Domestic workers are often described as “modern-day slaves” because of their working conditions which bear many of the hallmarks of forced labour and also because of their intersecting disadvantages of race, gender and poverty. But listening to the stories of migrants working as domestic workers reveals that the choices they have made, to work as domestic workers are precisely to escape degrading situations and contexts. The realities of the lives of many poor rural women are more dirty, dangerous and demeaning than domestic work, which offers women the chance to earn and be independent.
After two years of planning with her husband how the household would be managed without her, 34-year-old Arini (name changed) has finally managed make the trip from her remote village in West Java all the way to Singapore to work as a domestic worker or maid. There are many like her from Indonesia working as domestic workers in other countries including Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia. The numbers are vast, nearly five million by one estimate, and they seem to be growing. Like many others, Arini migrated through an agent who found her a job and paid the costs of her migration up front, costs that she must repay by working without any salary for the first eight months of her assignment.
Across the globe in Ethiopia, the story is somewhat different for Abeba (name changed) who ran away from her village in the drought-prone Amhara region at the age of 15. First she went to the nearest town, worked there as a cleaner until she had saved enough to try her luck in Addis Ababa. Her plan was to save money to migrate to Djibouti or the Middle East where thousands of women and girls have migrated to work as maids. Abeba first got a job in Addis Ababa working for a distant relative but left after they refused to pay her. She found another job through an agent, in a house where she was groped and harassed until she left. In the city she had to live by her wits, continually searching for a place to live and a job that was safe and fair, where she could work and save. The work was hard and payment was poor; sometimes she did not even get paid. She eventually saved enough to pay an agent to migrate to Djibouti.
Both Arini and Abeba are working as domestic workers. ILO research shows that the 53 million domestic workers worldwide are predominantly female and from poor and socially excluded communities. The working conditions are tough – limits on personal freedom, long working hours and being unable to leave because of debt-bondage. The ILO identifies domestic work as one of the sectors that is most likely to involve forced labour and slavery. The public discourse on slavery and domestic work imagine domestic workers with almost no agency; their minds are controlled and their bodies are enslaved and the conclusion seems to be that they must be rescued from this awful fate.
But a look at the process from the perspective of migrant girls and women tells another story altogether. Arini wanted to migrate so that her family could enjoy the material comforts that her migrant neighbours have. She wanted her daughter to attend the best school and to make sure that her family did not want for anything. This was a choice she and her husband made together to raise their standard of living. Like many others, she comes from a subsistence farming household where incomes are not enough to provide for the family all year round and where material and educational aspirations have been fuelled and enabled by a history of migration. They hope that migration will enable them to escape the endless hard work and poverty associated with subsistence agriculture.
Abeba’s decision to leave the village, a place and a cultural context that she perceived as dead-end and degrading, was clearly a voluntary act; an example of agency in the face of limited choices. She ran away from home because her family wanted her to marry at 15. Having been forced to leave school at 12 to work on the family’s failing farm, and with a marriage to a local man arranged for her, she could see how her future would be, and she didn’t like what she saw. To her, life in the city meant freedom, offering her choices of how she lived, dressed, ate and where she worked, despite its many risks. Living in this way was preferable to having her destiny sealed by her parents.
The risks are clearly numerous for such migrants, but for many poor people, migration offers the opportunity to earn more that they would at home and the ability to invest in businesses, land, material security and education. For many women migration also offers them a rare opportunity to earn money of their own, achieve independence and take control over their lives. This is often overlooked in the international debate on migrant domestic workers. The importance of jobs such as domestic work to the social mobility, development and freedom of poor women is hidden under the preoccupation with ideal (and important) employment conditions.
Migration and employment in sectors such as domestic work are sometimes labelled as slavery and forced labour. However, they remain among the most important pathways of social mobility for many poor women and can be considerably less degrading than other alternatives.
Priya Deshingkar is the Research Director of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.