Invisible women? Migrant workers need feminist solidarity

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Domestic workers are one of the world's most invisible work forces. Their labour is performed beyond the reach of regulators, in private households, including those with significant power and influence— diplomatic and consular officials. Recent research by The Salvation Army found that domestic servitude is occurring in Australia at higher rates than official figures suggest and disproportionately affects women. In today’s post, Heather Moore (@alittlewave) of Monash University (@TSResearchGroup @MigrationMonash) shares findings of her research: Service or Servitude? A Study of Trafficking for Domestic Servitude in Australia. Her findings indicate there is a largely unrecognised feminised workforce that many Australians utilise. Too often migrant domestic workers do not enjoy equal access to protection under the law as other Australian workers do, and are are largely excluded from the mainstream policy discourse on women and rights at work.


The “invisible women” in domestic work

The Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (2011), No. 189 (Domestic Workers Convention) defines domestic work as any work performed in or for a household or households. Domestic workers perform a wide range of tasks, including cleaning, cooking, laundry, caring for family members and/or pets, guarding the house, and chauffeuring.  In my own experience I have also known workers to clean the swimming pool, maintain the garden and perform duties in the homes of friends, family members and professional colleagues. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are more than 67 million domestic workers in the world today, of which 11.5 million are international migrants. The overwhelming majority of these—approximately 75% (8.5 million)—are women.  

So, it will not be a surprise to many readers that domestic workers are amongst the lowest paid workers in the world, with some estimates indicating they earn less than half, and in some instances, only 20% of average wages. Indeed, the high representation of women in the occupation and its chronic undervaluation cannot be separated. The feminisation of domestic work has been directly attributed to traditional attitudes about the role of women and “stereotypical assumptions about their preferences and capabilities.” It is also because women have done and continue to do the bulk of unpaid caring and cleaning in the home, which the labour market has not adjusted for, thus limiting access to higher paying jobs traditionally done by men.

Who, exactly, is doing ‘the work that makes all the other work possible’? Women need to ensure their decisions don’t lead to oppression of other women.  Photo credit: Pexels.

Who, exactly, is doing ‘the work that makes all the other work possible’? Women need to ensure their decisions don’t lead to oppression of other women. Photo credit: Pexels.

The high rate of female migration for domestic work is largely driven by increasing global demand for care work, particularly in higher income countries, and in the Global South the “lack of decent work opportunities and increased inequalities at home.”  This combination of push and pull factors drive many women to leave their children and/or parents to be cared for by others (who are also usually women) to migrate for work. Whilst migration is a positive experience for many women, evidence shows migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to human and labour rights abuses, because of isolation, reliance on the employer for work rights, and lack of knowledge about the law and local customs, particularly when workers don’t have legal status. Their vulnerability is further compounded when they are working informally or where domestic work is excluded from labour and social security legislation—which is the case in many parts of the world.

Because of the nature and lack of regulation of domestic work, it is a hidden occupation that largely exists outside the formal labour market. These conditions are ripe for exploitation, including domestic servitude and forced labour, because they situate the worker in a position of almost utter powerlessness. And without power, they continue to remain invisible.


Getting people to care about a problem they can’t see

The difficulties faced by migrant domestic workers have occupied my mind ever since I managed a refuge for survivors of human trafficking in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. There, we provided housing and support for a number of women who travelled to the United States to change their lives for the better, only to be subjected to unimaginable abuse and humiliation in domestic servitude. I can only describe it as the erosion of a person’s self.

In taking up this work again after my own migration to Australia, this time in a policy role, I encountered the same stories from women receiving assistance from The Salvation Army’s Trafficking and Slavery Safe House (Safe House). Like migrant domestic workers around the world, they too were invisible and faced significant barriers to accessing safety and justice. In many instances, workers managed to escape and access the service only through a ‘precarious culmination of circumstances’.

In response to these cases, The Salvation Army has worked for the last ten years trying to get the government to take stronger action on trafficking for domestic servitude, including ratifying the Domestic Workers Convention and reducing the vulnerability of workers employed by diplomats. Our recommendations have been moderate: raise awareness, strengthen pathways out of exploitation, and lift protections for all domestic workers. Whilst the government has taken some modest steps to reduce problems in the diplomatic space, they do not address systemic gaps that sustain vulnerability to abuse and limit access to justice.

Over time, we came to the decision that we were never going to succeed in getting change without building urgency around the problem, and we would not build urgency without more evidence.  So, with support from the Mercy Foundation, I undertook desk research to compile existing information from a range of sources and to collect new data from The Salvation Army Safe House that has never been recorded in official statistics. This research was released in June in the report Service or Servitude? A Study of Trafficking for Domestic Servitude in Australia.

The first area explored in the research is known data. Official figures suggest the incidence of domestic servitude in Australia is quite low; however, the research found that many instances go undetected or unacknowledged by authorities. It also found that Australia suffers from a data crisis in terms of domestic work, more broadly due partly to the lack of an occupational classification that is consistent with the international definition under the Domestic Workers Convention. In fact, the ILO had to expunge Australian data from the Global Estimates on Migrant Workers because it was found to be “implausibly low.”

In addition to compiling a series of case studies from media reports and other sources, this research identified 35 Salvation Army records of domestic servitude. Whilst not a statistically representative sample, the cases are consistent with situations described in known Australian and international data (discussed in Part I of the report). Most were women with limited education who migrated for economic reasons. The majority were recruited through deception, where promises of work, opportunity and/or legitimate marriage were used to lure them into exploitation. On arrival, all workers experienced exploitation and various forms of controlled or restricted movement at their destination.

