So…this happened

The above video is a recent advertisement from Hong Leong Bank in Malaysia. The ad was aimed at domestic workers in Hong Kong (most of whom are Indonesian or Filipina). I tried in vain to find a translation but basically its encouraging employers to get insurance. It didn’t go over so well. For obvious reasons. Its since been pulled. But it came across my social media platforms (mostly because I’m that friend who writes about domestic workers and people kept tagging me). So lets break this down:

The commercial opens and there is this music…sort of like the Muzak version of reggae.

Then from afar we see this woman cleaning a table. Wait for it…we must set up the reveal.

Next the doorbell rings. Oh its the employer! He is a handsome Chinese man played by a handsome Chinese actor. And he is ringing the doorbell to his own house for whatever reason.

Now the big reveal! The woman from the opening scene is the same handsome Chinese actor, playing a Filipina domestic worker. His own Filipina domestic worker. Which requires blackface and a terrible wig. To review: a male Chinese actor in blackface and drag playing a Filipina maid in a commercial that aired in Hong Kong for employer insurance from a bank based in Malaysia.

Maria (our maid), who, by the way, is wearing an apron with a trout pattern and pink house shoes, is so incredibly clumsy. So of course her employer needs to get insurance. What if something happens? What if she breaks his expensive things?

So yeah…get insurance from Hong Leong Bank. End of commercial.

And…all of this in 30 seconds. Without a translation. Now lets make sense of all of this shall we?

The music lets us know that this is a classic humorous commercial. A throwback if you will. I know I am thinking of this within a US context but it really triggered so many things in my mind. Think about those old Looney Tunes cartoons. Or television shows like Beulah. Or films like Gone With the Wind or the original version of Imitation of Life. Or minstrelsy.

Side note: During my trip to South Africa this summer I learned that American minstrel performance, thanks to the global capitalist market, had made its way to the continent. To this day South Asian communities in Capetown have a festival that happens right after the New Year with minstrel troupes and competitions and costumes, etc. Its on my list of things to read up on after the dissertation. But for our purposes its worth noting that there is a relationship between minstrelsy and Asian communities.

Anyway, the commercial really takes me back to a moment in popular culture when domestic workers were a source of humor. Something to be ridiculed. Asexual, doting mammy figures. Anything but workers. And this humorous trope reemerges here during a serious global organizing effort for domestic worker rights. And a true moment of visibility for this movement. The migration of women across borders to serve the world’s elite as domestic workers or sex workers (voluntarily or involuntarily) is at the forefront of transnational political discourse. It is the reason that Filipina and Indonesian women end up working in Hong Kong to begin with. This conversation, often times, is about anything and everything but labor.

Advocates and activists are really working hard to make sure that the labor process is at the center. The most common discussion that happens about domestic work is always whether or not the work is skilled or unskilled. And this is something that crosses national boundaries. It has happened over and over again throughout history. The first thing activists and advocates will tell you (and I will say it again here): Domestic work is skilled labor. The women who do it take their work very seriously. They should be paid fairly for their labor. They deserve to have their labor respected and protected.

Yet, in this advertisement, great pains are taken to make this woman look unskilled. To demean the actual work that it takes to do what she does. Plus this is happening along racial lines. The contrast between the employer and the caricature of the maid depends on the racial division between them. There are 300,000+ migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. And the commercial reduces them to a type. One that is imbued with the worst kind of racism.

At one time we would have been able to say that domestic workers were an invisible workforce. But I’m not giving Hong Leong a pass here. Clearly, since they made a commercial specifically targeting┬áthe large (and no doubt noticeable) population of household workers in Hong Kong they know better. Some of the bank executives probably have domestic laborers who work in their homes. Activists and advocates are a visible presence all over the globe.

Nope. No excuses. None. They should be ashamed. Domestic workers in Hong Kong were not afraid to say so. The company pulled the add. They didn’t apologize or express their shame and embarrassment. But the movement continues.

In case you need a palette cleanser after that one please check out NDWA’s page on international organizing. Visibility and education are two of the most important aspects of the movement. Show the amazing women who make all other work possible some love!

from scholarship to real life

So…I have been working on this super secret project in a neighboring city a couple days a week. (Don’t tell my advisor…k?) Anyway, while getting a doctorate may seem glamorous, fellowships just don’t pay enough to match that glamour. Alas, its the life I chose. And I love it, but still graduate poverty is real. Anyway, I live well below my means so I take public transportation everywhere. Which I actually like. I get a lot of reading done that way.

Anyway, because I am an expert at it I naturally found the most cost effective and efficient way to get from a to b. I knew that a number of transit routes are designed for workers but now I saw it first hand. This particular bus goes into said neighboring city (a wealthy community) during the morning commute and doesn’t make the return trip until the afternoon. I took the first trip back and the bus driver asked me why I got off of work so early. The bus was empty. And it was sort of eerie. In fact, the building I am working in has a bus stop that coincides with the underside of the building next to the service entrance. I have never been to a building with a service entrance. Also weird. Everyone on the bus was a person of color. Mostly women. Many of them latino and spanish speaking.

