Domestic Workers Set Out Rules For Their Employers

China Development Brief No 58 (Summer 2013)

中文 English

In this article, Han Hongmei uses the “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” case study to analyze the emergence and multiplication of advocacy activities carried out by marginalized groups.

On the eve of the International Women’s Day in 2013, a middle-aged woman, holding a card that read “I give the employers my set of rules,” called on society to pay closer attention to the living conditions and labor rights of domestic-service workers. The release of this picture on micro-blogs allowed the “subversive image” of domestic workers, who received scant attention beforehand, to enter the public field of vision for the first time. Surprised netizens exclaimed that “the nannies are rebelling against heaven.”

Domestic workers are extremely marginalized in society. Nobody listens to what they say, their job is unstable, and there is rarely anyone who represents them or speaks on their behalf. Furthermore, the rights of this marginalized group are not a focus of public concern, much less a subject for extensive discussions that might lead to the formulation of relevant policies.

Therefore, in the current social climate, it is very difficult for marginalized groups’ demands for their rights to be taken seriously by the public and the mass media. Over recent months, I have organized and participated in a series of domestic workers’ rights advocacy activities. In the following article, I analyze how these advocacy activities work, using a case study of this year’s advocacy activity on the eve of the International Women’s Day— “domestic workers give rules to employers collectively.”

The beginning of the story: the Topic comes from social groups

Being different from the successive performance-art-advocacy activities by feminists in 2012, “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” is not entirely independently planned and executed by feminists, but closely related with the Sina Weibo account @家政工那些事, operated by the Media Monitor for Women Network (妇女传媒监测网络). It can be said that the idea of giving rules to employers actually stems from the daily work of the Dissemination Project for domestic workers. This is what I learned first: the topics this marginalized group advocates for must be closely linked with its demands and members of this group identify these demands through their daily work.

In August 2012, the Media Monitor for Women Network initiated the Dissemination Project for Domestic Workers. Via the Sina Weibo account @家政工那些事, they collected reports covering domestic workers and tweeted the workers’ daily stories to reveal their real situation and rights demands in order to eliminate society’s discrimination against them. Since its establishment, this Sina Weibo account has been the only public microblog dealing with rights demands through the distinctive perspective of marginalized domestic workers.

As a social platform for domestic workers, the main task of @家政工那些事 is to gather and release stories of domestic workers. But how can this best be achieved? The task is far from easy. In our society, few people care about domestic workers, or want to listen to their stories. Moreover, very few domestic workers use microblogs so Weibo is not the platform for them to speak out. Rather, it is usually their employers that are Weibo-savvy. So how can we show domestic workers’ wisdom, humor, and vitality from their stories? During months of effort, the Media Monitor for Women Network focused on the vividness and interest of the workers’ stories, gradually forming a characteristic style of communicating and cultivating many die-hard fans.

Domestic workers’ community organizations in Xi’an and Jinan stated during their exchanges that they needed to build their capability to be heard. They added that the Media Monitor for Women Network is experienced with advertising and advocating, and that advocacy projects and domestic workers’ communities have to interact with each other to help @家政工那些事 gather stories. As a result, on December 30, 2012, Lü Pin, the representative of the Media Monitor for Women Network, and I (then editor of @家政工那些事) were invited by the Shandong Jinan Jicheng Commune (山东济南积成社) to run a storytelling workshop for domestic workers, which theme was “respect for domestic workers”.

In this workshop, domestic workers showed deep feelings about “respect”. They shared their stories of respect and disrespect from employers, and discussed how these experiences related to their overall rights demands. Under the broad theme of respect, six other sub-themes were developed, which included daily language, behavior and attitude; the right to food and rest; and financial responsibility, among others. In total, more than 30 independent stories related to respect in one way or another emerged. In just two hours, this semi-structured interview approach to story-sharing helped domestic workers tell and record their stories in a layered, logical way. In this way, we managed to dig out rich source material which clearly outlined the domestic workers’ demands.