The nature of exploitation most commonly involved excessive work, low or no salary, and no respect of the employment contract, when one existed. Control was primarily through social isolation, violence or threats of violence, withholding of passports, and abuse of workers’ lack of familiarity with their surroundings and their financial reliance on the employer/abuser. Whilst terms like ‘modern slavery’ conjure images of extreme forms of physical oppression, subtler forms of control, such as psychological coercion and abuse of workers’ personal vulnerabilities can be more effective and easier to hide.

Finally, confirming the limitations of relying on police or government referral mechanisms, the research found that most workers did not seek assistance from formal channels. Rather, they first escaped independently, at enormous personal risk, and later sought help from neighbours and acquaintances, church groups, and, where possible, family. In several situations involving diplomats, workers were advised to return to their employer or were told there was nothing that could be done. Few workers successfully accessed any remedy, even where they were supported and successful in making a civil claim.

The research confirmed what we knew anecdotally. Contrary to popular belief, Australians are using domestic work, including live-in domestic work performed by migrants, though we do not yet know to what extent. We know that many situations rise to criminal levels of exploitation but are not identified by authorities. We also know that, as in so many other parts of the world, migrant women in domestic work must rely almost entirely on themselves to leave exploitative working and living conditions and rarely recover the wages and other entitlements they are owed. 

This research reaffirmed the need for Australia to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention and use that process as a framework to address the gaps between protection on paper and protection in reality. It affirmed the need to improve how we understand, define and measure domestic work—through labour force surveys and other data collection methods—and to demand a stronger, more evidence-based response under the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking and Slavery.

The research answered many questions; but it also raised new ones.

Women Must Secure Other Women

I recently attended the Global Migration Network Conference, where I heard Dr. Liberty Chee present a paper titled: “Supermaids: Hyper-resilient Subjects in Private Spaces”. The first words I heard her say were: “the domestic worker must secure herself.” Dr. Chee proceeded to describe how migrant domestic workers become products of a migration industry “crucial to the functioning of a global labour market that is governed ‘without government.’” In this labour market, where “control over complex systems is now thought to be impossible”, Chee describes how the ‘ideal worker’ is produced through ‘resilience training’ in various stages of migration. ‘Resilience training’ (yes, this is a real thing) consists of developing a “‘strong mind’, professionalism and self-esteem, all of which demonstrate how managing the insecurities of migrant domestic work means working on the ‘self’ rather than addressing gaps in legal or regulatory mechanisms.”

In all the years I have worked to support and promote the rights of individuals who have experienced domestic servitude in destination countries, I admit I had never considered their reality in this way until now. Hearing this presentation, I was able to name something I knew instinctively, but for which I could never quite find the words. The domestic worker must secure herself, because those who would protect them, or offer some security, have decided it is either too hard, too inconvenient, or someone else’s responsibility.

This reality should not come as a surprise, for it is reflected in the status of women who have been ‘securing themselves’ since the dawn of time. After Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered in a Melbourne park, Clementine Ford rightly called out the follow-up narrative that such things might be prevented if women “exercise caution” and have “situational awareness.” Speaking to how women are systemically socialised to doubt our own instincts and sense of personal risk, she observed: “advice like this shows just how excluded the realities of women continue to be for many of those working in law enforcement. It’s nice to think we could call triple-0 if we have ‘any concerns at any time’, but that would involve unlearning everything we’ve been taught about our apparent tendencies to ‘overreact’ to situations that put us on edge.” We are all the products, more or less, of ‘resilience training’ when it comes to our own safety and autonomy.

And so, the woman must secure herself.

As I reflect on this in the context of my research, a new question has started to burn in my brain. The majority of migrant domestic workers are women, many of whom migrate to escape poverty, which we know disproportionately affects women. We also know that migrant women in domestic work are among the world’s most marginalised and exploited labour forces. Knowing this, why don’t more women stand up for women domestic workers?

The analysis of public reports of exploitation and forced labour of domestic workers raises both doubts about the extent to which they are truly invisible and questions about the potential motives of those who would entrench or at least tolerate their invisibility. Though not explored in the report, my research reveals that many of the perpetrators and beneficiaries of exploited domestic work done by women are women themselves. This is supported by a strain of critical feminist literature  (largely out of the United States) that has identified the failure of the global feminist movement to stand up for what advocates call “the work that makes all other work possible.” This literature broadly asserts that white women have entered the workforce by shifting "their" domestic responsibilities (as defined under heteropatriarchy) onto other women rather than “linking their experiences and fate” to those women. 

An alternative explanation may be that the nefarious elements of human trafficking are more comfortably confronted when we “other” the perpetrator. Broadly speaking, it is perhaps easier to frame human trafficking as an organised crime problem, as intra-cultural exploitation (something done by migrants to other migrants), or as something caused by the deliberate action of some other, unsavoury actor, rather than as the result of our own inaction.

Migrant women domestic workers are working in Australia in unknown numbers. As a country, we do not recognise their work; we do not count their numbers; we do not reach out to educate them or the public about their rights and about their employers’ obligations; we do not seek to find them. Many are being held in conditions akin to slavery, but experience unparalleled barriers to accessing Australia’s trafficking victims protection framework. Others are being subjected to wage theft and workplace harassment, yet are not captured in the broad public discourse on the subject. As women fight to shatter the glass ceiling, close the gender pay gap, and achieve greater equality, we must ensure that we fight for all women in the labour market. If women don’t secure other women, no one will.

 For free and confidential advice related to undocumented workers and exploitative employment, contact The Salvation Army Trafficking and Slavery Safe house at 1300 473 560.

 This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.