Domestic Workers Set Out Rules For Their Employers

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In this article, Han Hongmei uses the “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” case study to analyze the emergence and multiplication of advocacy activities carried out by marginalized groups.

On the eve of the International Women’s Day in 2013, a middle-aged woman, holding a card that read “I give the employers my set of rules,” called on society to pay closer attention to the living conditions and labor rights of domestic-service workers. The release of this picture on micro-blogs allowed the “subversive image” of domestic workers, who received scant attention beforehand, to enter the public field of vision for the first time. Surprised netizens exclaimed that “the nannies are rebelling against heaven.”

Domestic workers are extremely marginalized in society. Nobody listens to what they say, their job is unstable, and there is rarely anyone who represents them or speaks on their behalf. Furthermore, the rights of this marginalized group are not a focus of public concern, much less a subject for extensive discussions that might lead to the formulation of relevant policies.

Therefore, in the current social climate, it is very difficult for marginalized groups’ demands for their rights to be taken seriously by the public and the mass media. Over recent months, I have organized and participated in a series of domestic workers’ rights advocacy activities. In the following article, I analyze how these advocacy activities work, using a case study of this year’s advocacy activity on the eve of the International Women’s Day— “domestic workers give rules to employers collectively.”

The beginning of the story: the Topic comes from social groups

Being different from the successive performance-art-advocacy activities by feminists in 2012, “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” is not entirely independently planned and executed by feminists, but closely related with the Sina Weibo account @家政工那些事, operated by the Media Monitor for Women Network (妇女传媒监测网络). It can be said that the idea of giving rules to employers actually stems from the daily work of the Dissemination Project for domestic workers. This is what I learned first: the topics this marginalized group advocates for must be closely linked with its demands and members of this group identify these demands through their daily work.

In August 2012, the Media Monitor for Women Network initiated the Dissemination Project for Domestic Workers. Via the Sina Weibo account @家政工那些事, they collected reports covering domestic workers and tweeted the workers’ daily stories to reveal their real situation and rights demands in order to eliminate society’s discrimination against them. Since its establishment, this Sina Weibo account has been the only public microblog dealing with rights demands through the distinctive perspective of marginalized domestic workers.

As a social platform for domestic workers, the main task of @家政工那些事 is to gather and release stories of domestic workers. But how can this best be achieved? The task is far from easy. In our society, few people care about domestic workers, or want to listen to their stories. Moreover, very few domestic workers use microblogs so Weibo is not the platform for them to speak out. Rather, it is usually their employers that are Weibo-savvy. So how can we show domestic workers’ wisdom, humor, and vitality from their stories? During months of effort, the Media Monitor for Women Network focused on the vividness and interest of the workers’ stories, gradually forming a characteristic style of communicating and cultivating many die-hard fans.

Domestic workers’ community organizations in Xi’an and Jinan stated during their exchanges that they needed to build their capability to be heard. They added that the Media Monitor for Women Network is experienced with advertising and advocating, and that advocacy projects and domestic workers’ communities have to interact with each other to help @家政工那些事 gather stories. As a result, on December 30, 2012, Lü Pin, the representative of the Media Monitor for Women Network, and I (then editor of @家政工那些事) were invited by the Shandong Jinan Jicheng Commune (山东济南积成社) to run a storytelling workshop for domestic workers, which theme was “respect for domestic workers”.

In this workshop, domestic workers showed deep feelings about “respect”. They shared their stories of respect and disrespect from employers, and discussed how these experiences related to their overall rights demands. Under the broad theme of respect, six other sub-themes were developed, which included daily language, behavior and attitude; the right to food and rest; and financial responsibility, among others. In total, more than 30 independent stories related to respect in one way or another emerged. In just two hours, this semi-structured interview approach to story-sharing helped domestic workers tell and record their stories in a layered, logical way. In this way, we managed to dig out rich source material which clearly outlined the domestic workers’ demands.

These demands all came from deep inside their hearts. As they were working, they yearned for respect from both their employers and society; however, prejudices towards them stemming both from traditional culture and current social reality gave them a deep feeling of discrimination. They put forward more than 20 demands and appeals, including “do not call me nanny”; “guarantee meals and rest time”; and “do not test me using money”. These demands and appeals were again brought up during later workshops in Xi’an and Beijing. Only by advocating demands that stem from marginalized groups’ real thoughts can the support of groups in other regions be obtained.

Good Ideas: Breaking Mainstream Perceptions of Marginalized Groups

During the aforementioned workshops, domestic workers showed their multi-faceted hopes. Some said that in order to make respect a reality, both employers and domestic workers had to work hard. During the discussions, many realized that in the current relations they had with their employers, the way things should be done was always dictated by the employer. Further, domestic service companies set working standards and restrictions to regulate domestic workers, but never to restrict employers.