These demands all came from deep inside their hearts. As they were working, they yearned for respect from both their employers and society; however, prejudices towards them stemming both from traditional culture and current social reality gave them a deep feeling of discrimination. They put forward more than 20 demands and appeals, including “do not call me nanny”; “guarantee meals and rest time”; and “do not test me using money”. These demands and appeals were again brought up during later workshops in Xi’an and Beijing. Only by advocating demands that stem from marginalized groups’ real thoughts can the support of groups in other regions be obtained.

Good Ideas: Breaking Mainstream Perceptions of Marginalized Groups

During the aforementioned workshops, domestic workers showed their multi-faceted hopes. Some said that in order to make respect a reality, both employers and domestic workers had to work hard. During the discussions, many realized that in the current relations they had with their employers, the way things should be done was always dictated by the employer. Further, domestic service companies set working standards and restrictions to regulate domestic workers, but never to restrict employers.

“They can’t just ask us domestic workers to follow the rules without making any demands on employers!” said Ms. Liu, who has done hourly-paid domestic work in Jinan for many years. She added that “The employers always tell us what to do, but they cannot expect us to do whatever they want. Being a domestic worker is a profession; I haven’t sold myself to the employer” Her thoughts echoed those of many quickly gaining everyone’s agreement and convincing them that domestic workers should also make their own demands. As a result, the idea of “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers ” was born.

Domestic workers are weak and extremely marginalized, and almost nobody cares about them. In the mainstream social consciousness, they appear as tragic and poor. Mass media reports about them tend to be from the perspectives of market demands and contribution to cities, viewing them as an object of mainstream society, rather than an active part of it. It is rare to consider things from the standpoint of domestic workers as individuals or laborers who should enjoy their rights.

An advocacy activity must first attract public attention by being creative enough to break mainstream perceptions about marginalized groups; conventional slogans can hardly generate polemic and follow-up discussions. In order to clarify the power relationships between domestic workers and their employers, “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” is a bold design which subverts the domestic workers’ traditional stereotype of being silent and submissive.

Amplifying the Voice: the Power of Collective Action

To get issues related to marginalized into mass media, creative advocacy activities alone are not enough; strategy and innovation are also required.

How can we make sure the voices of a few dozens domestic workers are noticed and heard? First, unity among social groups is vital, especially when advocating the rights of marginalized groups. In the advocacy activity of “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers”, the strategy of using terms with universal meaning such as “collectivity” and “domestic workers from three regions” drew public attention to ask why domestic workers of various regions decided to unite to speak out, making it easier for mass media to focus on their specific demands.

After the storytelling workshop in Jinan, the Media Monitor for Women Network organized more in Xi’an and Beijing, in order to gather more information about domestic workers’ demands and desires. Meanwhile, they also decided to unite with domestic workers’ organizations in three different regions to launch the “domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” activity together to amplify its impact.

In this case, it is easy to discern two levels of alliance. The first level is among different domestic workers’ communities and the second is among domestic workers’ organizations in different regions. There must be interaction and support between and from the relevant communities while advocating for the marginalized groups; this will not only make their demands more reasonable but also help gain more public trust and improve the effectiveness of their demands. At the same time, the alliances between communities and organizations show the public that the demands of the domestic workers go beyond the limits of their own group, actually mirroring the demands of many others, increasing their universality.

In addition, the ability of marginalized groups to speak out remains weak, and they especially need NGOs to represent them. And safeguarding and advocating the rights of marginalized groups is just one of the missions of community organizations. Therefore, uniting influential social service organizations makes it easier for advocacy activities to reach the public, magnifying the demands of marginalized groups.

Reflecting on the Effectiveness and Risk of Advocacy

“Domestic workers collectively set out rules for their employers” is an initial attempt by women’s organizations and other rights advocates to put advocating for marginalized groups into practice. During this process, there have been many reflections and conclusions, most notably that community-based and advocacy organizations still need to further implement and explore how to speak out, disseminate, and advocate the issues concerning marginalized groups

By analyzing media coverage of the activity, one realizes that besides NGOs websites, nearly nobody reported on it. It was only reported on by the English version of the Global Times and by the Southern Metropolis Daily in their “Public Interest and Charity” section. This proves that it is still difficult for marginalized groups to gain the attention of mass media.

