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Intersectional Inequalities and Struggles for Rights

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Drawing from the EU-funded DomEQUAL research project across 9 countries in Europe, South America and Asia, this comparative study explores the conditions of domestic workers around the world and the campaigns they are conducting to improve their labour rights.

The book showcases how domestic workers’ movements put ‘intersectionality in action’ in representing the interest of various marginalized social groups from migrants and low-income groups to racialized and rural girls and women.

Casting light on issues such as subjectification, and collective organizing on the part of a category of workers conventionally regarded as unorganizable, this ambitious volume will be invaluable for scholars, policy makers and activists alike.

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The article explores the relationship between women’s rights and feminist and domestic workers’ movements by drawing on qualitative data gathered in a comparative study on domestic workers’ rights in Italy, Germany, Spain, India, the Philippines, Taiwan, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador (2016–21). Despite the frequent disconnection between the two movements at the practical level, a possible convergence may be identified in the discursive frames that domestic workers’ rights activists make use of. The analysis focuses on two feminist anti-capitalist frames recurring in mobilisations for domestic workers’ rights, addressing the valorisation of reproductive labour and the transnational commodification of care. Domestic workers’ activism tends to build on these frames beyond their mainstream forms and to expand them in intersectional ways, enlarging their capacity to include racialised, low-class, migrant and other minority groups. This becomes a creative force at the level of discourse, where different alliances may take place in a less visible way.

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Paid domestic workers are estimated to make up a population of at least 67 million across the world, the majority of whom (80 per cent) are women (ILO, 2013),1 while around 11.2 million are international migrants (ILO, 2015).2 ILO global estimates indicate that at least 11.5 million children below the legal age of employment were involved in paid domestic work in 2012 (ILO, 2017b). This labour sector is particularly important in the Global South, where it mainly provides jobs for low-status, racialized, indigenous, rural girls and women and (in the case of India) the low-caste population. From a quantitative point of view, for instance, the sector employs one in four female workers in Latin America and the Caribbean and almost one in three in the Middle East (ILO, 2013). Moreover, many countries in the Global South and in the periphery of the West are impacted by the phenomenon, as a portion of their (mostly female) population consistently leave to take up care and domestic work abroad. This is especially the case in Asia-Pacific countries, South America and Eastern Europe, which feed South-to-North, South-to-South, but also North-to-North global migration flows. At the same time, in many Global Northern countries, remunerated domestic work has always been a significant sector for the employment of female workers. In the past, this was particularly the case for internal and intraregional rural-to-urban migrants, while in the last few decades (with different timing, depending on the context) the role has been increasingly filled by international migrants responding to the welfare crisis and the care needs of affluent and ageing societies.

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Our nine countries illustrate how national contextual variations can result in a transformative process at the international level being adopted, negotiated, modified or strengthened at the local level – or alternatively, ignored or rejected. With this question in mind, we look at what happened in each country during this time as regards the preparation, promulgation, ratification and, where relevant, the implementation of C189, or what we have called the ‘C189 process’. We are thus asking how, and under which conditions, what we identify as a global right can be adopted at the level of local struggles. We look at the actions undertaken by local actors and the ‘interpretative frames’ they used to provide a narrative about their conditions and possible solutions (Benford and Snow, 2000). We also look at the alliances they established, which acquire a specific meaning in relation to the political, cultural and socioeconomic context of the country in which they take place.

We begin by elaborating on the way in which the international campaign for C189 can be seen as an example of a global agenda, combining perspectives on human rights and social movements. We provide some context to the international dimension of the C189 process, looking in particular at the preparation and promulgation phase. In the second part of the chapter we offer an analysis of the dynamics created by the C189 process in each of the nine countries under study, using a strategic action field perspective.

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Self-organized groups of domestic workers, that is, trade unions, associations and networks composed and led by women employed in this sector, were key actors in many of the countries included in our study. They have played a critical role in the politicization of domestic work and in the struggle for domestic workers’ rights in recent decades, in particular between 2008 and 2018. They work towards enhancing the rights and the social and working conditions in the sector, through everyday actions and political interventions and by interacting with other actors in the field that either support or oppose their cause. In this chapter we focus on the domestic workers’ groups that were active during the years of our study, which we encountered during our fieldwork.1

Domestic workers’ organizing can be seen as an example of a movement putting ‘intersectionality into action’. By this we mean, first of all, that this movement addresses and seeks to transform the interlocking systems of inequality that determine domestic workers’ subordinated position in society. Second, we mean that in order to bring about such a transformation it deploys a series of strategies that can be defined as intersectional politics. In so doing, this movement exercises its political agency according to a complex understanding of power relations based on the interplay of social categories such as gender, class, race and so on, according to each national context. This results in a new collective identity, which is based on – and highlights – the experience of multiple forms of marginalization experienced by domestic workers.

