- Domestic Workers of the World Unite! A Global Movement for Dignity and Human Rights by Jennifer N. Fish
Jennifer N. Fish
New York: New York University Press, 2017
xiii + 291 pp., $89.00 (cloth); $30.00 (paper)
To scholars who are familiar with arguments about the limitations of global governance, cynicism about the United Nations' International Labor Organization's (ILO) ability to have a tangible effect on the day-to-day lives of domestic workers is understandable. The ILO functions as a tripartite organization that brings representatives of workers, employers, and governments to the bargaining table to pass labor standards. Convention 189, which passed in 2011, represents the first international bill of rights for domestic workers, but UN member states vary widely in both their power and their willingness to uphold the ILO's measures. To take the United States as just one example, the 1935 National Labor Relations Act stipulates that workers involved in domestic service are not to be treated as employees and granted the right to engage in collective bargaining. As a result, the United States must amend the 1935 Act—a depressingly unlikely prospect in 2018—or remain in conflict with what the ILO has decreed to be a universal right of domestic workers around the world. In sociologist and activist Jennifer N. Fish's book, Domestic Workers of the World Unite!, what the ILO accomplished does not get excessively valorized. Rather than dwell on whether Convention 189 will ever successfully overcome the many obstacles to its implementation, Fish instead challenges readers to consider what domestic workers had to conquer to have their voices heard in the chambers of the ILO in the first place.
Although the "export" of migrant domestic workers as wage earners crucially sustains nation-states through remittances, and though cooking, cleaning, and caring are ubiquitous jobs that form a part of every national economy, domestic workers remain overlooked as laborers deserving protection. The occupation has always been burdened with unique barriers to organizing. Domestic work straddles paid and unpaid labor, since it is often performed by women and children working for their own families, which means it can be difficult to define who constitutes a worker. Domestic work takes place in the intimate confines of homes, removed from the public eye. It often proceeds with no set boundaries as to when the work clock begins and ends. Laborers are especially vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation for these same reasons. Migrants, whether moving across international borders or from rural to urban areas, provide a disproportionate number of domestic workers. Immigrant domestic workers involve multiple regulatory regimes. If all of this is not difficult enough for labor organizers to navigate, there is the added fact that male-dominated national trade unions—the groups that the ILO recognizes as speaking on behalf of workers—have often viewed paid domestic work as a gendered and stigmatized occupation that deprives working-class men of marital or familial sources of labor.
Fish's narrative accounts of how individual organizers became activists are gripping while also demonstrating how demands for basic human rights fueled the larger movement and eventually brought domestic work to the attention of the ILO. "Sunita," [End Page 176] an Indian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia whose story Fish tells, had her passport seized by her employers upon her arrival. She was able to exchange phone numbers with fellow household laborers through a clandestine encounter that occurred in a public restroom that wealthy Saudi women shunned, which provided an entry point into a network that shared information with her on how to report abuse and return home. The International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), which was launched in 2009, assembled from a constellation of unions and advocacy groups each working in their own countries and representing the myriad Sunitas of the world. The IDWN relied heavily on professional organizers, many whom had previously labored as paid domestic workers. Following the passage of Convention 189, the IDWN would reincorporate as the first international labor federation run by women.
The other major contribution that Fish's book makes is to...