Migrant Domestic Workers – The Unsexy Slaves


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They leave their homes and families in less developed countries on the promise of good pay and working conditions in the West. But that promise never materialises. Instead, they find themselves held as virtual prisoners, their passports taken from them; forced to obey the orders of those who have bought their services; degraded and dehumanised. They work for long hours and little pay, and are subjected to often horrific abuse – verbal, physical, sexual. Most of them are women, and some of them are children.

They are victims of human trafficking: the modern slave trade. The reader will have guessed that immediately. What may be less apparent is that the slaves in this narrative are not trapped in the sex industry, but in migrant domestic labour.

What we know about exploitation of domestic workers in Ireland is thanks largely to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), which published its first report on the subject in 2004, based on the experiences of twenty migrant women in the sector. More recent reports suggest the widespread nature of the abuse. Last year, the MRCI said that domestic workers formed the majority of those whom it was helping to get out of forced labour situations – and that this sector involved “some of the most extreme forms of exploitation” it has witnessed. But actual statistics are hard to come by. This is in part because the Rights Commissioner indexes complaints by legislative violation rather than industry, and in part because there are no relevant crime statistics at all. Forced labour, in itself, is not an offence in this state.

The difficulty is compounded by the deeply hidden nature of this form of exploitation (another parallel with the sex industry). By definition, it takes place inside the home – and therefore out of the reach of labour inspectors. The Irish government has refused to extend the remit of the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) to allow routine inspections, citing Article 40.5 of the Constitution, which renders private homes “inviolable”. As a result, NERA can only enter with the homeowner’s permission or with a warrant. Many domestic workers are also non-EEA citizens and therefore subject to the work permit system, under which they must work for the same employer for a minimum of one year, and thereafter can change employer only if a new permit is obtained. (The official Department of Enterprise policy is to waive these requirements in cases of abuse. But the MRCI’s evidence strongly indicates that, in practice, they often amount to an insurmountable barrier to changing employers – and it is beyond doubt that exploitative employers know this and use it as an instrument of control.)

The situation is even worse for domestic workers employed by foreign diplomats, who are not subject to a host country’s labour laws. This was highlighted in a recent case involving a Ukrainian woman, Valentyna Khristonsen, who worked in the home of the then-South African Ambassador. When Ms Khristonsen brought a complaint against her employer for pay and working-time violations, the embassy invoked diplomatic immunity, leaving the Labour Relations Commission powerless to intervene. The response of the Minister for Labour Affairs, Dara Calleary, was to shrug his shoulders and appeal to foreign diplomats’ moral responsibility to treat their employees fairly. The response of many diplomats, no doubt, was to breathe a sigh of relief at this confirmation of their right to exploit.

The case received little coverage, however, and this points up one of the most significant differences between domestic slavery and sex slavery: the amount of public interest in them. Occasionally, when a particularly notable case emerges (such as the video that went around earlier this year in which a Filipina worker secretly recorded her employers’ threats), the media will duly respond with a colour feature or a Prime Time guest spot. But they seem to need no such prompts for pieces on the horrors of forced prostitution, which have appeared with increased regularity lately. One would almost suspect they were being prepared in advance and used as filler when there is nothing else to cover – or when revenues need boosting.

That criticism may seem inappropriate given the very serious nature of sex trafficking. Clearly, it is a subject that merits attention. But it can hardly be denied that the sex industry offers an almost unrivalled opportunity for the media to do two of its favourite things simultaneously – demonstrate its social responsibility and titillate its audience. The narrator of the piece can solemnly recite, in lurid detail, all the outrageous acts these innocent young women are compelled to perform with countless, nameless eager men (subtext to the male audience: it could be you!), invariably illustrated with archived clips of silhouetted, scantily-clad women. But forced domestic labour? That just isn’t as sexy.

And it isn’t only the media that seem particularly drawn to the salacious aspects of sex trafficking. I once attended a briefing on the subject given by an ad hoc committee made up of nuns. One of them began proceedings by asking us to “imagine that you had to do these things:” – and cue another list of outrageous acts, to which the audience reacted with suitable consternation. And rapt attention.

The sex in sex trafficking gives it something else that domestic slavery lacks – a ready-made adversary. Multiple adversaries, in fact, on both the left and the right. Many of the leading campaigners against sex trafficking make no secret of the fact that it is just part of a broader aim of theirs to eliminate the entire sex industry. For those on the left, at least, this is partially due to a genuine belief that prostitution is inherently coercive, but when pressed they invariably admit they’d consider it wrong even if it was freely chosen. For those on the right, of course, no pressing is needed to get the moral condemnation. The phenomenon of sex trafficking may give both sides’ crusade a more urgent dimension, but it also gives them something to sell to those who may not have been persuaded by their previous arguments. What we are seeing is really an anti-prostitution campaign, dressed up in anti-trafficking garb in order to widen its appeal.

Here, there is no parallel with domestic labour – no crusaders against the industry itself to adopt its victims as their poster children. The traditionalist right might be logically expected to take that position due to their commitment to keeping women in the home (after all, why would you need to hire a maid when Mammy’s there to do everything?), but so far this has not extended to them calling for an end to the practice of outsourcing the role. And despite the inherently class-based and gendered nature of domestic work, and the ease with which it lends itself to exploitation, it is rarely attacked from the left as an industry per se in the way that prostitution is. (It’s true that Marxist feminists have argued for the socialisation of housework and childcare, but there is little sign of life in that campaign.) Without the kind of righteous opposition that fuels the anti-sex trafficking movement, it is perhaps too easy to see domestic worker abuse as a series of exceptional, individual cases rather than as being endemic to an industry which, after all, is also defined by the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy.

