It’s an early weekend morning in 2013 in the ancient city of Xi’an, and although the Commercial Building seems to be lacking its usual hustle and bustle, one of its large rooms is actually packed with women. Aged between 30 and 50 years old, some talk loudly, and some discuss whispering while others sit silently on benches. This is the Xi’an Domestic Service Workers’ Union (西安市家政工工会). Naturally, where there is a union, there is a President, and in this case it is Wang Wei, a 45-year-old, short-haired, nimble-tongued woman.Wang Wei currently has two identities: one as a home economics trainer at the Xi’an Federation of Trade Unions (西安市总工会), and the other as the President of the Xi’an Domestic Service Workers Union. During the day, she provides home economics training classes to jobseekers, and during weekends, she runs back and forth between the union’s office and her fellow domestic workers to discuss trade union matters with them. From being a laid off state-owned enterprise worker to becoming the champion of a housekeeping competition in Xi’an and President of the Xi’an Workers Union, Wang Wei’s life since she was laid off ten years ago has had ‘thousands of twists and turns’.
State-owned enterprise female worker: I was laid off
In 1986, a not yet 20-year-old Wang Wei graduated from high school, and like many other state-owned enterprise workers’ children, smoothly joined the Xi’an 3402 factory in the Lanzhou Military Logistics department (also known as the Xi’an Lishan Automobile Factory). Working within the Labor Service Company of the Lishan car seat factory, Wang Wei soon became a worker of the state owned enterprise, quickly envied by other people in that era.
Married with a daughter and a steady work routine, Wang Wei’s life would have been fully laid out before her, if she had not been laid off: “I could’ve continued working there until I retired, with nothing changing.” In 2002, after the factory changed management, and because the factory’s performance was low, Wang Wei received notice that she was to be laid off. This news caused her great pain. “I never thought that after more than 10 years’ work, the factory would suddenly not want me!” Just after being laid off, Wang Wei was not under too much pressure since her husband was still working, but two months later he was also laid off. This news made Wang Wei uneasy. “My daughter had just graduated from elementary school, and my husband and I were unemployed; how were we going to survive?” To make a living, Wang Wei went out every day and tried hard to get a job, but she found that she missed having ‘proper work’, and out of desperation tried her hand at domestic work.
The grassroots group: home of the domestic workers
Although she was able to work again, the change was a huge blow to her, she found it difficult to accept her new career. “Before, my life was bright, but now I wait upon other people.”
When she started her new work as a domestic worker, Wang Wei had still not come to terms with her new occupation, and would often cry while traveling back and forth every day from her home to her employer’s house. She would cry biking to her employer’s house, wipe her tears dry in preparation for four hours’ work, and then cry all the way home. Not daring to let her family know, she would dry her tears and put on a smile before entering the house. “Often in the middle of the night, tears would involuntarily stream down my face,” she said. It pained Wang Wei even more that her parents started to completely ignore her when they learned she became a domestic worker.
At this point, a teacher from the ‘Xizhen House Keeping Company’ (希珍家政公司) encouraged her to join Northwestern Polytechnic University’s Women’s Development and Rights Research Center (西北大学妇女发展与权益研究中心) and participate in their domestic workers’ group activities. In 2003, the Northwestern Polytechnic University (NPU)’s Women’s Development and Rights Research Centre held an event called “Empowering Marginalized Female Workers”, which led to the creation of a ‘grassroots group’ for laid-off domestic workers. One of the group’s goals was to train marginalized female workers, establish a grassroots organization of marginalized females workers, realize the female workers’ right to unite and organize, fight for social resources, increase marginalized female workers’ ability to adapt to the marketplace, their vocational skills, and their ability to carry out contractual negotiation with their employers.
A deeply depressed Wang Wei joined the group and through its many activities got to know many other struggling women like her. “There were some domestic workers whose situations were far worst than mine. They were all laid off workers. During weekends, everyone got together, we had many topics in common which we would talk about and cry over – every time we met we spent time crying.” When she recalls the activities of that year, Wang Wei remembers them as vividly as ever. It is thanks to their mutual sharing, support and companionship that Wang Wei and her sisters were able to get through the most difficult period of their lives. The ‘grassroots group’ is not only a medium for providing emotional support to the women, it also offers skills development, legal rights training, training to improve domestic workers’ technical skills, as well as encouraging the understanding of domestic work’s value and providing legal support to protect domestic workers’ rights. “Like many of my other sisters, at the beginning I was unable to hold my head up high, but, through the ‘grassroots group’, we have come to understand that domestic work is a real profession.” After several months, Wang Wei hadn’t missed a single activity, she felt better and her service improved for her employer’s satisfaction. Wang Wei had also become one of the most active members of the grassroots group.
