Sisters beneath veils, Sisters below stairs
TODAY, March 8, is International Women's Day, and will be marked around the world by various meetings and demonstrations to do with women's particular oppression, the often worse exploitation they suffer in the workplace, the brutality at home and in society at large under backward regimes, and the important part women play in general struggles for humanity, social justice and freedom.
Yesterday I joined a demonstration by Iranian women, and men, outside their country's embassy in London, where calls were made for an end to oppression and stoning of women, an end to compulsory hijab, release of all political prisoners in Iran, and an end to the Islamic regime. Much has been made of the so-called Green Revolution in Iran, and last years' demonstrations were recalled by some tastefully painted green splashes still on the wall in front of the embassy, but I must risk disturbing Western media liberals by reporting that the predominant colour on yesterday's demo was red.
For those Westerners of limited mental capacity who believe that siding with Iranian women or their oppressors depends on aligning with Western imperialism or the Iranian regime, I must add that one of the slogans chanted was "No war in the name of Iranian women", that HOPI (Hands Off the People of Iran) leaflets denouncing sanctions were well received, and that several placards showed hostility to imperialism as much as to the Islamicist republic.
Iran is not the only type of Islamic regime, of course, nor is it (though this is scant comfort to Iranian women and workers) the most reactionary. Saudi Arabia is managing so far without anyone daring to express unrest at home, and without Western interests who do well there troubling too much about conditions under the regime. But now and then issues spill over.
"Saudi and Emirati diplomats in London have been responsible for trafficking domestic staff into Britain, according to reports filed with the government's anti-trafficking agency. The cases of six domestic staff who worked in the London homes of diplomats and senior figures from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been referred to the Home Office's UK Human Trafficking Centre. According to Kalayaan, a charity which campaigns for justice for migrant domestic workers, the six were moved across borders for exploitation by means of deception or coercion – the international definition of human trafficking.
The alleged involvement of diplomats from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which consists of Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well as five other emirates, emerged after Kalayaan passed on details to the agency of 13 trafficked domestic workers involved with diplomatic missions in London, including one who worked for a diplomat at the South African high commission.
Five of the workers were Indonesian and four were Filipino, while others came from Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Asia. Of the 22 cases the charity referred in the nine months to the end of last year, nine involved someone who had come to work for a diplomat. In some cases, the workers were held under virtual house arrest, not paid and physically abused, according to their own testimonies.
"Many have been deceived about their working and living conditions, the salary they will receive and many are confined to the house and have their passports removed," said Jenny Moss, a community advocate for Kalayaan. "Sometimes they are threatened that if they run away, the police will put them in jail."
In each case, the workers were admitted to the UK legally under a domestic worker visa programme especially for diplomats which prohibits alternative employment outside the diplomatic mission. Diplomats and senior government figures who claim diplomatic status enjoy immunity from prosecution in the UK and no charges have been brought in any of the cases.
One employee for a Middle Eastern diplomat reported that she was forced to work 17-hour days doing all the cooking and cleaning as well as the nanny work without a day off or pay, that she was also subjected to violent attacks by the diplomat and his wife, and that she was barred from leaving the house for six months, except to buy milk.
"From the very first day I was treated like a slave, and it immediately became clear that the diplomat wanted more from me than just to look after his son. He sexually molested me and would become angry when I refused his advances," the worker told Kalayaan. The charity added that it cannot name the country involved for fear the victim could be identified, but made clear it was neither Saudi Arabia or UAE.
Officials at the Saudi embassy in London said it had no knowledge of the allegations which come after a Saudi prince was last week charged with the murder of his assistant in a London hotel. The UAE embassy did not respond to calls.
The all-party parliamentary group for trafficking of women and children, led by Anthony Steen and Clare Short, has raised the problem with immigration minister, Phil Woolas. It wants him to change the visa rules for diplomats' domestic staff to allow them to seek alternative employment, which would give them greater power to escape abusive employers.
The International Union of Food, Catering and Hotel Workers has chosen to focus on domestic workers for International Womens Day:
'Domestic workers around the world are organizing to challenge the harsh, abusive, often slave-like conditions in which they work. They are organizing unions and support networks, and they are mobilizing in support of an international Convention that will finally recognize them as workers and establish their rights in international law.
Domestic work is one of the oldest and most important occupations for many women in many countries. It is linked to the global history of slavery, colonialism and other forms of servitude. In its contemporary manifestations, domestic work is a global phenomenon that perpetuates hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, indigenous status, caste and nationality. In the past two decades demand for care work has been on the rise everywhere. The massive incorporation of women in the labour force, the ageing of societies, the intensification of work and the frequent lack or inadequacy of policy measures to facilitate the reconciliation of family life and work underpin this trend. Today, domestic workers make up a large portion of the workforce, especially in developing countries, and their number has been increasing – even in the industrialized world. Domestic work, nonetheless, is undervalued and poorly regulated, and many domestic workers remain overworked, underpaid and unprotected. Accounts of maltreatment and abuse, especially of live-in and migrant domestic workers, are regularly denounced in the media. In many countries, domestic work is very largely performed by child labourers.
A new report from the ILO - Decent work for domestic workers - concludes that domestic workers need a Convention (the strongest form of ILO instrument which once ratified is a legally binding treaty) supplemented by a Recommendation to protect their rights. The IUF welcomes this conclusion, and on International Women's Day urges affiliates to take action in the runup to the 2010 International Labour Conference , where negotiations will begin in June to develop new international labour standards for the protection of domestic workers.
Support from the international labour movement and from governments will be needed to ensure that the more than 100 million domestic workers around the world have the right to form trade unions and negotiate with employers, to an adequate standard of living, to protection against discrimination, slavery and forced labour and to access to social security and social protection systems.
Kalayaan, by the way, is not just a charity. Domestic workers are not just victims. As a Kalayaan leaflet explains:
"Migrant Domestic Wokers of different nationalities decided to form an organisation upon learning that many of our needs, problems and dreams are shared. Driven by poverty from our countries of birth, we left to support ourselves and give our families a decent livelihood. Here in the UK, we experienced slavery, inequality and discrimination. Alone we were often unable to exercise our own freedom and rights. Our passports were taken from us by employers, we were made to work long hours without pay, proper salaries not paid or delayed, we suffered verbal abuse even physical assault, severe mental threats and sexual harassment."
Kalayaan, established last year as Justice for Domestic Workers, has men as well as women members, and it is supported by Unite the Union, which is helping with training courses combining union organising and health and safety with English and IT skills.
It is fighting for domestic workers' rights not only against mean and cruel employers, but also against immigration laws which can be used to keep migrant workers under the boss's thumb, making it hard for them to look for another job, and laws which they say are being made worse.
As Kalayaan says, "We ...demand respect as workers and human beings"
See also Enslaved by Rahila Gupta (2007), for a moving and hard-hitting expose of how slavery continues behind respectable front doors in modern Britain.