RESPECT for All: The Political Self-Organization of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the European Union

By Schwenken, Helen | Refuge, May 2003 | Go to article overview

RESPECT for All: The Political Self-Organization of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the European Union


Schwenken, Helen, Refuge


Abstract

This contribution focuses on the empowering political practices of RESPECT, the European network for migrant domestic workers. The paper contrasts RESPECT's empowering approach with that of other actors in which migrant domestic workers are presented as victims and in which the struggle is situated within the discourse of combatting illegal immigration and trafficking in women. The central hypothesis of this paper is that this distinction-between female migrant domestic workers constructed as victims of trafficking or as migrant women with subjectivity, voice, and agency is crucial in determining the type of advocacy strategy and (self-)representation of the women.

Resume

Cette contribution se penche sur les pratiques d'autonomisation de RESPECT, le reseau europeen pour la defense des travailleurs domestiques migrants. L'article contraste l'approche d'autonomisation de RESPECT avec celle d'autres acteurs qui presentent les travailleurs domestiques migrants comme des victimes et qui situent le debat dans le contexte d'un combat contre l'immigration clandestine et la traite des femmes. L'hypothese centrale de cet article est qu'il existe deux facons de presenter les choses: soit les travailleuses domestiques migrantes sont des victimes de la traite des femmes ou bien, ce sont des femmes migrantes ayant une subjectivite et leur propre voix. Cette distinction est cruciale pour pouvoir determiner le type de strategie de defense et de/d'(auto)-representation de ces femmes.

   A room full of sixty black women from all over the world. When
   people from the European Parliament and the Commission see
   that, they understand the strength of that network. Very unique,
   migrant women organizing themselves, and especially migrant
   domestic workers. When people ask ... 'femmes de menage',
   they just laugh. (1)

It is not easy for migrant domestic workers to organize themselves. Several factors make this task especially difficult. The private household as a working place is usually isolated, and most workers do not have legal entitlements to work and stay in the country. Additionally, working long hours hardly leaves any time for collective action. Nonetheless, a European network for the rights of migrant domestic workers has in recent years been able to act quite successfully to improve the situation for female domestic workers. The network, called RESPECT, is a European network of migrant domestic workers' organizations and supporters that campaigns for the rights of women and men working in private households in European Union (EU) countries. (2) The RESPECT network originated in the very agile work of the Filipino self-help group Waling-Waling in London and the supporting NGO, Kalayaan. Comparative research, mostly carried out by Bridget Anderson in five European countries on the living and working conditions of migrant domestic workers, was the first step for the enlarged activities in the EU. (3) At present, the network comprises members from, e.g., Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium. RESPECT supports its members' campaigns and facilitates the sharing of experience and expertise in campaigning, organizing, and lobbying.

In this contribution I will focus on a specific political practice of the network in which migrant domestic workers are encouraged to raise their voices and fight for their rights. This strategy forms the basis of the work of the RESPECT network. I contrast this approach with that of other actors, including the European Council and NGOs such as AntiSlavery International, which tend to victimize migrant domestic workers and situate themselves in the discourse of combatting illegal immigration and trafficking in women.

Thus the central hypothesis of this paper is that the differences in constructing female migrant domestic workers as victims of trafficking or as migrant women with subjectivity, voice, and agency are crucial for the type of advocacy strategy and (self-)representation. …

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