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.
Domestic workers have long shared their experiences with the Solidarity Center, detailing their long working hours, poverty wages and violence and sexual abuse. During the pandemic, additional sources of economic peril and health risks are being reported, including:
- 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.
The Solidarity Center has joined its partners, the Women in Migration Network (WIMN) and a coalition led by the Migrant Forum in Asia, in urging governments and employers to uphold the rights of migrant workers, including migrant domestic workers.
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).
Two union leaders in Honduras were murdered in 2019, and dozens more physically attacked, threatened and harassed for their activism in advocating worker rights, according to the just-released report, The Price of Defending Freedom of Association: A Report on Anti-Union Violence in Honduras. (Read the report in Spanish.)
Unions leaders took part in the online release of the report documenting anti-union violence in Honduras. Credit: Network Against Anti-Union Violence
Published by the Network Against Anti-Union Violence, the fourth annual report provides detailed case studies, including the murders of Joshua Sánchez, a maquila worker and member of the Workers’ Union of Gildan Villanueva S.A. (SITRAGAVSA), and Jorge Alberto Acosta, executive committee/board member of the agricultural Workers’ Union of the Tela Railroad Company (SITRATERCO). The Network released an online presentation of the findings via Facebook Live.
Acosta was murdered despite requesting the government provide protection, and his assassination drew international condemnation and a global petition to Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez demanding his assassins be brought to justice. As U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal tweeted: “The murder of Honduran trade unionist Jorge Alberto Acosta is a tragedy, and part of a disturbing trend against the trade union movement in the country.”
Between 2009 and 2019, at least 36 trade unionists were killed in Honduras. More than 97 percent of the cases of violence against human rights defenders in Honduras go unpunished.
Most of the violence in Honduras last year, including Sánchez’s murder, took place as unions and human rights groups protested measures to cut the country’s health and education budgets. Unions, professional associations and teachers in 2019 joined together to form the Platform for the Defense of the Right to Health and Public Education, which held rallies across the country to urge funding for these key social programs.
Six out of 10 Hondurans live in poverty (62 percent), while four out of 10 live in extreme poverty (38 percent). The vast majority work in the precarious informal economy jobs like market vending and domestic work, where they are paid low wages and have no social benefits like paid sick leave or pensions.
The most common violence recorded was harassment, according to the report. For instance, union leaders report being followed and photographed after attending union meetings by individuals unknown to them.
To address the ongoing violence against workers, the Network, a Solidarity Center partner, championed creation of an international body to investigate crimes against trade unionists and offer state security protection. As a result, the International Labor Organization (ILO) established an Inter-Agency Commission on Anti-Union Violence which was launched in August 2019. Yet so far, the commission “has not managed to meet any of its objectives which are to protect victims or to encourage the Justice System to promote criminal investigation and reduce impunity,” according to the Network.
The report also describes the Network’s creation of a new campaign, with Solidarity Center support, to ensure union collective bargaining agreements represent a gender perspective and its efforts to draft proposals to amend trade union statutes to ensure the equal participation of men, women and the LGTBI community.
Workers at the Myan Mode garment factory in Myanmar (Burma) are celebrating the return to the job of many recently fired union members.
Following a two-month fight against the factory’s attempt to use COVID-19 to destroy their union, they won an agreement May 30 that immediately reinstates 25 fired union members and brings back within two months 50 workers who joined strikes to protest the employer’s actions. It also guarantees the recall of hundreds of other fired union members when operations return to normal as the pandemic eases.
In March, Myan Mode permanently fired all 520 union members working in the Yangon factory, citing a decrease in orders due to COVID-19. Yet the owners retained more than 700 non-union workers and continued to operate the factory. The workers were fired minutes after union leaders held a contentious meeting with management in which they demanded an end to mandatory overtime due to fear of contracting COVID-19.
The move has been repeated around the world by employers seeking to use the novel coronavirus pandemic as a means to eliminate unions and weaken workplace rights. In a key provision of the new agreement, the employer agrees to not break the union and that “no discrimination against the union shall occur for any reason.”
“This was not an easy fight,” says Mg Moe, general secretary of the factory-level union, which is affiliated to the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM). “We wanted all our unfairly dismissed union brothers and sisters to be immediately reinstated.”
During negotiations with the union, factory management repeatedly resisted retrenchment plans that would not discriminate against union members. Myanmar authorities and global apparel brands doing business with Myan Mode failed to compel the factory to do otherwise, despite the company’s actions having violated labor law and the brands’ ethical codes of conduct.
‘Our Union Members Stood Strong’
“The central factor in our victory was that our members stood strong”, says Moe Sandar Myint, a union leader at FGWM. “Although we could not achieve full justice, the employer and the brands could no longer ignore our demands entirely. Our workplace union fought doggedly to win the survival of our union, and we now live to fight another day.”
The workers conducted ongoing actions to protest the dismissals, initially staging a five-day sit down at the factory gates but switching to creative uses of social media as authorities banned gatherings due to COVID-19 concerns. Their sustained efforts garnered international media attention and solidarity support from worker advocates around the world, including the Solidarity Center.
“We are also fighting against union-busting in other factories that supply clothes to the same brands that do business with Myan Mode,” says Moe Sandar Myint. “These brands promise to uphold worker rights in their contracts with their factory suppliers but we see little action from them to enforce those commitments. We will continue to struggle against injustice using strong unions in the factories and international solidarity, and will not rest until the entire garment industry is humane for workers.”
