Thursday, July 7, 2011

Domestic Work/Women’s Work/Invisible Work?

So, today I think about the fact that I made the bed, cleaned the kitchen, baked a cake, ran the dishwasher, went to the grocery store, and swept the front steps. These tasks – or some variation on them are the daily work of women around the globe. Depending on your particular socio-economic class and context you might add: fetch the water from a pond, stream or waiting in line at a pump or by a water tanker, gather the firewood, pound the maize, pick up and dry cowdung to use as fuel, while you are watching the children, feeding a baby at your breast, etc…

If you are a Filippina nanny or maid in the UAE or Jordan or Singapore, or Saudi Arabia you could be doing these tasks in someone else’s home. You can be called at any time of night and day, you may sleep in the home of your employer, you are vulnerable to sexual abuse from men in the house and physical abuse from both women and men employers. You have no rights – your passport and your work papers are controlled by your employer. If you run away in desperation you cannot get another job in the UAE for 6 months. There are no open associations of nannies, maids and sex workers. It is too dangerous. (

These global women who make it possible for women with means, whether in their own countries or in other parts of the world, to be doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen. For the work of caring and cleaning and cooking never ceases. If you try to tell their stories, you put both yourself and them in jeopardy, as recent Stanford graduate, Mona Hadidi learned the hard way – finally unable to write about domestic workers in the Gulf for her senior thesis – stymied by resistance at every level from the Filipino embassy in Abu Dhabi to the labor department that magically had no records for her to review. For governments on both sides are complicit – the government of the Philippines needs the remittances sent home by the nurses and mother’s aides and the oil rich nations of the Gulf like being able to ensure that their wealthy citizens can afford the luxury of being cared for by these women who have no rights at home. Legal records are hard to come by, women are afraid to talk about their experiences, worried that they will jeopardize their incomes which make it possible to send home money to their villages outside Manila.

And, this unceasing caring work that defines women’s lives in the informal sector - it is not just the Gulf and the Philippines – this story of women’s work stretches from Mexican housecleaners in Palo Alto to abandoned farms in Talisco and Chiapas, Mexico. It is to be heard in the Ethiopian and Eritrean childcare workers who live in Saudi Arabia. It is the young teenage girls from Nepal who provide care and companionship for the children of upper class Indian families.

And, lest you think the business of caring is just about poor women who come to work in the homes of those like ourselves who are privileged by virtue of our education and our social class, you need to read Stanford faculty member Londa Schiebinger. In her review of Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory, edited by environmental toxicologist and mother of two Emily Monosson, she notes, “In these heartrending essays, women who are well-trained and well-situated in science detail the compromises they have made in order to raise children and be scientists.” She mentions the essay "Reflections of a Female Scientist with Outside Interests," by Christine Seroogy who cites research conducted by Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden at the University of California, Berkeley, as documentation for her claim that "women who have children soon after receiving their graduate degrees are much less likely to achieve tenure than their male counterparts.” (

And, so do acts of caring seep into the lives of the most professional women in the most “developed” nations in the world. Now, it seems to me that there is nothing wrong with caring. What is wrong is the automatic implication that it is women’s job to care, to hold down the kitchen duties, to gather the cowdung, to comfort the crying baby, and then, but only then, get her “other work” done. I remember one of my favourite grants made by the Global Fund for Women to a women’s group in Barcelona, Spain. It was for a mass action on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Women were asked to simply not do everything they normally did in a day. They gathered instead in the square. The slogan was simple, “Quando las mujeres paran, todo se para!” or “When women stop everything stops”.

My favourite quote in today’s papers: “You don’t have to come over on the Mayflower to be the victim of a crime.”
Kenneth P. Thompson, lawyer for Guinean immigrant housekeeper at Sofitel, NY

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