNewal and Amplification (LUNA), a one-year program comprised of three multiday workshops bolstered by ongoing mentoring.
Originally created by the U.S.-based National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), the program was a collaboration of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Domestic Workers (CONLACTRAHO), Generative Somatics, the Solidarity Center and donors like Care International and Open Society Foundation.
“When you’re used to being a lifetime activist, you’re used to giving 120 percent of your time in the struggle,” says Morales Pérez, a leader in Nicaragua’s domestic union, FETRADOMOV. “I wanted to do everything myself. We were always just running on all cylinders.”
LUNA “has helped liberate me from the traumas I’ve held on to since I was a child,” says Morales Pérez. “The exchange we have had among all of us, leaders across the hemisphere and between leaders and grassroots organizations, and with facilitators, we have been able to work together with so much efficiency. I think I have healed and I am more ready for the challenges to come.”
Maciel had even considered leaving her work in SINTRADI, a Paraguayan domestic worker union, but after participating in LUNA, she says, “I’m invigorated. I feel like I am ready to take on the challenges.”
And, strengthened by new skills, the union leaders have gone on to win legislative victories, advance in union leadership positions and unite in campaigns with new allies.
Minimum Wage Victories and More
In Bolivia, three LUNA participants went on to win election to their union’s executive committee. In Mexico, domestic workers achieved coverage by the country’s social security program as part of the recent labor law reform. In the Dominican Republic, domestic workers from multiple unions joined forces with an unprecedented level of coordination to advance legislative priorities, including the a national minimum wage commission for domestic workers that includes representatives from the government, unions and business.
And in Paraguay, domestic workers successfully pushed for legislation mandating domestic workers receive 100 percent of the minimum wage—under previous law, domestic workers received only 60 percent of the minimum wage.
“LUNA helped us a lot in pushing us over the finish line,” says Marciana Santander Martínez, a SINTRADESPY leader who also took part in the program and who started work as a domestic worker at age 15.
The minimum wage campaign began after a successful push by domestic workers for Paraguay to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on domestic worker rights, but Maciel says their experience with LUNA enabled them to carry on a difficult struggle.
The domestic workers of SINTRADI live in Itapúa, eight hours from Asunción, Paraguay’s capital—a time-consuming journey for which they sacrificed their only day off to make. “We knew we all had to be together, so we made sure on Sundays we all got to the capital to talk explain to the senators why it’s necessary we deserve the full minimum wage,” says Maciel.
“They told us, ‘You’ve never been to school, why are you here trying to change the laws?’ We would say it’s not our fault we work 12 hours a day—how are we supposed to go to school? We are doing this for our sons and daughters and our grandchildren,” she says. “We had to learn how to defend ourselves. We suffered some really ugly fights.”
Through LUNA, she says, “we learned how to center ourselves in the movement and be in our own space, to be really focused in going into our battles.”
Healing the Trauma
The LUNA program involves political education, training in organizing strategies and building new models of leadership. It also applies somatics, a holistic therapy that recognizes the intricate connection between mind and body that seeks healing through understanding the psychological past. By taking part in exercises and discussions, participants learned techniques especially valuable for domestic workers and others who endure abuse, sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence at work, and who experience racism, homophobia and other types of societal violence and exclusion.
“As a trans woman, it was so important to be in such a space with so many leaders across Latin America, to be able to center ourselves in our own bodies and presence, to be able to draw on our own resilience and to be able to draw on the resilience of our compañeros,” says Francia Blanco, a rising leader in Nicaragua’s FETRADOMOV.
Blanco migrated to Guatemala in 2006 for domestic work where her employer abused her and trapped her inside the house for two years.
“I was never paid anything, I had no right to leave the house, I was locked in the house until I escaped. I know what it’s like to be a migrant worker and have no rights,” she says.
The LUNA training was “super important. It was tremendous personal growth for me but also growth for me as a leader. It improved how I’m able to be a leader among women,” Blanco says.
New Leadership Model: Not Male Dominated, Hierarchical
“We needed an approach to leadership that is different from the male-dominated, hierarchical structure,” says IDWF Latin America Regional Coordinator Adriana Paz Ramírez, who spearheaded the project and spent a year organizing it. “We needed a different type of leadership with new values, a leadership from the personal, coming from our deepest wounds, our trauma, how the personal translates into political.”