The Domestic Workers’ Union: their own organization
In the second half of 2004, the NPU project was coming to an end and its funding for the grassroots group’s activities was running out. But the domestic workers were reluctant to disperse, and teachers from the NPU’s women’s center had long been planning to continue the grassroots group. This led to the idea of establishing the grassroots group as a domestic workers’ union. With the help of the Xi’an Federation of Trade Unions’ Re-employment Service Centre (再就业服务中心), the Domestic Workers Union that had been spontaneously founded by the domestic workers became formally established on the 23rd September, 2004. Wang Wei was the first to be elected as a committee member of the Domestic Workers’ Union.
The Xi’an Federation of Trade Union’s Re-employment Service Centre gave the Domestic Workers’ Union a less than 10 square meters room for them to use as an office. The room usually functioned as both a staff canteen and a changing room, apart from Sundays when the domestic workers used it as an office. Wang Wei and her partners bought a bookcase, which was the sole property of the union at that time. The trade union was operational, but developing its activities became difficult for its members. “We had to act on our own initiative even if we did not understand how, since many of the domestic sisters had expectations of us”, says Wang Wei. “We all bought a copy of the ‘Trade Union Law’, and little by little we learned how to organize a trade union”.
On her day off, Wang Wei makes arrangements for her child, and squeezes into the borrowed office with the other members to discuss the development of the trade union. Hard work pays off, and, driven by Wang Wei and seven other members, the union took shape. Although the union is small, it is a ‘complete’ body, not only with its own leadership, but also with a comprehensive system of regulations. Wang Wei believes the union is not only a place where domestic workers can share their feelings, but more importantly where they can rebuild their confidence and improve their abilities. “I came to the trade union and realized that in this profession, skills are particularly important, and improving one’s skills means you can earn a higher income.” At the union, Wang Wei attended training for the intermediate and advanced home economics qualifications, and she also enrolled in cookery classes, among others, where she learned to prepare large feasts and pastry dishes. Wang Wei said: “My life is intertwined with the union – if I had not come to the union, how would I have learnt these things?” Through the union, Wang Wei not only improved her skills, but also participated in housekeeping competitions where she was crowned the Xi’an domestic champion.
As she continued to be engaged in domestic service work, even her parents’ attitudes gradually changed from exclusion to understanding. Many other domestic workers sisters, like Wang Wei, greatly benefitted from the domestic workers union. They participated in training and legal studies, and in times of difficulty could ask the government for help through the union. The union provided a great platform for domestic workers to help each other. Wang Wei says that the Xi’an Domestic Service Workers’ Union “gave us an identity, it is our own organization.”
Union president: the union banner cannot be lowered
In 2007, the union encountered a new problem: seven committee members who were among the founding fathers of the union, started to leave one after the other due to various pressures. “Domestic workers are a deeply underprivileged group; if we do a job slightly less well, there will be many complaints. As it is a self-run organization, committee members do not have any paid benefits, their work is all voluntary, and everyone is under great pressure”. The work that the marginalized group carries out is extremely tough, and Wang Wei can barely conceal her emotion when remembering those years.
To face this situation, the Domestic Workers’ Union held a meeting and decided collectively that, even if they were a very young union (the union was founded a little more than two years before), they had to elect a new leader. “Although the reason we gave was that we wanted to train up younger members as the future backbone of the union, the reality was that we did not want the union to wither in our own hands,” Wang Wei said, stating the real reason for the leadership change.
Over two hundred people attended the election, and members casted their votes in a secret ballot. Wang Wei, who was a committee member of the union, was unanimously elected as the second Chair of the Domestic Workers’ Union for a second term, with only 2 abstained votes. “I was under great pressure, and my mind was in a muddle.” Wang Wei had taken over the trade union at a difficult time.