To ensure the agreement at Myan Mode is honored, the company has agreed to form a monitoring committee with a third party that is neither the company nor the union. The committee, created in consultation with nongovernmental organizations that include the Solidarity Center, will assess whether laws and company regulations are being followed as dismissed workers are rehired, and it will operate until at least the end of 2020.
Among the world’s most vulnerable workers are those marginalized within their economies and societies, namely the women and labor migrants who predominate in the informal economy, where they perform valuable work in low-wage jobs as janitors, domestic workers, agricultural workers, home healthcare workers, market vendors, day laborers and others. Today, many of these workers are on the coronavirus front lines, risking their health without benefit of paid sick leave, COVID-19 relief programs or personal savings. Others are working where they can, if they can, to survive.
Although more than 2 billion workers globally make their living in the informal economy and can create up to half of a country’s GDP, they have limited power to advocate for living wages and safe and secure work, and never more so than during the current pandemic when informal-sector workers are disproportionately falling through the cracks. Due to the failure of governments to build systems of universal social protection, the world is facing the pandemic with 70 percent of all people lacking a safety net, says International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow. Also, despite their vast numbers—61 percent of the world’s workers work in the informal economy and, in developing countries, that number can rise to 90 percent of a country’s workforce—informal-sector workers are consistently overlooked by legislators and policy makers for economic assistance and legal protections during the current crisis.
A new brief from the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) warns that workers earning their livelihoods in the informal economy in 2020 are being forced “to die from hunger or from the virus” and offers a raft of immediate, medium- and long-term recommendations for governments and employers’ organizations to address the crisis. Without urgent action, quarantine threatens to increase relative poverty levels in low-income countries by as much as 56 percentage points, according to the brief.
The far-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic have expanded global calls for a new social contract by worker rights organizations that are championing a “build back better” campaign as well as by some businesses that recognize the unsustainability of economic and social structures in which workers absorb the burdens of our economies but not the benefits.
Unions and worker rights activists are stepping into the breach, giving voice to workers’ struggles during lockdown, providing relief where resources allow and banding together to urge governments to provide financial and other social support for informally employed workers, as well as protection from harassment.
- The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer to workers before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce.
- In Zimbabwe, informal economy association ZCIEA is giving voice to vendors’ struggle for survival under quarantine and advocating for their right to operate. In Harare, even though markets are legally open and deemed essential for citizens to secure food, ZCIEA Chitungwiza Territorial President Ratidzo Mfanechiya says that ZCIEA has had to intervene with the town manager, town council and local police to protect Jambanja market vendors’ right to operate free of harassment and forced removal during the five-week lockdown. She is also speaking out against gender-based violence, given that many women are reporting incidents of abuse while trapped at home with partners during lockdown.
- 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 of origin. The Alliance also asks for safety gear for migrant workers still on the job. The domestic workers solidarity network in Jordan shares information on COVID-19 and its impact on workers in multiple languages on its Facebook page.
- Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) activists are speaking out on behalf of an emerging small entrepreneurs’ movement that is protesting disproportionate government support for larger, mostly oligarchy-owned, businesses during the lock down, and demanding equal support for small and micro-businesses including small-scale farms.
- Leaders of multiple women’s worker rights movements banded together in May to make a joint call on the world’s governments to collaborate at all levels with domestic workers, street vendors, waste pickers and home-based workers during the COVID-19 crisis so that some of the world’s most important systems traditionally propped up by informally-employed women—including food supply, the care economy and waste management—are preserved.
- In India, where an estimated 415 million workers, or 90 percent of the country’s total workforce, toiled in informal-sector jobs in 2017–18, trade unions lobbied Labor Minister Santosh Gangawar for income support and eviction support for more than 40 categories of informal workers hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2018, the workforce in informal employment in Africa was 86 percent; in Asia and the Pacific and the Arab states, 70 percent; in the Americas, 40 percent; and in Europe and Central Asia, 25 percent.
The parliament of the Bosnian Federation entity has proposed a labor law amendment that, if enacted, would give employers the authority in any future state of emergency to enact mass layoffs, slash hours and cut many workers’ pay to the minimum wage.
The labor federation in the entity, SSSBiH, adamantly opposes the proposed amendments because they clearly favor employers at the expense of workers during any future state of emergency.
If the text of the draft law is sent to parliamentary procedure, the labor federation said it would “take all necessary actions” to prevent its adoption.
The labor federation’s statement included the following summarized points:
- The proposed amendments were written behind closed doors without worker consultation.
- The claim that workers’ rights are protected by the obligation for employers to consult with unions is frivolous.
- The text of the proposed amendments envisages reduction of worker’s wages by the employer’s unilateral decision during a state of emergency.
- The amendments include provisions on paid leave without defined compensation, forced unpaid leave and at-will firings by employers, but do not provide increased compensation for essential workers who are exposed to infection during a pandemic.
“In the recent emergency, essential workers, including those in health care, were required to work without sufficient protection for their health. Many became sick on the job, and some died. Parliament should concentrate on setting standards all employers must meet in any future emergency to protect front-line workers, rather than enabling employers to lay off staff, cut pay and slash hours.” says Solidarity Center Europe/Central Asia Director Rudy Porter.
The federation’s full response to the proposed labor law amendments can be found here.