Paz Ramirez, who led LUNA’s political education component, says domestic worker leaders were eager for leadership training, and going forward, she plans to hold LUNA every two years. “The need for a constant renewal of leadership is key to the growth and sustainability of the movement,” she says.
“Even with capable political education and organizing support, leaders who have been socialized that power equals abuse and dominance will find it hard to create leadership models that don’t reproduce the models of power they have seen as poor women, as domestic workers, and as members of traditionally excluded ethnic populations,” says Paz Ramírez.
“For me, it has changed me a lot as a person,” says Santander from SINTRADESPY in Paraguay. “I’ve learned how to delegate and share responsibility. I have learned I can’t do everything myself. When we try to do everything ourselves, it makes us weaker and our organizations weaker.”
LUNA also served to connect domestic worker leaders across the regions and they now engage each other in support for their projects. “Because we are so dispersed, we have been able to re-establish confidence in each other and has made us much stronger across geography, communities and regions, says Blanco. “We decide the mechanism to meet our goals so we’re all on our same page.”
María de la Luz Padua, who worked as a domestic worker for 10 years and is now a leader in Mexico’s domestic workers union, SINACTRAHO, says “LUNA was an experience in growth as well as self-recognition, to know myself as a person, to know that all our organizational work can spend and exhaust us and lead to frustration, but there is always a light in it, and that light is the other women in the same position as us.”
Padua, who says through LUNA she gained increasing confidence in herself as a leader, was thrilled to be selected as one of two LUNA participants to deliver graduation statements. Standing before the group at the close of their final training in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Padua told domestic workers:
“We find that our humanity reflexively responds to impulses ingrained in us by our lived experiences, and somatics teaches us to pay attention to the most important thing: ourselves, through resilience and that force that intensely shouts at us, “Never again will we allow a domestic worker to be victimized, harassed, humiliated.”
Domestic workers in Honduras increasingly are exercising their rights on the job in the country, where they have few labor law protections and so are especially vulnerable to abuse. More than 100 workers recently joined SINTRAHO (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadoras del Hogar), National Domestic Workers Union, which in October became the first legally registered domestic worker union in Honduras.
Following eight months of outreach, education, training and organizing, domestic workers formed SINTRAHO to address their difficult working conditions. Most domestic workers are women and many live in their employers’ homes, where they often are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. As in many countries worldwide, Honduran law excludes domestic workers from mandated breaks, minimum wages and access to social security.
“In Honduras, there are more than 100,000 domestic workers, and we believe that the best way for us to be heard and recognized is to organize ourselves and fight for our rights as workers in a sector that has been hidden,” says Silma Perez, SINTRAHO president.
Recognizing that most domestic workers in urban centers are internal migrants from rural areas, often from marginalized indigenous communities, leaders of FESTAGRO, the agroindustrial union federation supporting SINTRAHO, say it is especially import to support these workers as they organize for improved conditions. FESTAGRO’s confederation, CUTH, and Solidarity Center, also provide support for the new union.
Global Movement for Domestic Worker Rights
Domestic workers in Honduras are part of a worldwide mobilization of domestic workers seeking their rights, forming unions and associations, and pushing for their governments to ratify International Labor Organization Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189). Convention 189 is a binding standard in which domestic workers are entitled to full labor rights, including those covering work hours, overtime pay, safety and health standards and paid leave.
As tens of thousands domestic workers around the world mobilized around ILO 189, which was adopted in 2011, their efforts led to formation of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Since then, domestic workers have campaigned for their governments to ratify it, and 29 countries have done so, meaning they are bound to its regulations, which include clearly stated work requirements, safe working conditions, paid annual leave and the freedom to form unions.
Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama are the only Central American countries that have ratified Convention 189, and SINTRAHO is planning a ratification campaign in Honduras. SINTRAHO also plans to push for greater protections for domestic workers under Honduran national labor law, including a fair minimum wage and access to social security protections.
SINTRAHO is the first national union in Honduras to specifically mention the rights of LGBTI workers in its statutes, and created an Executive Committee position for Secretary of Gender and Diversity to recognize and value its members’ diverse backgrounds.
“SINTRAHO will take on the challenge of organizing many more workers in the coming year in order to fight for national laws that will directly benefit us as domestic workers,” says Perez.
Through individual case studies and legal analysis, When the Job Hurts demonstrates the need for domestic workers in South Africa to receive the same coverage under the country’s job safety and health compensation law as other workers.
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