January 12, 2021
From PM Press

by Silvia Federici
New Frame
December 30th, 2020

Silvia Federici explores how in fighting for their rights, migrant domestic workers circulate practices that influence feminist politics and foster cosmopolitanism.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from the revised and expanded second edition of Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle (PM Press, 2020) by Silvia Federici.

“We have seen other countries and have
another culture”: migrant domestic workers and the international
production and circulation of feminist knowledge and organisation.

“Transformative organising is about challenging structural inequities
but it is also about personal transformation. . . . You create
campaigns with a movement building perspective, that is not just about
the ultimate win and what you can gain in the short term but it is about
the struggle you engage in with people you never thought you would
struggle with, who will be standing by you and by whom you will be
transformed by virtue of struggling together.” – Priscilla Gonzales,
Domestic Workers United, 2013 

Over the last three decades the experiences and working conditions of
migrant domestic workers have been at the centre of a growing body of
sociological and feminist literature. The works of Rhacel Salazar
Parreñas (2001), Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild (2002),
Lourdes Benería (2008), among others, have examined the role played by
the neoliberal restructuring of the world economy in motivating women’s
migratory movements and the international redistribution of domestic
work. They have denounced the abuses to which migrant domestic workers
have been exposed at the hands of immigration authorities and employers,
the “care deficit” that female migration generates in the communities
of origin, and the new divisions it institutes among women. More recent
studies, by a new generation of feminist scholars, have also examined
how racialised conceptions of ethnic and national identities shape the
conditions of paid domestic work, and how the latter’s affective
dimensions complicate the relations between domestic workers and their
mostly female employers. Concepts like the “globalisation of care”,
“global care chains” and “transnational motherhood” have given us a new
understanding of how these developments have affected the lives of paid
domestic workers and their families. 

There is, however, another aspect of the experience of migrant
domestic workers that deserves more attention. Through the
cross-cultural exchanges that negotiations with employers and
international authorities require and the creation of transnational
communities fighting for their rights, migrant domestic workers have
become the protagonists of a global circulation of practices and
knowledges that have influenced feminist politics
and contribute to
the articulation of new forms of female subjectivity and a more
cosmopolitan feminism. In particular, they have revitalised the feminist
interest in the question of domestic work, a major concern in the
feminist theory and practice of the 1970s that, by the 1980s, as
feminists concentrated on fighting for women’s right to enter
male-dominated occupations, had almost vanished from the feminist
agenda, at least in the United States. 

Related article:

In this article, I examine how migrant domestic workers’ organising
has not only changed their relations with the institutions but also
affected feminist activism and its research agenda. I argue that the
efforts that migrant domestic workers have made to “valorise” their work
and to denounce their exploitation are one of the main factors
motivating the new feminist interest in “care work” and the debates it
has generated. More than that, the growing presence of migrant domestic
workers, in cities across the world, fighting for basic workers’ rights
and denouncing the discrimination they suffer at the hands of not only
governments but also female employers poses a challenge that feminists
cannot ignore. It questions the possibility of solidarity among women
and the adequacy of the once-dominant feminist strategy of emancipation
through wage labour.

My interest in this article, then, is both theoretical and practical.
While describing how domestic workers’ struggles have evolved and
stressing their significance for feminist politics, I investigate what
alliances are being forged between domestic workers and feminist
organisations, and I question whether or not the conditions exist for an
alliance between paid and unpaid domestic workers capable of
transforming the social conception and treatment of domestic work and
ending its social and institutional devaluation. I anticipate that
neither domestic workers nor feminist organisations are currently
pursuing this objective. Although a revalorisation of domestic work may
be acknowledged as a common goal, the building of a movement of paid and
unpaid domestic workers is not on anybody’s horizon. Nevertheless, the
struggles that domestic workers are making are already having a
consciousness-raising effect and are activating debates that can
positively change the feminist agenda. 

