Volume 19, Volume 3

The Sexual Exploitation of Domestic Workers in Employing Families

Catherine Weiss, catherine.weiss@rmit.edu.au

I stumbled across the topic of sexual abuse of domestic workers almost by accident. I had been interested in domestic work for some time, as it seemed to be a phenomenon that combined my interests in economics – due to the contribution of domestic work to capitalist production – and politics in the feminist sense, in which the personal is political. Further, although women have been migrating from poorer to richer regions (e.g. from rural areas to cities) to become domestic workers for a long time, the more recent transformation of this phenomenon into a transnational issue as a result of globalisation made it seem like an even more important topic to address. The ILO has estimated that there are over 11 million migrant workers in the world, around three quarters of them women. Paid domestic work, performed mostly by women, is now a key feature of global political economy: for example, it accounts for around 7.5% of all paid female employment worldwide, and remittances sent home by women workers contribute significantly to national economies. 

When I started reading some recent research on domestic work I was struck by the absence of men in the literature, an absence noted in the paper’s title. Instead, the research seemed to focus almost exclusively on the relationships between female employers and domestic workers due to differences in race, class and citizenship status. Male employers were mentioned briefly in passing, if at all. As I read further, I quickly came to understand that this contemporary feature of the literature was a response to the neglect of relations of domination among women in much “second-wave” writing on domestic work, which focused on unpaid domestic work performed by housewives and often did not consider the situation of paid domestic workers at all. Nonetheless, the contemporary literature seemed to me to have gone too far in the opposite direction: surely, I thought, male employers must have some noticeable impact on domestic workers?

This impression was strengthened by the fact that I quickly came across several prominent works analysing the impact of men or patriarchal family structures (whether in employing families or in families of origin) on domestic workers in non-Western contexts – for example, Pei-Chia Lan’s Global Cinderellas. As far as I was aware, patriarchy still exists in the USA, so why was it not treated with the same degree of seriousness as in other parts of the world? It is all too easy for Westerners to assume that patriarchy and male violence are things of the past, or something that happens “elsewhere.” This discourse is highly convenient for the male-dominated states and indeed for male citizens of Western countries, who would like us to direct our feminist attention abroad rather than recognising and denouncing what happens in our own lives. I was concerned that this pattern was being reproduced in research on domestic work, and wanted to reintroduce the consideration of patriarchal dynamics within employing families into the discussion of relations between female employers and domestic workers in the US context.

As my research progressed, I found myself focusing more closely on the sexual harassment and abuse of domestic workers, which seemed to be the clearest way in which workers’ lives were affected by their male employers. I discovered, to my surprise, that although sexual exploitation of various forms was frequently mentioned in the literature, it had barely been analysed. How could the specific nature of sexual abuse of domestic workers be understood, where the employer’s home is the workers’ workplace, and where not just sex but race, class, language, and citizenship status act to create unusually large power differentials between male employers and workers?

Given that domestic workers are often said to be “just like one of the family”, it seemed important to consider the family context in this phenomenon. My background working in domestic violence had taught me that families are not at all safe places for women and children – why should this be any different for domestic workers? Following this intuition, I ended up using “second-wave” feminist analyses of the family (which to me seem to be those which best help us understand male violence) to understand domestic workers’ positions in the family with respect to male household heads and other family members. In the current context of increasing women’s labour migration, this analysis advances our understanding of the importance of male-dominated family structures to global politics.

This research led me to believe that there is a more profound link between domestic work and the construction of women’s sexuality. Within marriage, women perform both domestic work and “sex work” (along with reproductive work in terms of having children); marriage is an institution that essentially exists in order to give men access to individual women’s bodies and labour for this purpose. My research on domestic work showed that paid domestic work also has a sexual component, suggesting that this link between sexuality and domestic work exists not only in marriage but more broadly. As a result, this is the topic I am currently pursuing in my PhD research, with a particular focus on the critical analysis of the idea of prostitution as a form of “care”. I hope that this work can contribute to the feminist understanding of the relationship between global political economy and male violence at the individual or family level.