THERE is an apocryphal story of Sixties radical Abbie Hoffman visiting macho novelist Norman Mailer to enlist his support in one of the innumerable battles of that decade. Hoffman stood in stunned disbelief as Mailer's black maid answered the door. You can't ask someone with a black maid to join the revolution, Hoffman concluded. So his invitation to the burly writer was withdrawn.
Today it's not just well-paid writers or corporate tycoons who have black servants answering doorbells. Importing Third World nannies and housekeepers is a growth industry. Huge numbers of black, Asian and Latin American women are being hired at minimum wages to care for the children and clean the houses of a new generation of young, upper-income professionals.
'The demand is tremendous, much greater than the supply,' says Judith Ramirez, co-ordinator of the Toronto-based International Coalition to End Domestics' Exploitation (INTERCEDE). 'The demand is at an all-time high. Importing domestics has become a lucrative industry, a new variation on the slave trade.'
Ramirez runs her small campaigning group from the gallery of an ex-synagogue, now turned Chinese Community Centre, in the heart of Toronto's burgeoning Chinatown. There are more than 100,000 foreign domestic workers in Canada and nearly two-thirds of them are in the Toronto region. Ramirez, an intense, strong-willed woman in her late thirties, has been trying to win improved salaries and better working conditions for domestic workers for the past five years.
'Housework is undervalued,' she says bluntly. 'Somehow it's seen as an emanation of being female - we're supposed to do it for love or for nothing and be happy with it. No wonder wages of domestic workers are on the bottom rung internationally.'
In the past women either stayed home to look after their children or relied on some kind of informal child-care arrangements: an aunt, a grandmother or a neighbour. But today many families need two incomes just to pay the bills. And more women are choosing to work outside the home - more than half of married women in many Western nations - because they find housework and child-care too unrewarding.
But housework doesn't go away while you are out at work. And, at the end of the working day, women still find it waiting for them when they get home. Says Ramirez, echoing what we all know: 'Even in the most enlightened marriages, where men claim to understand feminism, you'll find women do most of the domestic work. It's still seen as a woman's responsibility.'
The unequal sharing of work within the home is always a key factor in the decision to hire a nanny or a cleaner. Women are unable to make a commitment to their careers until they are sure child-care and housework are properly sorted out. And if they can't convince husbands or lovers to help, there are few other options.
'A lot of women have come to the end of their ropes,' says Ramirez. As she speaks the late afternoon sun lights up the rooftops across Spadina Avenue and the Chinese vegetable stores are busy with shoppers - women shoppers, rushing to fit in this chore on their way home from work. 'They are tired of fighting with men. They say "all right, if you're not going to help, we'll just have to get someone in." So they hire someone. They may feel uneasy about it - I haven't met a single feminist who says that's an ideologically comfortable solution - but they do it just the same.'
It is a solution, though - at least for those who can afford it. 'Families that hire nannies and housekeepers are mainly middle-class professionals,' says Ramirez. A Government study in Ontario a few years ago found the average household income of people hiring domestics was around C$65,000. But live-in nannies rarely earn more than the minimum wage of C$4.55 an hour. That's about C$ 10,000 a year - a mere fraction of what their labour allows their employers to earn during the same working day.
It appears that women professionals - feminist and non-feminist alike - have solved their personal housework crisis in the easiest way possible. They've simply bought their way out of the problem. Instead of being exploited themselves, they shift the exploitation to another woman. But not everyone can pass the buck in this way. Who cleans the cleaner's house?
According to Judith Ramirez, however, the analysis is not simply a question of one class of wealthy women exploiting another class of poor women. 'We have to be careful we don't end up simply blaming the woman employers,' she explains. 'Otherwise we just let men off the hook again. If you relieve the man of any responsibility and say that his wife is the one who's hiring and exploiting the domestic worker, you fall into the same trap. You're still assuming housework and child-care are women's exclusive turf - and that men have no responsibility.'
Ramirez insists that hiring a nanny or a housekeeper is really a question of women trying to fend for themselves. 'I don't see any other way when there are so few day-care places for young children. We're nowhere near a universal day-care system accessible to everyone. As long as that's the case, there are going to be a lot of women hired as domestics.'
