Why Feminist Recovery must Rethink Labor?

Roula Seghaier, IDWF (International Domestic Workers Federation)

Photo Credit: FabehaMonir/Oxfam

Like any other term that represents diverse schools of thought, waves, cultures and approaches, the term feminism remains divisive and contentious. And like any other idea with so much radical potential, feminism has also been co-opted into capitalist systems, diluted into single-issue frameworks and reduced to sound bites and slogans printed on fashionable commodities.

One could object that ‘this is not what feminism is’ and ‘it’s not feminism unless it’s intersectional’. While this is true, we must also self-reflect and enquire into our own moments of complicity in how we contribute to making the word “feminism” suspect. Oftentimes, those who view feminism with suspicion are not people with opposing political views or patriarchal affinities. They could be simply other women- Black, indigenous, persons of color, non-binary, transgender, queer, migrant, refugee, stateless and informal workers — whom many of those who consider ourselves to be feminists, have let down. As we race to innocence[1] or towards social respectability[2], we often contribute to existing divisions. Instead, we must build connections across context, schools and generations: understand the logic of their affinities and political choices.

A word is void until we fill it with meaning, and there is no better exercise than shaping it collectively through uncomfortable yet creative tensions. This is what we did at the intergenerational dialogue organized to discuss what recovery from COVID-19 should look like. In this blog, I reflect on the agreements sensed across the room, and propose the domestic work sector as a vital nexus filled with revolutionary possibilities for a healthy feminist recovery. In conversation, we agreed that we must not recover to restore the status quo. Rather, we need a rupture, a reframing of our economy and change that is not aesthetic but structural. The pandemic was manmade with the destruction of our ecosystems in favor of aggressive, for-profit production. The ease of its spread was facilitated by unsafe work environments that allowed animal-to-human infection and through gentrification and the creation of unlivable neighborhoods, camps, and townships where social-isolation is an impossible luxury and through broken health systems designed to offer survival for a few but certain death for others. The status quo would only reproduce such injustice.

A framework for Recovery

Labor is a space where socio-economic hierarchies are created and maintained through informal jobs, lacking recognition, access, and basic rights. For a feminist recovery from COVID-19, we need to disrupt the existing valuation of labor. Outlined within the inner circle are the qualifications of the labor valued by the existing structures, and in the outer, the qualifications of labor that remain disadvantaged by the systems in place.[1]

Source: “A Paradigm Shift for the Care Economy and Domestic Workers” — Roula Seghaier, slated for publication by FES

[1] Gayle Rubin’s charmed circle of sexual hierarchies served as an inspiration for this illustration to think of labor, feminized, invisible, uncompensated and undercompensated, of labor thought of as 3D “dirty, dangerous and demeaning,” as opposed to recognized and well-compensated jobs.

1. On Labor/Economy:

The existing economy values labor that it deems “productive:” and purposefully obscures labor of “maintenance” and “care.” It undercompensates it, for what is a better way to create surplus labor value than by obscuring the “productive” nature of labor mostly performed by women within households and women in informal economies? Care and domestic labor are not calculated within GDP in classical economics, and it is not an honest omission or mistake, rather, it helps obscure that such labor is responsible for anywhere from 20 to 60% of national growth in any given country, and thereby steals its fruits from the hands of the people performing it and gives them just enough for immediate subsistence, and maybe less. It calls it ‘unskilled’ and ‘blue-collar,’ and treats workers as if they are disposable. This very same economy produces new workers to feed chains of hidden production: being informal workers with no access to social protection, informal work becomes generational. How else are these workers and their families to survive, with no social healthcare, no affordable housing, no accessible education, etc. Informality becomes fate.

2. On Body:

Let’s face it. The people working in informal jobs are often feminized and racialized. If a woman cooks, that’s a natural extension of her womanhood. If it is a cisman, he might have some social mobility as a chef: the best chefs in the world are men, right? As if their labor acquires a magical advantage by virtue of their gender. If he is a man of color, that is more troublesome of course, for the bodies of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are historically created as vessels of reproduction of undercompensated labor. The market economy also values able-bodied labor, and given that temporality of ability, mental and physical, once a worker of the informal economy is “too sick,” “too old,” or “too unpleasant,” they are replaced. Countless of times, domestic workers who throw themselves off balconies of their employers when they find no escape in countries of the Gulf are deemed “crazy,” but what is unhealthy is the economy they’re working under.

3. On Space/Geography:

The space our bodies occupy as we work is also carefully catered to reproduce an unjust status quo. If our work is “domestic” and confined in the private sphere, it is a private matter, not a public service. Domestic workers struggle for the recognition of a household as a workspace. If our bodies move from rural to urban areas, they’re still stamped with disapproval from the created divide that valorizes center versus periphery. A rural location dooms our labor, but even if we leave into the city, the conditions of our fragile employment follow us by virtue of simply coming from elsewhere. Let alone if we dare move through national borders: migrant workers of informal economies are doing essential underpaid jobs and yet being the scapegoat for every national failure of the host country. “They’re stealing our jobs:” jobs that we will never accept to do for their precarity, jobs for the recognition of which we never fight.

Conclusion

This brings me to intergenerational feminist dialogue and the basic three-wave teleology: we wanted public sphere rights, then we questioned what is public and private. We wanted jobs, but noted that enslaved women and people from racial backgrounds have always been working and needed to talk colonization and race. We discussed these topics but shied out from sexuality, but then we accepted it as relevant. We thought in a binary then we moved to a spectrum. We fought in sectors, then we fought intersectionally, and we continue to learn how to do it every day. An intergenerational dialogue is important because injustice is also generational and suffering that haunts families for hundreds of years. An intergenerational feminist dialogue is important because it enables us to trace ourselves in history: as workers, as women, as people of color, as people in the outer circle of this vicious economic model. It helps understand ourselves in their multiplicity and respond to the concerns of my skeptical aunt (and yours). It helps us be accountable. As people working on this form of justice, we do not need to reinvent the wheel if we are younger: our foremothers have so much wisdom for us to draw from. But we also must have access to the spaces where these conversations are had. These conversations, written, oral, and lived, will enable us to envision a feminist future.

[1] The concept is coined by Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack who reflected on the competing marginalities that hamper solidarity between women.

[2] A moralizing discourse that sets one person, movement, or discourse apart from another by insinuating that oneself is more deserving for having certain attributes: “good citizens vs. bad citizens,” “good gay vs. bad queer,” etc. For example, men from the Civil Rights movement have decided against giving platforms to some Black women who were single mothers, because it was not an image of Black Womanhood that they wanted to portray. In fact, this act reproduces socio-economic hierarchies we need to deconstruct.

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.