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From Saudi Arabia to the United States, the Human Rights of Domestic Workers Must Be Recognized

11:09 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

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Domestic Workers

Written by Marianne Møllman for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Wednesday morning this week, news broke that Saudi Arabia‘s authorities had gone ahead with the public beheading of Rizana Nafeek, a young woman accused of killing a baby in her care in 2005 when she was 17 years old. Nafeek insisted the baby had died in a choking accident.

The case had long been the concern of the international community, not only because the death penalty is inherently cruel and inhumane and should be abolished, but also because there are reasons to believe Nafeek had been forced into making a confession — which she later retracted — and that the trial against her was anything but fair. In addition, the young woman was a Sri Lankan migrant domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, had limited access to legal counsel, and is likely to have understood little of the legal proceedings, making the situation even more inhumane.

Rizana Nafeek, was among the approximately 1.5 million women, predominantly from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Philippines, working in private homes in Saudi Arabia. While some are treated well, domestic workers in Saudi Arabia enjoy fewer legal protections than any other type of workers, and human rights groups have documented horrific abuses against them, including physical brutality and deprivation of food, rest, and water.

But ill-treatment of domestic workers happens closer to home too. In the New York metro area there are an estimated 200,000 domestic workers, 99 percent of whom are immigrants. The abuse suffered by these workers was highlighted in a documentary in 2010, which also brought to light the lack of legal protection. Later that year, New York State became the first jurisdiction in the United States to pass a law to protect the rights of domestic workers.

In fact, most everywhere, domestic workers are subject to lesser legal protection than others, sometimes justified by reference to the difficulty in carrying out workplace inspections in private homes or the trite notion that domestic workers are treated as “part of the family.”  In mid 2011, the International Labour Organization adopted the first international treaty on the rights of domestic workers, providing hope for scores of women who are, even now, working without legal protection.

This is not a niche issue either. Across the world, an estimated 53 to 100 million persons — most of them women and girls — currently work as domestic workers. Some travel from rural areas to the city, others cross borders with or without permission. Their main motivation is to improve the situation for themselves and their families.

And it is perhaps this, the most human of conditions, that is lost in the back-and-forth over how and why some people “deserve” rights and other don’t: the search for survival and dignity through work.

This week’s execution in Saudi Arabia and the successful fight for legal protections for domestic workers in New York State highlight the central concept of humanity in the struggle for human rights.  Abuse is possible where domestic workers remain “other” — a foreigner, poor, a woman — and alone — isolated from their community and trapped in the workplace that doubles as “home.”  Change happens when we start seeing each other as humans, deserving of dignity and respect.
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Second Presidential Debate Still Too Glossy on Women’s Economic Issues

6:53 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Sheila Bapat for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

A photo of a woman as she walks away.

(Photo: d. FUKA / Flickr).

Aside from the hysterical “binders full of women” remark that is currently blowing up Twitter and inspiring social media memes, gender and economic issues were finally woven into last night’s Presidential debate. The discussion in particular about pay equity offered an opportunity for both candidates to outline their positions on issues of deep consequence for all women and their families. But given the range of issues covered, from Libya to energy independence to the deficit, the debate offered at best a cursory discussion about pay equity and gender parity generally.

For example, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act continues to take center stage in terms of pay equity, yet there was no mention of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act would advance the cause of pay equity for women in the United States by providing employees with information about salaries and requiring employers to justify wage discrepancies (whereas the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act actually just restored rights that the Supreme Court had stripped years earlier in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.). Ben Adler of The Nation raised to me on Twitter the fact that President Obama had an opportunity to ask Governor Romney point blank whether he would sign the Paycheck Fairness Act were it to pass in the future (it was recently voted down in Congress). No mention of the Paycheck Fairness Act was ever made.

In addition, there was no mention of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) a bill that was recently introduced in the Senate. PWFA would provide protections to pregnant women in labor intensive positions who are still at a higher risk of being fired when their doctor instructs them not to perform their regularly assigned duties.

Finally, both candidates talk about the importance of bringing “high-wage high-skill” jobs back to the United States, such as high-level manufacturing positions. Remarks like this are aspirational, but can further marginalize the work of nannies, caregivers, and other domestic workers who remain instrumental to the U.S. economy. The domestic workers’ movement has begun to educate the public about why caregiving sectors deserve value, dignity, and protections they have historically not received, but the remarks of both candidates demonstrate that domestic labor — which primarily immigrant women engage in — is still largely left out of discourse about jobs and the economy.

Beyond the specific policy the candidates discussed, the tone and remarks of each candidate with respect to gender reflects their values and the values of their respective parties. On the question about gun control, Governor Romney pivoted and discussed the importance of marriage — a mysterious topic shift, but one that aligned with recent studies about the intersection of marriage and poverty. On the question of pay equity, Romney mentioned his chief of staff needing to be home and cook dinner for her family and read to her children — an anecdote that may resonate with social conservatives. By contrast, President Obama connected gun control issues to education, the economy and specifically, the importance of generating jobs and productive options for young adults who may otherwise find themselves in poverty and/or turn to violence.

No debate is ever focused exclusively on women and families’ economic security, and last night may be as much as we can get from Presidential candidates during this campaign season. Come November 7, there are deeper questions to be tackled by both the President and Congress, beyond the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and with a greater attention to issues of poverty that disproportionately affect women.