Jennifer Fish’s engaging new book Domestic Workers of the World Unite! offers a close-up, on-the-ground analysis of the global domestic workers’ movement. Rather than trying to provide an overview of the entire domestic workers’ movement, including their working conditions, union organizing efforts, and relationship with other actors, Professor Fish smartly focuses on the efforts by large domestic workers’ organizations such as the International Domestic Workers Network to garner recognition by the International Labor Organization (ILO). She draws upon extensive participation observations to detail how the workers used a variety of different strategies, including the way in which domestic labor was framed; the mobilization of outside NGOs interested in issues related to domestic labor, like immigration; and allies within the ILO to secure the passage of Convention 189, which provides a set of standards for how domestic workers should be treated. While the particular case of securing recognition of domestic workers’ rights by the ILO is only part of the broader struggle by the movement to challenge oppressive working conditions, Professor Fish uses this specific effort to highlight both the strategic capacity of the movement to overcome obstacles and the challenges it still faces. This movement is composed primarily of poor, migrant, marginalized, and (mostly) women, yet their ability to push the ILO into recognizing them is remarkable. The tactics the movement employed were multi-pronged and diverse. For example, activists sought to frame the movement as more than domestic labor. Specifically, they were very effective at linking domestic labor to other issues that enjoyed broad international support, such as global migration, women’s issues, and child labor. By expanding the framework used to talk about domestic labor within the contact of the ILO, supporters were also able to mobilize a wide range of influential NGOs. These groups possessed the resources and know-how to maneuver the complexities of the ILO process. Of course a real danger when partnering with elite allies is ceding control of the campaign to other actors and losing the grassroots dimension of the movement. Yet, as Fish describes, the coalition of domestic workers’ organizations was able to place rank-and-file activists in leadership roles. Indeed, their ability to ensure continued grassroots participation was perhaps their most impressive accomplishment. As noted earlier, domestic labor is generally done by the underclass in society, usually women with little education and family support. Yet the movement was able to harness the energy of these individuals to ensure their continued involvement in the ILO campaign. It should come as no surprise that the ability of the movement to construct effective frames was significantly enhanced by the involvement of these individuals. Moreover, despite the bureaucratic constraints of the ILO, which often squelched more rambunctious forms of protest and celebration, the movement was able to effectively have their supporters and members’ presence known during the course of the hearings. Of course, the campaign was not without its share of roadblocks. The book illustrates time and again the challenges of activists’ struggles to work through a large, bureaucratic organization dominated by elites from the Global North. Moreover, the unique structure of the ILO granted considerable voice to employer groups, which created further challenges for activists. Finally, even within their own coalitions domestic workers had to contend with other NGOs more familiar with the bureaucratic machinery of the ILO, which often steered the conversation to other issues they prioritized, such as global migration. Nevertheless, despite these and other challenges, what the domestic workers’ movement was able to accomplish was nothing short of remarkable. While Professor Fish’s book provides wonderful insights into the struggles and successes of the domestic workers’ movement, I do have some concerns about the book. Perhaps the most notable is the lack of a strong theoretical lens through which to understand this particular campaign. The question I had after reading this book was: how is a movement with relatively few resources and a rank and file that lacks the social capital so necessary for success able to win a considerable victory (recognition by the ILO) at the international level? Social movement scholarship could be leveraged to good use in this case: for example, the ability of the movement to mobilize rank-and-file members and use them to frame issues around gender and migration. By drawing upon the stories of individual members, the movement was able to construct highly resonant frames. Moreover, the leadership of the movement showed considerable strategic acumen when negotiating the bureaucratic red tape of the ILO. By mobilizing NGOs on related issues and engaging in disruptive protest (outside of formal hearings, which prohibits such behavior), the group was able to keep the pressure on and continually energize their base. Again, scholarship on social movement coalition building could provide insights not only to the advantage of partnering with other organizations, but also the dangers that come with this (a topic Professor Fish did touch on). This issue does not, however, diminish the empirical impact of the book. Anyone interested in the plights and struggles of domestic workers across the global, and indeed the global economy more generally, should be encouraged to read this book. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Social Forces – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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