FRANCE – They are the “invisibles.” Behind closed doors, they cook, clean, take care of children and the elderly.
They are often the victims of abuse – sexual and physical – they are underpaid and overworked – sometimes for more than 65 hours a week, they don’t get benefits and rarely have organizations to defend them.
Most of these workers are women. The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency that regroups the governmental representatives, employers and workforce of 184 countries, published a report this month that estimated a total of 52.6 million domestic workers in the world in 2010, of which 83% were women. This number has increased by more than 60% in the past 15 years.
Nevertheless, experts recognize the imprecision of these numbers. The amount of domestic workers in the world probably surpasses the hundreds of millions. In all countries, domestic workers are often migrants, sometimes undocumented. Children less than 15 years old, employed to do household chores are not counted in the numbers.
The financial crisis has played a role in this increase – with many unemployed people turning to this sector. Other factors may also explain this explosion in domestic work. “There are increasingly more elders to take care of. There are also more women who are working, and this means more people doing domestic work. Also, as developing countries get richer – for example in South Africa or Brazil – the new middle class benefits from these services,” says Martin Oelz, ILO expert on working conditions.
In June 2011, at the ILO annual conference in Geneva, the agency adopted convention n° 189 which mentioned “decent work for women workers and domestic workers” for the first time, and set standards in a sector largely affected by illegal work. For the convention to be applied, the ILO needed the ratification of two countries. Uruguay, The Philippines and Mauritius ratified it. Other countries have started the ratification process: Bolivia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Italy. France is considering it.
Not covered by labor laws
On Dec. 12, 2012 within the framework of the International Trade Union Confederation’s “12 by 12” campaign to achieve the symbolic aim of 12 ratifications, Secretary General of the French CGT labor union, Bernard Thibault, addressed Minister of Labor Michel Sapin saying “France should swiftly ratify this new convention so that its implementation can be accelerated.” He added that it was “urgent to act for fair treatment for workers in this sector” and emphasized the “innovative nature of this standard, dealing with the difficult question of precarious forms of employment, which is akin to slavery in certain regions of the world.”
The minister should announce the ratification of the convention in February.
Regulating the sector is not an easy task. “One of the problems is the sanctity of the home, which prevents work inspectors from checking private homes,” explains Stephane Fustec from the CGT union. The situation is even more complicated at an international level. According to the ILO, “only 10% of the world’s domestic workers are covered by general labor laws to the same extent as other workers.” And more than a quarter are “completely excluded from the scope of national labor laws.”
They face very low wages – which are in part due to a generally lower level of qualification – excessively long hours; no weekly rest periods and are sometimes are subject to physical, mental and sexual violence, and restrictions on freedom of movement, according to the ILO.
This abuse is not limited to certain regions of the world – such as the Persian Gulf countries – where work laws are quasi inexistent. In the parks of Paris’ poshest neighborhoods, Teresita Roque, a 45-year-old Philipino activist, who was herself a former undocumented domestic worker, talks to these – often isolated – women to educate them about their legal rights.
Today, the situation is improving thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations and labor unions. Nevertheless this remains a hard problem to tackle. “They tell us they need money, that they are afraid of ending up on the street or being sent back to their countries,” says Teresita Roque.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
- In Northern Colombia, LGBT Rights Meet Indigenous Prejudice ... ›
- LGBTQ+ In Morocco: A New Video Series To Open Minds ... ›
- Why Italy Is So Slow In Protecting LGBTQ From Violence ... ›