I base my conclusions and my analysis not only on scholarly
literature but also on my participation in recent years in many feminist
discussions on “care work” and on my encounters with immigrant domestic
worker activists in New York, Madrid and Amsterdam whose organising
exemplifies the claims I have made. The organisations I mention are the
high points of a movement that for the most part still proceeds among
great difficulties. Indeed, we should not overemphasise the migrant
domestic workers’ capacity to resist the restrictions and exploitative
practices to which they are subjected, nor overlook the diversity of
experiences and conditions that define their situation internationally. 

As several scholars have noted, improvements have been modest,
despite significant struggles. Progress toward the public regulation of
the home has been slow. In North America, for instance, migrant domestic
workers have generally been excluded from the protections granted by
labour legislation, and their work and living conditions have remained
very restrictive. In the United States, only recently and in a few
states have they obtained the right to organise. In Canada, they are
still required to live in their employers’ homes for at least two years
before applying for a permanent visa, a policy that institutionalises
the threat of abuse, leading many women to enter the country as
undocumented workers. Even where domestic work is recognised and
regulated, implementation remains a problem, due to the privatised
conditions in which the work is performed. Nevertheless, considering the
variety of organisations that migrant domestic workers have created and
their increasing engagement in collective action, it is clear that
domestic workers are becoming a social force, one that “resembles a
feminist movement” and can spearhead a mobilisation for the economic and
cultural valorisation of domestic work. This was the objective of the
International Feminist Collective that in the 1970s campaigned for wages
for housework, arguing that this is the work that produces the
workforce and benefits all employers. But despite significant
organisational efforts that spread to several countries, little was
achieved by it except for a better understanding of the function of
domestic work in the process of capitalist accumulation. 

Domestic workers’ organisations and struggles 

Sin nosotras no se mueve el mundo [Without us the world
does not move],” asserts the Madrid-based domestic workers’ organisation
Territorio Doméstico. There are several reasons why migrant domestic
workers such as these in Madrid may succeed in accomplishing what the
feminists campaigning for wages for housework in the 1970s could not.
One important factor is that, from the beginning of their journey, they
have been a community in struggle. As with other forms of migration, the
decision to leave one’s country and travel thousands of miles, even
across an ocean, to take a job as a domestic worker, is a very difficult
one. Those who migrate are combative women, prepared to face many
hardships and even a loss of social status to give a better life to
their families. Many in their countries of origin had unionised or
professional jobs and are well aware of labour rights and the value of
their time and work. Migration itself is a learning and politicising
experience, requiring the development of new skills and a capacity for
endurance. Acquiring contacts and references, negotiating with agencies
to obtain travel documents, adjusting to different countries and
languages, living with strangers (often in hostile conditions) – these
are life-changing experiences that produce profound subjective
transformations and teach one how to fight. Many migrant domestic
workers also come from countries that have been or are the sites of
broad social movements or have strong traditions of working-class
struggle and communal relations. Thus, they bring with them a knowledge
and organisational capacity that enables them to mobilise against the
exploitation they suffer and place their struggle in a broader political
context. Furthermore, because of the conditions of their employment,
which takes place in segregated social and physical spaces, migrant
domestic workers are forced to break their isolation and, whenever
possible, go out of the home and connect with other women. Especially
for those who are live-in workers and reside in households where they
hardly have any control over their space and time (even the right to
lock the doors of their rooms is not generally granted), even
temporarily leaving their employers’ homes and sharing their problems
with other women is a matter of survival. Most important, unlike
traditional “housewives”, they have no difficulty identifying as workers
and imagining, under the proper circumstance, going on strike. 

