The realities of domestic worker activism and the fight for truth and justice

In our latest blog post, Dr Ella Parry-Davies, an AHRC and BBC New Generation Thinker and a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, shines a light on domestic worker activism and some of the associated stereotypes.

If you survey some of the most widely read articles about domestic workers each day, stories of victimisation are high on the list. Migrant domestic workers I collaborate with through my postdoctoral research have stated that in working “behind closed doors” they are targets for exploitation and abuse at the hands of employers, who feel a sense of impunity. As Rose, based in Lebanon, put it:

“It’s better if you are in prison: they allow someone to visit you, to talk to you. But if you are behind closed doors, you have no freedom at all. So are you treating these people as human? Or as an animal that doesn’t understand what you are saying?”  

Invisibility is a profoundly dehumanising experience. As we spoke, she was keen to emphasise its consequences, with as many as two domestic worker fatalities in Lebanon every week – many falling from balconies in what have been recorded as suicides.

While it’s crucial to witness these realities and hold perpetrators accountable, the dominance of abuse and exploitation in popular narratives about domestic workers can be counterproductive, playing into some of the same stereotypes that disempower them. Domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, are often targets of sexism and infantalisation. Working primarily with women from the Philippines, I’ve found that this can be interlocked with racist views of docile or naturally “subordinate” Asian females (as one employer told me). Some employers rationalise their behaviour by imagining that they are protecting their employee within the house, rather than imprisoning her there. Even for sympathetic listeners, filtering domestic workers’ stories through an image of victimhood can bolster perceptions of them as unskilled and passive, while voices that don’t fit this mold go unheard.

Tao poster

In my experience, these stereotypes could not be further from the truth. A current campaign supported by domestic workers in the UK for the staging of TAO PO, a play about extrajudicial killings in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, is just one example of the organised and impassioned activism I’ve encountered through my research. Opening at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery on 16 October 2019, TAO PO is a one-woman play by actor-activist Mae Paner. The London staging is part of a European tour that opened in Geneva in September. The play critiques the so-called “war on drugs” waged by Duterte, which activists estimate has seen the death of up to 27,000 people, mainly those living in poverty.

With journalists, human rights defenders and activists also becoming targets, in July this year rights watchdog Global Witness named the Philippines as the deadliest country in the world for environmental activists. Even for overseas workers with family and friends in the Philippines, the stakes of activism are absolute. At times these UK-based campaigns are high-profile, with migrant workers staking a claim to public space and raised voices in the heart of major cities. But activism also takes place as an everyday practice, through care for and solidarity with other women, workers and migrants.

Activist Myra de Villa
Activist Myra de Villa in London’s Piccadilly Circus ahead of Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address in July 2019

Helen, one of the domestic workers campaigning in support of TAO PO, works for a family in London for 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday. She also takes on part-time work in the evenings and on Saturdays because she earns less than the UK minimum wage, and financially supports her family in the Philippines as well as herself. Because her visa in the UK is tied to her employers, she can’t negotiate a better wage, or change jobs without risking deportation. Last year Helen founded the London branch of Gabriela, one of the Philippines’ most prominent women’s rights organisations; she is also a founding member of the Filipino Domestic Workers Association. Sunday is a day of activism, not of rest.

Helen demonstrating in London.jpg
Helen demonstrating in London’s Piccadilly Circus ahead of Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address in July 2019

As a New Generation Thinker at the AHRC’s Parliamentary event earlier in the year, I had 60 seconds to speak about the importance of expert voices. I spoke about Helen, an expert who navigates the struggles of migration, working relationships and feminist political activism on a daily basis. In her words, “When I found activism, it changed me a lot. In one organisation if you come together and understand each other, fighting for one purpose, it’s a fulfillment. It’s a great feeling. Because you are changing for the better.”

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