And that means a lot of work for INTERCEDE. According to Ramirez, the group's main job is to focus on upgrading the wages and working conditions of domestics - so that society is forced to have more respect for the work that's being done and for the Third World women who do it. But it's been no easy task organizing women who are isolated, overworked and speak little or no English.
'It was our number one challenge,' Ramirez remembers. 'Our strategy was to reach them through the media in their own communities. It took time but eventually it worked. Now we often have as many as 200 women at our monthly Sunday afternoon meetings.
'Yesterday one woman told the meeting about how she had been fired by her employer, because she was so jealous of her intimacy with the children. The employer would regularly stay out until all hours of the night so the nanny was often the only one home to bathe and put the children to bed. Naturally she was the one the children became attached to. And the more jealous and angry the employer got, the more the children asked for the nanny instead of the mother. It finally came to blows - that's how she got fired. It's a peculiar position to be in. On the one hand you have children here who get attached to you. But you often have your own children back home who you never see.'
There is no question that INTERCEDE's lobbying has paid off. As a result of their efforts domestic workers in Ontario are now included under provincial labour laws which entitle them to take time off in lieu of hours they work over and above 44 hours a week, or to claim time-and-a-half salary for those hours.
'We have documented cases of women working 90 and 100 hours a week with no overtime pay,' says Ramirez. One of those women is Avelina Villaneuva who came to Toronto from the Philippines in 1981 to work as a domestic. When she quit her first job three years later she'd never had a day off. Now a landed citizen, Villaneuva - with support from INTERCEDE - is challenging the lieu-time provision in the Government's labour code.
'The new legislation discriminates against domestics by putting them in a little ghetto,' claims Ramirez. 'We believe the Government is violating the federal Charter of Rights. And that's why we're taking this challenge to court.'
Foreign domestics are separated from their children and friends. They're uncertain, insecure and often ignorant of their rights. It's not surprising that they are easily pushed around - by their employers and by bureaucrats in the Immigration Department.
Many women say they endure miserable conditions because there is simply no other choice. They hope and pray they will get 'landed' immigrant status and then be able to send money home to their families - money that could pay for the school fees or training that could become their own children's passports out of poverty.
'People make the mistake of assuming that if a woman isn't standing up for her rights, she has no sense of self-worth,' explains Judith Ramirez. 'That's not the case at all. Many domestic workers are incredibly strong. They suffer in silence because they're after a greater goal. And many stay committed to the work of INTERCEDE because they know if we keep at it conditions won't be as terrible for the women who follow them.'
With thanks to Jane Story.
For further information contact: INTERCEDE, 58 Cecil Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
SLAVE TRADE IN MOTHERS
Where women leave their own children in poverty to care for other people's children in luxury.
I first met Zenaida, shivering and frightened, in London on a freezing December evening. She had no shoes on her feet, having run away from her employers early that morning leaving her few possessions behind. Somehow she had heard about the Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers and had gone there in desperation. In the days to come desperation turned to anger as she told me how she had ended up in such an extreme situation.
Though she had a degree in communication studies, she had been unable to find a job at home in the Philippines. So she had left her three children and applied to work abroad as a domestic.
'As soon as I arrived they put me to work,' she recalls. 'In the Philippines the agency told me they would pay me $200 a month. But when I got here my employers refused to pay more than $150. I thought I'd only have to help with the baby, but had to wash their clothes by hand - every night for one and a half years. They had a washing-machine, but they said they preferred their clothes hand-washed. They used me like a washing-machine.
'I never had a single day off, and hardly any sleep because they expected me to get up if the baby needed anything during the night. And they always assumed I would baby-sit when they went out.
'I never saw anyone, never went out. My whole life was just washing and cleaning and caring for the baby. And all the time I was thinking of my own children back at home, and their letters begging me to come back. But what could I do? I'd spent so much money coming over here. The wages were bad enough. But I felt degraded too. People think you have no education if you work as a domestic. But if you need the money, you have to forget your pride.'
Eventually they stopped paying her altogether and locked her in the flat whenever they went out. And the last straw came when the baby - now an aggressive, spoilt three year old - started hitting her with a stick while his mother looked on.
The CFMW referred Zenaida to Waling Waling, a support network of Filipina domestic workers who help each other with accommodation, employment, even money in times of crisis. The present UK immigration laws mean such women are legally forbidden to look for other jobs and live in constant fear of arrest and deportation - which is another reason why they endure such appalling conditions in the first place.