What about the maid?

African women work as domestics over the world. How have they responded to or organized to improve their conditions?


Monday was World Population Day. At some point in October, the world population will hit seven billion. How is one to focus on seven billion people? Some say, focus on “trafficking”. In particular, focus on African women trafficked to other countries.

For example, Makeda. Makeda is Ethiopian. She works as a domestic worker “somewhere in the Middle East.” She has a hard life, a life largely defined by workplace abuse and exploitation, and by abuse and exploitation by “traffickers.”

The issue of “trafficking”, of coerced and abusive transport of workers, is critical and contentious. At the same time the trafficking framework too often displaces all other narratives.

So, let’s return to Makeda, but with a difference.

Makeda is an Ethiopian woman. She works as a domestic worker in another country. As a woman, as a worker, she has a hard life.

Across the continent, domestic workers are on the move. For example, since 2000, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, SADSAWU, has been organizing, securing new legislation, new conditions, new consciousness. SADSAWU builds on decades, and centuries, of South African household workers organizing.

Domestic workers across the continent have organized since the invention of paid domestic labor. And African and African-derived domestic workers have been organizing in the United States.

This year, New York passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Who made that happen? Domestic Workers United, “an organization of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers”. Women like “Esmerelda”, nanny, elder care provider, housekeeper, originally from Zambia.

Out of Domestic Workers United came the National Domestic Workers Alliance, organizing across the country. Yesterday, they brought 800 organizers and supporters to Washington to launch the national Caring Across Generations campaign.

Among the 800 were Dora Tweneboah and Margie Obeng, two young women just out of high school. Both Dora and Margie are from Ghana. Dora has been in the United States for four years, Margie was two years old when her family arrived. They are both youth organizers in the Tenants and Workers United of Northern Virginia, and they have something to say about “the plight” of domestic workers.

Dora commented: “Coming from a country where there is suffering and poverty, I noticed the hardships of people, especially young women and children, who are forced into labor and commercial sexual exploitation. In Ghana, trafficking is local, and it mostly involves children and young women. Every day, children and young women are forced to labor in agriculture, street hawking, fishing industries; to work as porters; or to beg, most often for religious instructors.  Girls are mostly trafficked within the country for domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. They work 24 hours a day without pay and often without food. As a youth organizer, I think a discussion about women and trafficking is needed. Women here work for other people every day and don’t get enough money to support themselves and their family. They’re told to stay silent, not to reveal the secret of being forced to work. Otherwise, it’s back to the street or back to their countries. Trafficking is an issue for domestic workers and care givers.”

Margie replied: “Coming from a culture with strong teachings of respect for adults and people in general, I think care hits home for me. Several of my aunts and family friends work in areas where care is the entire basis of their jobs: RN’s, LPN’s, CNA’s, live-in nurses, nannies, day-care owners. These people care so much about the work they do, and take such good care of their clients, but too often their work is unrecognized. That needs to change. Around here, so many African women do care work. They are loving, caring, hard-working women trying to earn an honest living. Like so many other immigrants in this country, these women do the work that many don’t respect or recognize … but need. If Ghanaian and immigrant workers generally become aware of such campaigns, they could spread to the home countries because care jobs are international, not just in the US. The rights of the worker should be recognized wherever they are.”

Want to focus on African women domestic workers? Fine. Focus on the struggle for dignity and the challenge to care. Leave “plight” at the door, please.

* Image from Ian van Coller’s “Interior Relations,” a series of portraits of domestic workers in South Africa.

Further Reading

A private city

Eko Atlantic in Lagos, like Tatu City in Nairobi, Kenya; Hope City in Accra, Ghana; and Cité le Fleuve in Kinshasa, DRC, point to the rise of private cities. What does it mean for the rest of us?

What she wore

The exhibition, ‘Men Lebsa Neber,’ features a staggering collection of the clothes and stories of rape survivors across Ethiopia.