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The gap between feminist and domestic workers’ mobilizations still remains wide. Even the most recent wave of global feminism, which has shown a distinct capacity to involve actors that are not traditionally part of the feminist movement, such as Ni Una Menos or #MeToo,1 has seldom involved domestic workers and their cause. This chapter addresses the complicated relationship between the domestic workers’ and the feminist and women’s rights movements. As we have seen, this relationship remains troubled, not only as a theme of reflection for us as feminist researchers, but also for activists in the various countries in our study. Indeed, as we will show in the first part of this chapter, this relationship has received some attention within the emerging literature on domestic workers’ organizing, which suggests that it might be ambivalent and even conflictual, rather than supportive (Boris and Nadasen, 2008; Blofield, 2012; Bernardino-Costa, 2014; Boris and Fish, 2015; Federici, 2016; Fish, 2017; Marchetti and Cherubini, 2019; Busi, 2020).

Building upon this scholarship, in the second part of the chapter we try to make sense of the different positions that feminist and women’s rights organizations took in the strategic field of action of domestic workers’ rights across our nine countries in the years 2008–18. Feminist and women’s rights organizations have often remained marginal in this field; domestic worker activists have generally perceived them as distant, although not in opposition to their cause.

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Domestic workers globally, and in particular in the nine countries considered in this book, still experience high levels of exploitation, discrimination and exclusion from labour rights and legal protections, as compared to other workers. They also suffer forms of social stigmatization due to widespread representations of domestic work as a demeaning and ‘dirty’ activity, while their work fails to be recognized as such in society at large for its association with women’s allegedly naturally caring and altruistic disposition. Moreover, domestic work is largely performed by people, mostly women, who belong to the most vulnerable social groups in each context, such as internal and international migrants, ethnic-minority and racialized women and low-caste and poorly educated women.

However, domestic work has become an object of governance, conflict and negotiation involving several actors. Despite being traditionally seen as ‘unorganizable’, domestic workers have been increasingly engaged in collective organizing via unions and other mutual aid groups. This self-organization has succeeded in heightening their visibility and garnering the attention of NGOs and other movements. This transformation accelerated in the years 2008–18, the period corresponding to what we have called the ‘C189 process’.

The struggles for domestic workers’ rights during this period can be interrogated with regard to how transformations of intersectional inequalities occur in a global context. By exploring these questions the present book has identified central themes that emerge not only in relation to domestic workers but also potentially for other multiply marginalized groups worldwide.

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Domestic workers tend to universally epitomize the figure of the low-skilled, low-valued, precarious, hidden and unorganized labourer. Overwhelmingly women, migrant and working class, they are also commonly low-caste, Black and indigenous. Belonging to society’s most marginalized groups, they are largely excluded from labour protection laws and are significantly impacted by the social shifts brought about by globalization. The growth in urbanization and migration; the reconfiguration of class structures, gender norms, life-styles and families; and the structural adjustment in the Global South, coupled with the crisis of welfare and care provision in the Global North, have all shaped the sector in different and at times complex ways.

Concomitantly, since the beginning of the 21st century the situation facing paid domestic workers has increasingly garnered attention and action has been taken to improve the rights of those working in the sector. Among those making this change happen are international organizations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Commission on the Status of Women, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions and grassroots domestic workers’ organizations active at national, regional and transnational levels.

As the workers themselves progressively mobilize and become more visible, paid domestic work grows in prominence as an issue of global governance, and this has led to an accompanying improvement in labour laws and policies affecting the sector. These increasingly visible mobilizations appear to challenge the boundaries between labour movements, feminist struggles and so-called identity-based activism. They may offer a space of convergence between several issues of social justice that have traditionally been seen as distinct, such as struggles for the rights of workers, women, carers, racialized minorities and migrants.

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