The union had just over 300 members, but the union’s money from membership fees was only 204 RMB. “Without money, how could I keep the union alive? I was so anxious that I could not sleep. But I knew how much the domestic workers needed this group: if one day it did not exist, there would be nowhere for them to share their woes.” Wang Wei knew that “the union banner could not be lowered”. As a result, she went to work as usual, and then to the union on weekends to organize events, recruit members, contact resources and look for support. Wang Wei said: “As long as I could think of a way to do it, at any opportunity I would look for donations. I even approached the small street-vendors selling rice noodles on the streets of Xi’an.” Through Wang Wei’s hard work and with the support of scholars from the NPU, the Xi’an Domestic Workers’ Union finally overcame their most difficult period.“2009 saw an improvement in trade union development, and due to increasingly good work, the number of members paying membership fees also increased, the group was able to attract far more people, and that year, the union increased in size to over eight hundred members,” Wang Wei proudly recalls.
The Domestic Workers Union: maintain our development and maintain our stand
In October 2011, with the support of the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women (北京农家女文化发展中心), the Xi’an Domestic Workers’ Union finally got their own office, and the sisters had a stable location for their activities.
The union started with 162 members and today counts over 1,500. Although the Union was well established, Wang Wei still felt uneasy. The huge growth of the trade union brought new issues, and many of these issues had to do with a work-related accident of one of the union members.
Yan Yali, one of the oldest members of the union, was a widowed single parent and relied on the income she made from domestic service work to provide for her child and parents. Unable to bear the mocking she received as a housekeeper, she went to work in a laundry mill at a military hospital. Not long after she started work, she had an accident while operating machinery and severed four fingers of her right hand from the middle joint. After being treated at that hospital, the injured area gradually became infected and the infection spread down her fingers. The limited facilities and low standards of the military hospital meant that she risked of having her hand amputated if she continued receiving treatment there. But, if she transferred to another hospital, the military hospital would refuse to pay the medical expenses. The trade union actively assisted her family at negotiations with the hospital. Eventually the military hospital let her transfer to another hospital and agreed to pay a certain amount of the medical expenses in order to save her right hand. “This incident had a huge impact on me. In order to transfer Yan to the other hospital for treatment as soon as possible, we made a lot of compromises, and Yan had to bear most of the medical expenses herself, which was really heartbreaking,” said Wang Wei. Yan Yali’s accident made Wang Wei realize how particularly vulnerable domestic workers are, as there are no specific laws to protect their rights.
Furthermore, as the workers’ union is self-organized, they face problems such as a lack of funding, lack of staffing, and are limited in their capacity to bargain and make agreements. “Trade unions should develop a greater role in people’s lives, but to do this they need to develop the necessary skills which requires resources”. To Wang Wei, this is a major contradiction: in the current environment, to have more funding could mean a loss of independence. But, if the union relied on the collection of membership fees, they would be able to operate independently, and be in a position to safeguard and give a voice to the rights and interests of domestic workers.
Wang Wei is also aware that a fully functioning, self-organized union of workers is very difficult to achieve. “It is highly possible that one day the union might not have an office, and the volunteer staff might not come to work, in which case the union would collapse.” Having been Chair of the Union for the past few years, Wang Wei has these worries from time to time. The 55-year-old retired laid-off worker Liu Guoli used to be a member of the domestic workers’ union, and she was also the only member who came to do union work every day. “Much of the work of the trade union fell to Liu, who is now retired and has a pension. She’s not concerned about income, but if she didn’t do the union work, who else would? Everyone has their own lives to look after too.” In order to maintain the independent operation of the union, Wang Wei rejected the funding that was at her fingertips.
She now faces three major problems: firstly, finding a way to fundraise and finance the union’s operations; secondly, the difficulty of carrying out projects due to the lack of staffing and particular skills within the union; and thirdly, finding a way to raise public awareness, increase the influence of the union, reach out to a larger number of domestic workers, and let them know of the importance of unionizing. “To successfully run the domestic workers’ group, we must solve these three difficulties”. Wang Wei has experienced great ups-and-downs in her own life, and although the development of the domestic workers’ union brings her great pressure, she still feels confident about its future. “This is our own organization, and we will rely on our own strength to make it good!”