Judging from the weakness of the advocacy work carried out by community organizations so far, it is obvious that most of them remain focused on social services delivery and do not link their work with rights defense closely enough. They lack the ability to mobilize domestic workers and even more, advocacy experience. However, there are still many organizations willing to speak out for marginalized groups and take part in common advocacy activities.

Therefore, advocacy-oriented and community organizations should maintain sound interaction as well as mutual support and cooperation so that they can identify appropriate advocacy topics through their work. Currently, advocacy-oriented organizations can provide support to service delivery organizations in the initial stages of their advocacy activities. But the topics they cover are limited, therefore it is essential that, in the long run, marginalized groups’ organizations develop their own advocacy methods, take the initiative in representing themselves and develop their own capacities.

Marginalized groups’ advocacy work has only just begun. Their agenda, strategy, and tactics must be tested constantly through ongoing practices. They may not receive recognition from the public and mass media as quickly as the feminists did but things are changing nevertheless. Domestic workers’ consciousness of their rights and interests is strong; active alliance between community-based organizations and advocacy-oriented organizations are multiplying; and most importantly the space for advocacy, which in the past may have seemed limited, is constantly expanding. However, the real breakthrough does not lie in the environment surrounding activists, but rather in the hearts and minds of those who work in advocacy and social service organizations, because all fight for defending deserved rights.






“家政工集体为雇主定守则”这一倡导活动和2012年女权主义者们接连不断的行为艺术式倡导活动有所不同,并非完全由女权工作者独立策划、行动,而是与妇 女传媒监测网络负责运营的新浪微博账号“@家政工那些事”密切相关,可谓从家政工传播项目的日常工作中整合发展而出。这是笔者的第一项心得,即边缘人群的 倡导话题必须与她们的需求密切相关,而她们的需求必须通过日常工作才能不断发现和识别出来。

2012年8月,妇女传媒监测网络启动了家政工传播项目,通过@家政工那些事 收集家政工的相关报道,发布家政工的日常故事,展现家政工群体的真实境况和权利诉求,以倡导社会消除对家政工的歧视。这一账号启用后,成为新浪微博中唯一 一个具有鲜明的边缘人群立场和权利视角的家政工群体公共账号。

@家政工那些事 作为家政工的发声平台,最主要的工作就是收集和发布家政工故事。但是怎么收集?如何发布?这并不是件容易的事情。家政工是社会上少人关心的一个群体,她们 的故事谁愿意听?而在微博用户中,家政工用户极少,微博也不是她们的话语平台,使用微博更多的是那些雇佣家政工的客户。如何从家政工讲述的故事中发现她们 的智慧、幽默和生活的力量?妇女传媒监测网络经过几个月的经营,注意故事生动有趣、讲述亦庄亦谐,渐渐形成有特点的传播风格,受到许多铁杆粉丝的喜爱。

西安和济南的家政工社区组织在交流中也表示,她们亟需进行家政工的发声能力建设,而妇女传媒监测网络在传播和倡导上经验丰富,再加上传播项目本身就要与家 政工社区组织形成互动,为@家政工那些事收集一些故事素材,就这样,2012年12月30日,妇女传媒监测网络负责人吕频和笔者(当时担任@家政工那些事 的编辑)受邀到山东济南积成社为家政工大姐们做故事工作坊,主题就是说说“尊重”家政工的那些事。

在这次活动中,家政工们对“尊重”都有很深的感受,她们分享了在和雇主相处中,经历了哪些尊重或不尊重的事,讨论了这些经历与家政工权益有何相关。在一个 “尊重”的大主题下,发展出包括日常言行态度、吃饭休息权利、财务信任等六个分主题,整理出30多个故事,都是家政工们觉得和“尊重”有关的。这种带有半 结构式访谈引导性质的故事分享手法,让一群家政工在短短两个小时内,有层次、有逻辑地把故事讲出来、记下来,从而挖掘出了丰富的素材,并整合出了家政工们 清晰的诉求。

这些诉求都来自家政工内心深处。在付出劳动的同时,她们更期待得到雇主和社会的尊重,而传统文化和现实社会中对家政工的职业偏见,让她们深感歧视。她们提 出多达20多条的诉求,如“不要叫我保姆”、“要保证吃饭和休息的时间”、“不要用金钱来试探我”等。这些诉求在后来西安和北京的故事工作坊上均被重新提 出。可见,为边缘群体进行倡导的诉求必须来自社群人员的真实想法,才能在联合倡导时获得不同地域相似群体的支持。