As I was telling a friend of mine it sort of reminds me of the historical sun down towns, where African Americans during Jim Crow were permitted to go to work (and only in uniform) but they had to be gone by sundown. It sort of blows my mind that there are entire transit routes dedicated to restricted access to communities. If one were going there to shop or see a movie it would be almost impossible to do it. The bus doesn’t stop there. The train station is nowhere near it.

Thus even in congested places like metropolitan areas, there are ways of organizing communities on the basis of race, class, and immigration status. I’m wondering what Marx would say about public transportation. Or even global technologies of travel, migration, and trafficking. But that is way outside of my purview. And other scholars have done it. So its here…on the cutting room floor.

Congratulations Ai-Jen Poo!

Great news this week. Ai-Jen Poo, the fantastic and inspiring director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. I have never been so excited and more inspired. It means that this movement, that I know consider myself a part of, is gaining visibility and momentum. These women work so hard. State by state. City by city. To mobilize and educate women workers. I am so proud that Ai-Jen is one of the honorees this year. She intends to use the money to create a domestic worker fellowship so that more women can work for the movement full time.

And she is in such great company. Fair housing advocates, LGBT activists, a woman who serves as a legal advocate for domestic violence victims in the native community, feminist activist Alison Bechdel, so many women and people of color.

While we don’t like to talk about money often as activists, it matters. Movements cost money. And the MacArthur grants go to such great causes. And now ours is one.

See Ai-Jen’s moving video about winning the award here.

And while we are on the subject I have been thinking a lot over the past couple of weeks about what it means to be a scholar that is part of a grassroots movement. On a conference call recently that included a number of emerging scholars writing about domestic work along with a member of NDWA, a woman asked, “How can we create scholarship that is useful to the movement?” A simple question. And a challenge I have given myself. We’ll see what I come up with. But for now, just the cutting room floor.

Now Reading: White Feminist Apologists

Today on the road to dissertation-ville I returned to Silvia Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero in search of some theoretical musings on sex work. The collection includes a 1999 essay that Federici wrote entitled Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New Division of Labor. In it she argues that it is useless for feminists (Marxist feminists I assume since she is one) to criticize women for hiring domestic workers. Because housework is slavery. And there is no alternative. I was told by renowned scholar of domestic labor, Mary Romero, that this kind of thing happens all the time but its the first time I have seen it in print.

Here’s the thing: where are the rights for domestic workers in your collection of thirty years of scholarship on women and housework? Her commentary renders them invisible. It renders the history of my own family invisible. Domestic workers are without rights. Which means you employ them under the worst conditions, feminist or not. If you can’t treat the women you hire as wage workers, and treat them as such, then how can you advocate for working women? This kind of entitlement continues to frustrate me.

Meet Our Panelists: Barbara Young

Barbara Young, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has been a domestic worker for the past seventeen years. Young has done a lot of work around organizing a global labor movement, and was very active in labor organizing in her native Barbados.

Just last month, Young was a featured panelist on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC as a part of a segment on the film The Help. Click here to see the full segment. NDWA created a #bethehelp campaign urging the film’s fans to help domestic workers in their own communities.

I found the segment to be a really interesting demonstration of class difference as a factor as it relates to responses to the film. While Young expressed a fondness for certain aspects of The Help, the other panelists, which included a comedian/political commentator and a historian, were passionately against everything that the film represents. It made the dichotomy between scholars and activists really apparent to me. I have reflected on what was a really uncomfortable dynamic to watch and wondered what lesson, as an academic, I could learn from it.

As the conference approaches I hope that we can strike a balance between sharing our knowledge and experience and listening to what others certainly have to offer.

 

Maid in the USA: A Conference on Domestic Labor and Organizing

It seems like everyone is talking about domestic workers lately, thanks, in part, to the 2011 film The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestselling novel. Everyone’s weighing in: scholars, critics, bloggers, actors, and every tv talking head from Oprah to Katie Couric.

If the current discourse is any indication, domestic work is a part of our mythological American past. And yet, at this very moment, there are at least 1.8 million domestic workers employed in American homes. Ninety-three percent of whom are women of color.

That’s over a million women with no right to organize (that’s right, its illegal), and no federally mandated minimum wage, overtime pay, or maximum hours. Employers of household workers are not required to provide a safe and healthy working environment.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Civil Rights Act, right? Arguably the most important piece of legislation of the second half of the twentieth century. It prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, or national origin. Well, it only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. In other words, it doesn’t apply to domestic workers.

So, how did we get here and where do we go?

Twenty years ago this year Mary Romero’s tackled this very question in her groundbreaking study of Chicana domestic workers in the Southwest, Maid in the USA. To commemorate Romero’s work and work of advocates and organizers around the country the Center for Migration and the Global City at Rutgers University Newark is gearing up for what proves to be a really exciting conference on the opportunities and challenges facing household workers in the United States today.

As a part of this dialogue between scholars, advocates, and organizers, we wanted to start the conversation here. Check back for regular updates about conference planning, where to register, profiles of some of our collaborators and people working on the ground to advocate for domestic workers’ rights, and more facts and figures that highlight the urgency of this significant issue.