The fight against 21st century slavery

TRIBUNE, March 8, 2009

Cary Gee talks to Leddy Mozombite and Manju Gardia, two campaigners battling for the rights of domestic workers and victims of bonded labour

THERE are 700,000 domestic workers in Peru. Ninety per cent of them are indigenous women who have migrated from the countryside to the cities in order to escape poverty. Many are underage and illiterate, denied access to even basic education. It is little wonder that the situation they find themselves in once they have secured employment is little better than slavery.

Representing these people and attempting to improve their conditions is Leddy Mozombite, general secretary of the National Domestic Workers’ Union, the SINTRAHOGARP, founded in Peru in 2006.

Mozombite recently travelled to Britain to take part in an international conference organised by the Global Women’s Strike organisation. It is an opportunity for Mozombite to meet and exchange ideas and tactics with other women organisers from around the world, including Manju Gardia from India.

Gardia is the founder of Nawa Chhattisgarh Mahila Samiti, an organisation that for the first time brings together Dalit and tribal women to campaign for an end to bonded and child labour, improved employment rights, including social security and pensions, and – perhaps most importantly – the right of women to own property independently of their husbands.
Although the two women come from very different backgrounds, they agree that the problems women face are very similar. Mozombite at least expected things to be better in Britain.

“You think in a developed country – where people have possibilities and opportunities, access to housing, education, health care and good wages – things will be better. Developing countries follow the lead of developed countries. For example, the United States buys what we produce, refines it and then sends it back to us. But, even in Europe, women are paid lower wages than men.”

For Gardia, who comes from the middle part of India, the problem is not just one of slave wages, but of virtual slavery.
“Only male bonded workers receive wages. Women and children are paid in kind – usually in food. “She is talking about “children of 10, 12, 13 years old. It is illegal, but often entire families are bonded.” In fact, the practice has been outlawed in India since the Labour Relations Act was passed in 1976. However, Gardia says: “People do not know their rights. Since we began our fight, we have released 5,000 families from bonded labour. We are fighting against landowners and governments. They have to implement the law. Where the law is not implemented, the NCMS will bring its own legal action. First, we go to the local court, then we go the regional court and then the High Court. Finally, we will seek to release workers through the Supreme Court.”

Failure to apply the law is not unique to India and Mozombite is no stranger to the courts either. Laws recognising the rights of domestic workers were passed in Peru in 2003, but are rarely enforced.
Mozombite says: “We represent members who have been raped by their employers. This is very common. Not only do we prosecute the rape, but we also need to fight for the rights of the child. There is also the question of the woman’s employment rights being violated. First, we try mediation, but often we have to go to court. Many women have worked for 20 years and received nothing.”
With the exception of individual journalists, the media in Peru has not been kind to Mozombite’s union, demanding she justifies her assertion that “slavery still exists in Peru” – something she is very quick to do.

“Employers take children from the countryside to work for them. They have an obligation to take care of these children, to educate them and pay them. Often the employers do none of these things. The children are basically enslaved.”
Many domestic workers are teenagers. Because of this, Mozombite was instrumental in the passing of a new law that allows teenagers to join a trade union.

She is anxious to exonerate the parents of child workers from blame. “Parents feel they are doing the right thing. You have to understand that these people often live in extremely poor conditions, without electricity.”

Membership of the domestic workers’ union in Peru costs less than $1 a month. While organisers are unpaid, through an agreement with another union, members are given access to a lawyer for the first time.

As far as Gardia is concerned, the fight does not stop once her organisation has released an employee from bonded labour. The employee is entitled to rehabilitation money, but this system, too, is riddled with corruption. “They should receive 6,250 rupees. But they will receive just 4,000. Someone else is pocketing the remainder.”

Gardia argues that releasing families from bonded labour must be just the beginning. “People need land – agricultural land.” She describes government attempts to attract multinationals to common land – land that could be farmed by local people.

Having lived and studied in Bhopal for an MA in social work, Gardia knows only too well the damage which multinationals are capable of inflicting. She hopes to learn more from Mozombite so that she can organise the women she works with – from 400 villages across three provinces – into a legally recognised trade union.

Currently, she provides key workers with legal training and leadership guidance. Her movement is fast becoming a political force to be reckoned with. Are politicians afraid of her? “Sometimes”, she laughs. “We have big meetings, when the 400 villages come together and march together.”

Leddy Mozombite nods in agreement. “When we started to organise, our members suffered a lot of discrimination – a lot of racism. We were treated as inferior things, – not even people able to think for themselves, just good for cleaning. We would go to the ministry for employment and the ministry for women, where we insisted on being seen and heard.”
However, with this increased visibility came new problems.
“Political parties now try to use us. We should be using them.”

The media, too, remain on the side of the rich. “They refer to us in derogatory terms. They are scared of our autonomy. They come to us during elections, with feminists anxious to have their pictures taken with rape victims. We have forced them, through our work, to respect us. They never thought that domestic workers would have their own political views and achieve such high visibility.”

Given the vast distances that often separate their members from one another, it follows that both women have experienced difficulties in disseminating their respective messages.

Gardia depends very much on local village leaders, who spread word of campaigns from village to village.

In Peru, members face the additional difficulty of living with their employers for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For this reason, campaigning usually takes place on a Sunday – for most workers, their only day off. “We meet in parks, meet workers and hold workshops to let people know their rights”, says Mozombite.

Boosting her members’ self-esteem is as important to Mozombite as educating them on their employment rights. “When you have been raped, when you come from a rural area to the city, the media will make you feel bad. We want women to know that there is nothing wrong with being a domestic worker. Women must not be fooled into thinking it’s OK to come to the city, work like a slave and only have one day off.”

Another important aspect of the union’s work involves teaching girls from rural areas how to use electrical appliances.
“Many of our members have never seen a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine before’, says Mozombite. “Knowing how to use something so simple makes their life easier and means they can get higher wages.”

The minimum wage in Peru remains less than $200 a month, but at least it is something to aim for. Nevertheless, women who are paid higher wages often find their employment rights are further eroded.

“Wealthy employers often have more than one house and expect employees to work every day. Once women have been taken out of Lima, they have no means to get back independently.”

Both Gardia and Mozombite encourage the women they work with to exercise their suffrage. In India, this works at a local level only. Illiteracy and a lack of a political education discourage women from taking part in wider politics.
“Only high caste women would ever stand for election”, says Gardia. “Tribal and Dalit women have no access to high school. Simply getting tribal and Dalit women to work together is problematic. Often tribal and Dalit women will not even sit in the room together, let alone eat or talk together.”

However, Gardia remains convinced that: “We must fight together for the common good.” She is encouraged by the willingness of younger women to take a leading role. Gardia insists becoming a politician herself holds no attraction. “There is far too much corruption in politics.”

In Peru, where voting is compulsory, Mozombite invites politicians to address her members, then leads a discussion of what they have heard. Even so, feudalism still exists and employers often expect their workers to vote the way they are told to or to stay at home on election day.

“Often we have won the right for workers to return home to their villages in order to vote. If you do not vote, you lose your access to healthcare and other services.”

Both women expect further battles when they get home. And both look forward to the fight. Both have been arrested more than once, but are undeterred and fully intend to continue with their respective struggles for emancipation.

Their visit to London has provided them with a welcome respite, the chance to talk about tactics and discuss their politics heroes. Unsurprisingly, Gardia mentions Gandhi. And neither woman rules out further revolutions – not just yet.