Some may argue, not unreasonably, that sex slavery is inherently worse than domestic slavery, due to the more intimate violation of bodily integrity it involves. But a hierarchy of crimes creates a hierarchy of victims, and it is hard not to feel that abused domestic workers have been overlooked in the crusade against human trafficking. Sometimes, in fact, they’re excluded entirely: one of the leading international anti-trafficking NGOs, which calls itself the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), turns out to have nothing to say about trafficking for domestic labour – or indeed any type of labour that isn’t sexual in nature. Until recently, domestic labour victims were also unable to avail of the assistance of London’s famous Poppy Project, and here in Ireland most of the anti-trafficking campaigners (aside from the MRCI) are focused exclusively on sex trafficking.

Obviously we all have to choose our battles, and if the one that these NGOs have chosen gets more attention than others, that isn’t their fault. But the detachment of sex trafficking from other forms of slavery becomes extremely problematic when none of the solutions on offer are relevant to the other forms. This is the case with the policy proposals advocated by CATW, all of which relate solely to prostitution. Irish campaigners, too, have latched onto the Swedish model of criminalising clients as the main plank of anti-trafficking strategy. Their argument is that prostitution feeds on demand, and if demand is penalised out of existence, there will no longer be any incentive to offer women’s sexual services for sale. But this is overly simplistic. Human trafficking of any sort feeds on gross structural inequalities, fortress-like immigration policies which limit the options for safe and legal migration, and the huge profits to be made through organised crime. There can be no real solution to any form of trafficking that does not address these fundamental issues.

The problem, of course, is that these are precisely the issues that policy-makers are most reluctant to address. Resolving structural inequalities is not in the interest of the ruling classes. Borders – and employment restrictions for those migrants that get through them – are being tightened rather than relaxed. And many state actors themselves are strongly implicated, individually or institutionally, in organised crime. Far better in their view to collude in the singular focus on sex slavery, crack down on prostitution, and then announce their “success” in combating trafficking on the basis of a reduction in the sex trade (or at least the visible signs of it). And if the traffickers respond by diverting their efforts to other industries such as the domestic sector – as some reports suggest is happening in Sweden – at least the policy-makers are safe in the knowledge that little attention is paid to those victims anyway.

Some may feel that the urgent need to reduce sex trafficking justifies a limited increase in trafficking into domestic and other industries. But a position that tolerates slavery as long as it stays out of certain sectors is not an acceptable one for leftists to hold. Nor should it be assumed that all victims would share it: it is not unheard of for women fleeing abusive domestic employment to end up in sex work – and consider themselves better off. This is a reality that the feminist anti-prostitution movement in particular has failed to come to terms with, and a consequence is that they (and the policy-makers they influence) too often neglect the issue of how the sex trade benefits from poor working conditions in the other woman-dominated sectors.

There are obviously unique aspects to sex trafficking, as there are to any other type of forced labour, and no one would argue that different approaches shouldn’t be taken where appropriate. But domestic slavery and sex slavery have more in common than not, and until this is acknowledged by policy-makers and those who influence them – and reflected in the actions they take – little progress can be made in ending either.

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Wendy Lyon regularly blogs at Feminist Ire http://feministire.wordpress.com/

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3 Responses

  1. Pope Epopt

    September 23, 2010 6:15 pm

    I wonder how many of the politico / business / meeja reptiles calling for further austerity have one of these to clean their toilet?

  2. WorldbyStorm

    September 23, 2010 7:41 pm

    Or their offices.

    Very interesting article. It’s interesting how some of the higher profile human rights NGO’s are beginning to reposition themselves to engage with economic and social rights. Reading the above I can’t help – without in any way diminishing the issue of trafficking – but feel that it’s long overdue.

  3. Stephanie

    September 23, 2010 7:42 pm

    This is a great article and one that should give those who campaign solely against sex-trafficking some food for thought. It always amazes me that you rarely (if ever) hear of anybody calling for criminalisation of forced labour. But then again the phrase “sex slave” grabs more attention and headlines doesn’t it.

    Obviously sex trafficking needs to be dealt with, but the fact that there is an assumption that *every* migrant sex worker has been trafficked does little to help the women who have been trafficked in to forced domestic labour and then gone in to sex work, and does nothing to address the needs of migrant women who made a choice to come to Ireland to do sex-work, and may want to exit that industry. There are also women who don’t want to exit the sex industry and certain agencies presuming they need to be “helped” is patronising and infantalising.

    The fact that it is not ever acknowledged as work (when it is voluntary) is evidence that very often women are not afforded agency in their own actions. The idea that it is *always* slavery is now presented as a fait accompli setting the stage for the introduction of a Swedish model (Fine Gael are itching for this) which will only serve to make things more dangerous for *all* women in prostitution by pushing it even further underground.

    Meanwhile what happens to the women who are trafficked here to clean the toilets? When are the NGOs (Migrant Rights Centre aside) going to help them? When will someone table legislation proposing criminalising forced labour? When, for that matter, will the left talk about them?