We need the law on our side
2016-02-15 14:34:06 -
Human Rights
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Mariaam Bhatti: Tales of a Domestic Worker

 

Many domestic workers’ experiences, both in the past and today, are proof enough that while countries can have laws to protect them, that is useless to those who don’t understand them, or if their implementation is non-existent. 

That came to mind while reading an article about a couple in the US state of Texas who are accused of not paying their domestic worker, who cared for their home and five children for two years. What’s more, the couple are being charged with forced labour, withholding documents, visa fraud and conspiracy to harbour an illegal immigrant. I find the latter charge quite interesting, but I’ll let it be a topic for another day.

Another part of the article I found interesting was the quote from a spokesperson on domestic workers’ right who noted that the issue was a “national problem” and that the state of Massachusetts has “as many domestic workers as Boston has finance professionals”. 

That made me consider: who says domestic workers are not professionals? What is a profession? Who decides what a profession is? What constitutes a profession? 

This reminded me of a friend who is such a powerful young woman in our group, the Domestic Workers Action Group (DWAG). I once asked her what she thought of professionalisation of domestic work, and if she thought doing that could ease the problem of low pay and lack of respect of labour laws by some employers. She went on to lecture me, in a nice way, that employers don’t simply pick us up from the streets – they want to assure themselves that we are professionals, yet they still expect to pay very little, to give no contracts and therefore make work in the sector lacking in security. And she was right. I always tell her she is my mentor although she’s 10 years younger than me.

But back to the issue of the exploited domestic worker from Texas. I always find it interesting to note from in my experience in Ireland that, even in situations with a couple heading the house, it’s usually one person who is the employer. In the case of the woman in Texas and a few others I have read about in the UK mainly, there have been a good number of couples either arrested or tried and convicted for exploiting their domestic workers, but I know many people in Ireland who worked for couples, yet their case would usually be against only one of the couple.

What of the other half of the couple? Surely they would know what was going on in any case of exploitation, should it be proven under the law. What are the consequences for them for doing nothing to stop it? For lying for their partner in court to save their skin, or their ‘family name’, which my former employer claimed I was trying to ‘tarnish’? Aren’t such people accessories to the crime?

I understand that there haven’t been any forced labour convictions in cases of domestic workers that the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) has submitted since 2008. Why? Are all these people’s experiences and owed wages invalid? Is there not enough evidence in any of them? Is there a problem with our systems of prosecution or evidence collection? Would I blame those who have experienced this for despairing and feeling let down by authorities? And worse, would I expect people to stop exploiting others when there is no legal consequence for doing so?

 

Mariaam Bhatti is a member of the Domestic Workers Action Group and Force Labour Action Group of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland

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