As we know, workers -- a good many of them women -- in the US are under attack every day. But the national and international success of domestic worker-led organizing highlights the power and possibility of movements for change, even amidst such challenging times. Theirs is an example of a truly inclusive, strategic movement: a movement built and sustained by a solid base of grassroots and coalition support; a movement driven by the leadership of women; a movement that will not be stymied by a political and economic climate hostile to women, workers and immigrants.
Ai-Jen Poo, who stands with such insightful and instructive grace at the forefront of this inspiring change, offered her reflections on what has ignited the success in California and Geneva, just days before the international convention was officially approved.
I’m on my way home from a week of discussion and debate about the “Decent Work for Domestic Workers” convention at the International Labor Conference in Geneva. This is the first international convention on domestic work. Getting here has been a long road, more than ten years in the making. But we are now in the final hours of the journey to gain recognition in the international arena for domestic workers.
The process [has involved] long and generally diplomatic discussion about the controversial issues that domestic workers face every day in our work: how to count hours of work for domestic workers, particularly for live-in workers; whether stand-by time (that is, when workers are expected to be immediately available in case they are needed at any moment -- whether it’s to comfort a crying child who woke up in the middle of the night or to help ease the pain of a sick family member in the early morning) should be counted as official work hours; how migrant workers should be treated by employers and by governments; what it means to treat this workforce equally or -- in the technical terminology -- “not less favorably” than other workers. Basically, these dialogues focus on developing a basic standard for what the conditions and terms of work for domestic workers should be.
This is a challenging process for any industry, but there are particular challenges when it comes to domestic work. For most of human history, the work of domestic workers has been invisible, hidden away in private homes. It has been considered “natural” women’s work, and it has been taken for granted. During this International Labor Organization process, governments, national trade union federations and employer groups from every nation have had to sit down and think deeply about domestic work as real work that -- like any other type of work -- deserves basic labor standards.
This process was a powerful reminder of the importance of movements: movements of workers that demand change, movements of women that promote hopeful visions for new ways in which we can relate to each other, social movements that create progressive governments that can play powerful roles in international arenas. It was the growing movement of domestic workers around the world - and our capacity to capture the imagination of trade union movements and governments internationally - that got domestic work onto the agenda at the ILO in the first place. It was also a reminder of the great acts of leadership that movements create. In particular, as I leave Geneva, I am paying tribute to the leadership of women in social movements.
Our many years of hard work organizing among domestic workers in the United States allowed us to make another significant contribution: The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights - passed by the New York State Legislature in 2010 and now being considered by the California legislature - was one of two pieces of model legislation highlighted in the process of developing the convention. The other piece of model legislation was from Uruguay, where there is also a strong and growing movement among domestic workers.
This is a moment to take in and to celebrate. Milestones like this are few and far between. Perhaps it was unusual in the history of the ILO, but my experience there is captured by the image of row after row of women worker leaders from every region of the world, following the discussion in at least eight languages, working together to champion the dignity of domestic work on an international stage. Our work is not done; we have a long road ahead. As a reminder and an inspiration, I want to share some words spoken by a worker from the Guatemalan domestic workers union after the adoption of the draft Convention, “We have broken the silence. We have yet to break our chains." As we mark our progress, we take our place in a growing global effort to transform the world of work and bring dignity to the work that makes all other work possible.Photo: New York Times T Magazine.