Yes madam, I can speak! A study of the recovered voice of the domestic worker

Full Name: 
Dr Susheela Mcwatts

Events in the last few years on the global stage have heralded a new era for domestic workers, which may afford them the voice as subaltern that has been silent until now. Despite being constructed as silent and as subjects without agency, unionised domestic workers organised themselves globally, becoming more visible and making their voices heard.

This culminated in the promulgation of the International Labour Organisations (ILO) Convention No.189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (or C189) in September 2013, and the establishment of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) in October 2013. This broadening of the scope of domestic workers activism has not yet received sufficient attention in academic research. These two historic events on their own have the potential to change the dominant discourse around domestic workers, by mobilising workers with agency to challenge the meaning of the political ideologies informing their identity positions of exploitation and subjugation.

My research argues that the political changes occurring currently on the international stage have significance for a construction of new domestic worker identities. In this study I explore the characteristics of resilience, resistance, empowerment, activism and leadership that domestic workers have experienced before, during and after the launch of the IDWF.

Through individual interviews with the executive members of the IDWF, I am able to track domestic workers paths of agency and the multiple sites of their resistance, and although conscious not to essentialise their experiences, determine whether they do have commonalities in their personal experiences that led them to activism.

This study radically departs from most of the academic literature on domestic workers thus far, which tends to reproduce the trope of domestic worker as a victim of abuse and exploitation in an unchanging, monolithic and homogenised category of women. The research conducted was qualitative, using in-depth and semi-structured interviews, because it is the most appropriate in highlighting and understanding the various voices and lived experiences of domestic workers. Drawing on the narratives of domestic worker leaders, this study was based on Feminist Standpoint Theory and framed within transnational feminist practices. The central analytic component of the thesis is the voice of domestic workers as subalterns, centred particularly on their intersectional negotiations within the realms of their work.

As my aim was to give these women voice through my research process, feminist methodology was the most appropriate approach for this study, as it allowed me to render the complexities of the lives of domestic workers. The data derived from the indepth interviews was analysed through the use of thematic analysis. I found that there were significant similarities in the experiences they shared on the path to activism. Most started domestic work at a young age and were exploited and subjugated. They all valued education and either had very little or none. All joined organisations or institutions outside of their employers homes, where they either obtained an education and/or learnt new skills. In each of these organisations they networked and formed a collective identity.