在上述的故事工作坊中,家政工从多个方面提出她们的期待,有家政工姐妹说要实现尊重,雇主和家政工双方都要努力。在交流中,不少家政工姐妹意识到,在当前 的雇主与家政工关系中,基本都是雇主要求家政工如何如何,家政公司也制定了各种服务标准来约束家政工的工作规范,但对雇主却从来没有任何的约束。“不能只让咱们家政工遵守规则,对雇主也要有要求!”一位在济南做了多年小时工的家政工刘姐说,“家政工从来都是雇主让你干啥就干啥,可是雇主也不能想怎 么使唤我们就怎么使唤,家政也是一份职业,我又没有卖给雇主。”刘姐的想法说出了很多人的心声,很快得到大家的赞同,一致认为家政工也要对雇主提出要求。就这样,这次“家政工集体为雇主定守则”的创意诞生了。

家政工是极其边缘、弱势的人群,几乎没有人关心,在主流社会的意识中往往以悲情、贫苦的面貌出现;而大众媒体对家政工的报道也往往以市场需求、为城市贡献 的角度出发,将她们作为主流社会的客体、而非主体,很少从家政工作者作为一个人或者一个劳动者所应该享受的权益立场来考虑。



光萌生活动的主题创意还不够,还要有行动的策略与创意,让边缘人群的议题进入大众媒体的视野。几十个家政工的诉求,怎么才能确保被听到、被关注呢?作为组织者要有更多的考虑。首先,社群的联盟非常重要,这也是边缘人群权益倡导中尤其重要的一点。在 “家政工集体为雇主定守则”这一倡导中,“集体”、“三地家政工”等具有普遍联盟意义的策略吸引公众去关心为什么家政工要联合集体发声,而且是跨地域、集 体性的愿望,也更容易引起大众媒体关注她们的具体诉求。


在这个案例中,不难发现有两个层面的联合。一是来自于家政工社群的联动,二是来自于各地家政工组织的联合。在为边缘人群倡导活动中,一定要有来自相关社群 的互动和支持,这既能让倡导诉求更合情合理,还可以增加公众的信任以提升解决诉求的效率。同时通过社群联盟,公众看到倡导诉求不是一个家政工的意愿,而是 更多群体成员的共同诉求,她们所面临的问题具有一定的普遍性。此外,边缘弱势群体独立发声的能力往往很弱,需要他人尤其是NGO代言,而社区组织的使命之一就是维护边缘人群的权益,为其发声。联合有影响力的社群服务组织,可以让倡导活动更容易进入公众视野,放大边缘人群的倡导诉求。



因此,倡导型组织和社区组织应当保持良好的互动,相互支持和配合,才有利于在具体工作中识别出恰当的倡导议题。当前,倡导型组织能在倡导起步阶段为服务对象提供支持,但是终将受到本组织关注领域、议题限制,很难在一个群体利益上持续地就议题向深度和广度上扩展。从边缘人群权益倡导的长远工作来说,更需要发 展社群自身涌现的代表的主动性、培育她们的能力。

边缘人群的倡导工作还刚刚发轫,其倡导议题、策略、手法都需要在不断的实践中反复实验。它可能不会像女权运动那样快速进入公众和大众媒体的视野。但是它的 确在发生着,至少在这个过程中,我们看到边缘人群强烈的权利意识,看到社区组织与倡导组织的主动联合,更重要的是看到倡导的空间在不断被拓展,可能过去我 们认为受到限制的空间,正在悄悄发生改变。而改变的可能不仅仅与环境相关,还与包括倡导工作者和社区工作者在内的我们的内心有关,因为一切争取应得权利的 努力都是合理的。

The author works on domestic workers’ rights, and used to be the editor of the Sina Weibo account @家政工那些事 (@domesticworkersissues). She is also the founder of the ‘One Yuan Commune’ (一元公社) and producer of Leimin Video Studio.

Translated by Qi Zhang

Reviewed by Adam Moorman

Edited by CDB Staff

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