“They can’t just ask us domestic workers to follow the rules without making any demands on employers!” said Ms. Liu, who has done hourly-paid domestic work in Jinan for many years. She added that “The employers always tell us what to do, but they cannot expect us to do whatever they want. Being a domestic worker is a profession; I haven’t sold myself to the employer” Her thoughts echoed those of many quickly gaining everyone’s agreement and convincing them that domestic workers should also make their own demands. As a result, the idea of “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers ” was born.

Domestic workers are weak and extremely marginalized, and almost nobody cares about them. In the mainstream social consciousness, they appear as tragic and poor. Mass media reports about them tend to be from the perspectives of market demands and contribution to cities, viewing them as an object of mainstream society, rather than an active part of it. It is rare to consider things from the standpoint of domestic workers as individuals or laborers who should enjoy their rights.

An advocacy activity must first attract public attention by being creative enough to break mainstream perceptions about marginalized groups; conventional slogans can hardly generate polemic and follow-up discussions. In order to clarify the power relationships between domestic workers and their employers, “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” is a bold design which subverts the domestic workers’ traditional stereotype of being silent and submissive.

Amplifying the Voice: the Power of Collective Action

To get issues related to marginalized into mass media, creative advocacy activities alone are not enough; strategy and innovation are also required.

How can we make sure the voices of a few dozens domestic workers are noticed and heard? First, unity among social groups is vital, especially when advocating the rights of marginalized groups. In the advocacy activity of “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers”, the strategy of using terms with universal meaning such as “collectivity” and “domestic workers from three regions” drew public attention to ask why domestic workers of various regions decided to unite to speak out, making it easier for mass media to focus on their specific demands.

After the storytelling workshop in Jinan, the Media Monitor for Women Network organized more in Xi’an and Beijing, in order to gather more information about domestic workers’ demands and desires. Meanwhile, they also decided to unite with domestic workers’ organizations in three different regions to launch the “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” activity together to amplify its impact.

In this case, it is easy to discern two levels of alliance. The first level is among different domestic workers’ communities and the second is among domestic workers’ organizations in different regions. There must be interaction and support between and from the relevant communities while advocating for the marginalized groups; this will not only make their demands more reasonable but also help gain more public trust and improve the effectiveness of their demands. At the same time, the alliances between communities and organizations show the public that the demands of the domestic workers go beyond the limits of their own group, actually mirroring the demands of many others, increasing their universality.

In addition, the ability of marginalized groups to speak out remains weak, and they especially need NGOs to represent them. And safeguarding and advocating the rights of marginalized groups is just one of the missions of community organizations. Therefore, uniting influential social service organizations makes it easier for advocacy activities to reach the public, magnifying the demands of marginalized groups.

Reflecting on the Effectiveness and Risk of Advocacy

“Domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” is an initial attempt by women’s organizations and other rights advocates to put advocating for marginalized groups into practice. During this process, there have been many reflections and conclusions, most notably that community-based and advocacy organizations still need to further implement and explore how to speak out, disseminate, and advocate the issues concerning marginalized groups

By analyzing media coverage of the activity, one realizes that besides NGOs websites, nearly nobody reported on it. It was only reported on by the English version of the Global Times and by the Southern Metropolis Daily in their “Public Interest and Charity” section. This proves that it is still difficult for marginalized groups to gain the attention of mass media.

Judging from the weakness of the advocacy work carried out by community organizations so far, it is obvious that most of them remain focused on social services delivery and do not link their work with rights defense closely enough. They lack the ability to mobilize domestic workers and even more, advocacy experience. However, there are still many organizations willing to speak out for marginalized groups and take part in common advocacy activities.

Therefore, advocacy-oriented and community organizations should maintain sound interaction as well as mutual support and cooperation so that they can identify appropriate advocacy topics through their work. Currently, advocacy-oriented organizations can provide support to service delivery organizations in the initial stages of their advocacy activities. But the topics they cover are limited, therefore it is essential that, in the long run, marginalized groups’ organizations develop their own advocacy methods, take the initiative in representing themselves and develop their own capacities.

Marginalized groups’ advocacy work has only just begun. Their agenda, strategy, and tactics must be tested constantly through ongoing practices. They may not receive recognition from the public and mass media as quickly as the feminists did but things are changing nevertheless. Domestic workers’ consciousness of their rights and interests is strong; active alliance between community-based organizations and advocacy-oriented organizations are multiplying; and most importantly the space for advocacy, which in the past may have seemed limited, is constantly expanding. However, the real breakthrough does not lie in the environment surrounding activists, but rather in the hearts and minds of those who work in advocacy and social service organizations, because all fight for defending deserved rights.

In Brief

In this article, Han Hongmei uses the “I give the employers my set of rules” case study to analyze the emergence and multiplication of advocacy activities carried out by marginalized groups.
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