All these factors explain the capacity for organised resistance that
migrant domestic workers have demonstrated, despite their extremely
vulnerable situation. At first, many have organised on ethnic grounds,
joining with other women from their own country and cultural background.
Later they have built multinational organisations and engaged in
collective action over the conditions of domestic work, lobbying
politicians and staging marches and protest rallies. Crucial to these
efforts has been the creation of informal networks providing a reference
point for new arrivals and spreading information about housing,
employment and migration laws. Equally important has been the
construction of a new relationship with public space. Seen at first as a
place of danger where they could be stopped by police or suffer other
forms of abuse, public space has become for migrant domestic workers a
place of encounters where they might regain the autonomy they are daily
denied and reach out to a broader public, gaining visibility for their
demands. Here again it is important not to minimise the differences, as
Parreñas has pointed out in her comparative study of Filipina domestic
workers in Rome and Los Angeles. In Rome, a city where Filipinas are
residentially dispersed, they seek to escape the public eye by meeting
in the periphery or – a favorite spot – underneath an overpass by the
river Tiber. In other localities, they have tried to gather in more
visible social spaces. In Hong Kong, on their days off, Filipinas have
gone weekly to the streets and “taken over a central public space”,
singing, dancing and acting out the problems inherent to their lives and
work experiences. This phenomenon, which according to Vicky Tam “has
become part of the social landscape in Hong Kong for the past decade”,
is in reality an essential element of the domestic workers’ experience
in most countries and a “recurrent theme in the writings of their
organisations”. As Pappas-DeLuca writes, with reference to the
experience of domestic workers migrating from Chile’s rural areas to
Santiago: “Perhaps most important in terms of social mobility, were
descriptions by domestic workers of getting together in informal places,
such as public parks and plazas in Santiago, during their days off. It
is there that many young migrants spend their free days socialising with
one another and forming their own peer community. This community in
contrast to their jobs in private homes, exists in the most visible of
public places: parks and plazas.” 

Related article:

Having a presence in the public space, occupying public space
– the street, the sidewalk, the park – has proven a very effective way
of organising. According to Priscilla Gonzalez, a former member of New
York Domestic Workers United (DWU), one of the main domestic workers’
organisations in the United States, this public presence has enabled
domestic workers to make their stories known. As she put it, in an
interview concerning the campaign for the DWU Bill of Rights: “In terms
of the strategy . . . what we also did was to anchor the campaign
through our stories . . . contrasting and challenging our invisibility
and saying: ‘This is what I go through,’ ‘This is what has happened to
me,’ ‘This is why I am part of this campaign,’. . . ‘This is why I am
fighting for this.’ . . . Prioritising storytelling is really a critical
component of any organising. . . . Being able to create opportunities
where people can come together, hear from each other, talk about the
conditions they are facing and develop a common analysis. That’s what is
gonna unify people.” 

By being in the streets, migrant domestic workers have not only
circulated their experiences, but have developed a broader understanding
of the importance of their work and of the struggle over domestic work
as a feminist struggle. I will return later to this point. Here I want
to stress that it is mostly through self-organising that domestic
workers internationally have begun to change their status, though in
many cases they have also sought the help of NGOs and community groups
or have allied with trade unions and founded trade unions of their own.
In the Netherlands, for instance, domestic workers from the Philippines
and Indonesia, in 2006, founded the United Migrant Domestic Workers
(UMDW) and later joined the FNV Bondgenoten, the largest trade union in
the Netherlands, especially its cleaners’ sector. They have also
organised through the Wereldhuis [Worldhouse], an information and
counselling centre for undocumented migrants in Amsterdam, where
activities are carried out by the workers themselves. Thus, they have
created their own leadership. Women who work all week, and in some cases
have families of their own to care for, nevertheless provide training,
information, legal assistance, and in addition organise meetings,
events, engage in research, write articles, reports, newsletters,
proposals and position papers. 

As Helen Schwenken points out, domestic workers have generally
resisted a labour union model of organisation, since it subordinates
them to a male-dominated hierarchy and a logic shaped by the needs of
formal employment, less congenial to the needs of women who work in
isolated environments, and must confront individually the problems
generated by the daily interactions with employers. Add to these
considerations that, for women forced daily into a subordinate if not
servile position, it is crucial to maintain control over their struggle,
as it is to combine organising activities with the construction of new
forms of sociality. 

Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, 2nd Edition

Back to Silvia Federici’s Author Page

Source: Pmpress.org