The workers who put food on our tables face poverty, deportation, and extreme heat. These are policy choices—and they can be changed.
Photo: Elizabeth Tang/IDWF/https://flickr.com/photos/idwf/26573535775/
Domestic workers are one of the most rapidly-growing workforces in the United States, yet are still excluded from federal labor laws. However a new bill from Representative Pramila Jayapal and Senator Kamala Harris would codify their labor rights. This has only happened because domestic workers themselves have organized and struggled to win these rights for many years. As Congress considers the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, it’s worth celebrating those who have changed the way the world thinks about domestic work.
Even the introduction of this legislation would have been impossible without decades of organizing for normative change around society’s attitudes toward domestic work across the world. Myrtle Witbooi, President of the International Domestic Workers Federation and General Secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, is a pioneer we all should recognize.
Much like the history of domestic work in the United States, South Africa has an ignominious tradition of race-based domestic servitude. If you want to find the leaders who galvanized radical changes in their status, look no further than Witbooi, herself a domestic worker from the age of 17, and her fellow workers.
Witbooi played a key role in the adoption of the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, which represented a sea change in the very definition of domestic work. The convention brought domestic service fully into visibility as a regular form of employment, whose workers would be entitled to basic labor protections. The convention has been ratified by 29 countries and has helped set the stage for domestic worker protections around the world, including in Witbooi’s home country of South Africa and in several US states.
The IDWF did not rest on this victory, however, but returned to the ILO just this past month to push for yet another historic international convention addressing violence at work. The new convention creates a new international legal standard for ending workplace harassment.
Bama Athreya, an Economic Inequality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations, had the opportunity to sit down with Witbooi last month at her home in Cape Town, South Africa. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.
How did you even get started organizing domestic workers?
I started working as a domestic worker in 1966. I worked seven days a week. One day I saw an article in the newspaper that was about domestic workers and it got me irritated. So I wrote a letter to the editor challenging the reporter’s view. Next thing I know, there is a knock on the door where I worked! The newspaper reporter came to the home where I worked to meet me! I think he really didn’t believe that I could have written that letter. But after that, the reporter published a notice in the paper asking domestic workers to come to a meeting. Then he came to me and said ‘Myrtle, you will be speaking at this meeting.’ I didn’t know what to expect or why he was inviting me. He probably didn’t know himself and certainly didn’t expect what happened – over 300 workers showed up at that meeting! As I entered, I saw about 350 workers all looking at me, and I said to myself, “oh Lord, what now?” And I went up to the stage and I said, “Good evening, I am a domestic worker, just like you. I think we need to do something for ourselves, because nobody is going to do anything for us.” And they all started clapping and said “you are going to lead us.”
What were the challenges to organizing at that time, in the late 1970s?
At that time, domestic workers weren’t allowed to go anywhere in the white areas where we worked – not to shops, not in the streets. We needed an ID to identify that we were allowed to come to the white area to work. But we could go to church. We formed a committee in 1979 because we couldn’t form unions. Our church meetings became the cover for committee meetings. By 1986, the government had banned all labor organizations because they feared they were all ANC-linked, but they didn’t ban the domestic workers association. They saw us as a church organization. When they came to the church, we would hide all the materials [we received] from the ANC and just sit with our Bibles! We finally formed a real union in 1986.
You lived through historic times in South Africa and were able to successfully organize a domestic workers’ movement. How did you get from there to an international movement?
It started when I was invited to a conference organized by FNV [the Dutch trade union] in Amsterdam. I think that was 2006. Someone else thought we should form an international network of domestic workers, and they asked me to be part of the leadership. Then in 2008, I was asked to go to Geneva to the ILO [International Labour Organization]. The network met to plan for how they would work together at the ILO, and decided to form a federation. They asked me to be chairperson. First they asked if I could use a computer, to make sure they could communicate with me. I said, “yes, I know a computer” – and then I learned how to use it so I could communicate! I went to the International Labour Conference in 2009. We decided to push for a new convention to define domestic workers as workers worldwide. This was in 2010. Then I went back to Geneva in 2011. Our delegation was going to push for adoption of the convention. We took over the floor! Everyone was screaming and hugging and crying when they adopted the convention. I didn’t know what to think but you definitely realized something big has happened. I don’t know if God put the words in my mind, but when we won, I said, “If I had known 25 years ago when I sat in a back room of an employers house that today I would be here at this ILO and facing governments, businesses, I would have said to this person, there must be something wrong with you! But I am here.”
You’ve just come back from yet another victory in Geneva, the adoption of a new Convention on Violence at Work. What about that?
They called me back to Geneva in 2012 to talk about migrant workers, since a lot of domestic workers are migrant workers. Then they called us to talk about gender-based violence. We realized that the isolation and abuse of domestic workers had a big part to play in discussions of gender-based violence. So we realized we needed yet another convention, and that together, the two conventions would be a weapon in the hands of workers. When it came to talking about violence at work, domestic workers were the ones with the stories, the ones who pushed. They needed us to win this.
What advice do you have for allies in the United States?
I think that we need to say look, this is what it was in South Africa. And this is what we did. So what is stopping you from doing this? We had nothing. We had no union. We had no rights. Today we have got it. And we didn’t get it because we were nice. We chained ourselves to the gates.