Domestic workers across the world are organising to defend their rights

Queer and trans domestic workers are organising against discrimination. Karina Muñiz-Pagán reports.

January 23, 2019 · 8 min read
“We are workers! We deserve standard working hours!” Photo by International Domestic Workers Federation (Flickr)

Globally more than 67 million domestic workers provide services for working families and ageing populations. They are largely women and disproportionately immigrant women of colour, facing exploitative working conditions and systemically low-wages. Those who are also trans, lesbian, bisexual, or queer face particular forms of mistreatment and harassment. Very rarely do labour laws recognise, or protect them from, sexuality or gender-based discrimination and violence.

Through organising, queer and trans domestic workers have made big strides to win recognition and improved labour protections. Yet much remains to be done. This November, domestic worker leaders like June Barrett, a queer home care worker and leader with the Miami Workers Center in the US, and Yadira Gomez, a trans domestic worker and founder of SITRADOVTRANS (Transgender Domestic Workers and Trade Workers Union) in Nicaragua, took a groundbreaking resolution to the second congress of the International Domestic Workers Federation in Cape Town, South Africa. In November, the resolution was adopted to “implement a program of action to address discrimination according to gender, race, ethnicities and sexual orientation. This could lay the foundation for policies and campaigns that support LGBTQI domestic workers on a global scale.

June and Yadira first met in 2017, at the first Latin American and Caribbean Gathering for LGBTI Labour Rights in Managua, Nicaragua. They have been in contact since then, planning and building support for their resolution.

I’ve been a domestic worker in the US for 14 years; I organise around my work schedule as a caregiver. Back home in Jamaica, I was active too, but when I came here, my activism became dormant.

I was working as a live-in domestic worker, dealing with issues from wage theft to sexual harassment and discrimination. Just days into my first care job, I was called the n-word. I had lost work as a result of being undocumented, because an employer was too afraid to hire me. I thought: who is going to listen if I speak up? So I just did the work I could, drawing strength from my faith.

Then I heard the news of a young black man, Trayvon Martin, getting murdered, and it ripped my heart to pieces. My friend said to me, ‘June, turn that outrage into activism.’ After that, I was at all the rallies for Trayvon. That moment was instrumental for me getting involved in other issues, like health care and affordable housing. Fighting for access to health care, I drew from my own challenges of needing health insurance to get my blood pressure medicine.

In 2016, I started organising domestic workers with the Miami Worker Center. For a long time, I felt I had no voice at work. I felt helpless and hopeless. When I heard that domestic workers in New York had won the first domestic workers’ bill of rights, I caught a glimmer of hope. It was the first set of laws to ensure that New York’s domestic workers had protections like minimum wage and overtime pay.

Later that year, I was asked to speak at the first South Florida domestic workers’ congress and share my story of sexual harassment. Saying yes became the beginning of change for me. I knew that if this movement wanted me, I was willing to put everything into being part of it.

As an immigrant black queer woman, there are many factors that motivate me. As Audre Lorde said, ‘our struggles are not single-issue struggles’.

Discrimination against the queer and trans community is so normalised that it’s rarely studied. There is no data about the labour activity, violations or economic contributions of queer and trans domestic workers. But from workers’ stories, we know the issues.

Last year, I attended the LGBTI labour rights gathering in Managua, Nicaragua, where I met Yadira Gomez of SITRADOTRANS. I was taken aback. In the US we do not have an organisation that supports queer and trans domestic workers. To witness Yadira’s leadership and that of other domestic workers who experience the same issues was incredible. I was blown away by the way in which trans domestic workers were so well organised – winning campaigns, taking bad employers to court, and working openly as trans domestic workers.

This type of organising – across intersections and margins – is the future. And I didn’t even know it was possible.

The gathering that June attended was so important for me because as queer and trans domestic workers we face so much stigma and discrimination. Gatherings like that are more important than ever as the economic and political crisis in Nicaragua has intensified. People are being forced to flee, it’s dangerous to be out in the streets, and basic needs are not being met. People cannot work and are isolated without their support systems and ability to meet as a group.

When I first started working, it was difficult because I didn’t know how to read or write. I now lead workshops on empowerment and rights. We are called Defenders of Human and Labor Rights. We visit trans women that work in homes during the day, and sometimes in sex work at night, and provide ‘know your rights’ training.

The reality of what trans women face is cruel. Often our first work is sex work and our second domestic. I was inspired to get involved in organising because at 12 years old, I was attacked and ended up in hospital for six months. The attacker broke my arm so bad, I was lucky to not have to have it amputated.

I was living on the streets, selling drugs, looking for any type of work. I saw how the men didn’t tolerate trans women. I’ve survived stab wounds across my head and arms. I knew I couldn’t continue this way. Many trans women in Nicaragua do not live past 30.

At 15, I started working as a live-in worker and earned $20 per month. I was the first to wake up and the last to sleep and in charge of cleaning the entire home.

One day a trans compañera took me to a meeting at the Nicaragua Trans Network that provided workshops on human rights, sexuality and HIV awareness. As a member, I went to neighbourhoods all over Managua and got 5,000 people tested. It’s common for trans women to take on celebrity names – I was named after the actress, Yadira Carrillo.

As the Human Rights Defenders we do outreach to find trans workers in bars, restaurants, beauty salons, casinos, factories and homes. We invite them to find out more about what we do and to learn more about their work hours and labour conditions.

Domestic workers do not have signed contracts. The salary of a trans domestic worker is not the same as a cisgendered woman. Employers exploit trans women, because they know if we don’t accept these jobs we have no other option. We have our rooms we rent, plus electricity, water and food. Minimum wage is $180 (US dollars) a month, but we end up getting $60 a month for the work we do.

The future is inclusive labour rights for trans and lesbian women, our right to health access and housing guaranteed, and to be seen by our skill, not by our gender or sexual identity.

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