December 7, 2022
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Commentary: Female migrant workers face sexual division of labor

The following is an excerpt from the speech “Gender Trafficking from the Bronx to Jakarta” that Zillah Eisenstein, professor of politics, delivered Jan. 11 as part of a program at the Salihara Cultural Center in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Zillah Eisenstein

Women’s bodies are always busy laboring — in the home, at paid work, making babies, hauling water, collecting wood, making art, creating alternatives, cleaning homes, selling sex, being soldiers, buying and consuming goods. They complexly move and shake the globe, yet power most often escapes their grasp — power over their own bodies, their own choices and their lives.

As women more often travel across borders to find work, they find themselves in new harm’s way. These particular workers — gendered by their sex — are the new domestics of the global economy. They migrate with fewer rights than traditional patriarchy grants them. Instead, more modern forms of patriarchal, global capitalism undermine pre-existing patriarchal family structures. These women become the wage-earners of their families with no other alternatives and create new transnational family forms by doing so. Mother and child will now inhabit different nations. For almost a decade now, more than 191 million people live outside the countries of their birth.

Indonesian domestic workers migrate most often to Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. They migrate to a nation of gender apartheid. These women carry their economic class inequities with them and further weave a series of hierarchies and differences between themselves and the females of the households they are employed within.

Much of this labor is invisible to the globe, and hence women are not seen as a key part of the new proletariat of the globe. Women share this invisibility across borders, and this creates a gendered identity of particular poignancy. These women, many of whom are mothers, become mothers to other children as migrant domestic laborers.

These new forms of gender bend the globe. Public and private hierarchies both mesh and clash as global capitalism tweaks and reframes traditional familial patriarchal forms. With little rights, migrant workers have no recourse to sexual exploitation and abuse of all sorts. In July 2011, Ruyati Binti Sapubi, an Indonesian housemaid, was executed by beheading by Saudi authorities after the Supreme Court there ordered the death penalty for her. She was found guilty of murdering her employer after repeated abuses by him.

Women who cannot find jobs in their home countries, often alongside their unemployed husbands, seek sustenance for their families elsewhere. These transnational migrant laborers have become a huge resource for income earned elsewhere and then delivered back to their home countries.

The Indonesian government praises migrant workers as the country’s economic heroes. But there is no real recognition of the rights of these heroes without recognizing, according to Human Rights Watch, how human trafficking is part of forced domestic servitude. Hopefully this might change with the 2011 International Labor Organization on Decent Work for Domestic Workers’ treaty that extends existing labor protections to domestic workers. But more is needed that recognizes the particular evidence of a misogynist sexual division of labor that stands outside the classic worker’s rights model. A first important step might be for the Indonesian government to disallow migrant workers to Saudi Arabia as long as it practices gender apartheid.

Zillah Eisenstein is a professor of politics. Email her at