In 2021, something unprecedented and exciting happened in Warsaw: the first trade union of domestic workers in Poland was set up by Ukrainian in-home care workers and nannies. Those who have followed the domestic work sector in Poland will appreciate how much of a turning point this was.
Since I started researching paid household work way back in 2004 in Naples, Italy, I have read literature, such as Bridget Anderson’s Doing the Dirty Work (2000) in which she talks about the Kalayaan migrant domestic workers’ organisation in the UK, and learned about the unionisation of domestic workers in Italy and their collective bargaining contracts. I would read those stories with eyes wide open, almost as contemporary fairy tales because, when compared to the situation in Poland, they seemed utopian.
In Poland, although domestic work has been included in labour regulation since the Labour Code was passed in 1974, household work was hardly recognised as proper labour; the informality of the work was widespread and widely accepted, and exploitation was common. Live-in care workers for the elderly worked for weeks and months at a time without any time off. House cleaners could be locked up at homes they were cleaning and their documents could be withheld. Withholding payment and underpaying was a regular experience of many domestic workers. While numbers of household workers, both Polish natives and migrant Ukrainians, were growing, this work continued to be relegated to the backstage and performed ‘in the shadows’ (see A Risky Business by Marta Kindler). Despite these issues, there was no activism in the sector, until recently.
I have talked over the years with several workers and organisations representing Ukrainians in Poland, the foundation Our Choice (Fundacja “Nasz Wybór” / Фонд “Наш вибір”) specifically, and informally with representatives of the Workers’ Initiative labour union, about how the sector needs a bottom-up force to represent the interests of workers. When I studied the sector for my PhD, I noticed that Ukrainian workers were much more networked and coordinated, and serious about their domestic careers, than their Polish counterparts. It was clear to me that it was in the migrant community that the sector’s hope for a change would be found.
In 2018 I left for an EC-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship in the United States, a country in which domestic workers’ rights are still not recognised at federal level, but a country that has tremendous levels of workers’ activism. I was lucky enough to be put in touch with a group of Polish domestic workers in Chicago, led by Anna Jakubek, as part of the worker centre Arise Chicago. To me, coming from the dull organisational Polish landscape, it was simply mind-blowing: that a Polish former nanny could become a community organiser and leader of the national movement of domestic workers. We partnered up when I was documenting the impact of the pandemic on domestic workers.
I returned to Europe and continued my research remotely, following the situation in Poland thanks to a very informative report on the impact of the pandemic on the situation of Ukrainian migrant women in Poland. I started talking with the Our Choice foundation about avenues of collaboration and I told them what I learned about activism in the United States. One day I received an email about the initiative by Ukrainian-Polish artist Marta Romankiv, as part of her artistic project, to create a space for Ukrainian domestic workers to rest.
In this amazing endeavour, partnering with the Open Jazdow Settlement, the artist was able to accommodate a small cabin and garden in Warsaw city centre to provide respite to a group of workers who are principally live-in care workers for the elderly, with only a few hours off per week. The group has called themselves ‘You can count on me’ (Можеш на мене розраховувати). In this space, they planted a kalina (European cranberry bush), symbolising Ukraine, and they could garden and harvest vegetables. They sipped tea and traded stories of their busy weeks, and exchanged ideas of what to do to address the dire situation of marginalised workers in Poland – both in terms of their exploitation but also how to address the systemic challenges of the sector.
We quickly made contact, and the first intercontinental meeting of Ukrainian domestic workers from Warsaw and Polish domestic workers from Chicago happened on 20 June. The group met on Zoom and my suspicion is that actually the ubiquity of remote communication during the pandemic facilitated this transatlantic networking opportunity.
Apart from mutual kindness and fascination, the groups bonded over complaints of how both Polish employers and American employers expect the Ukrainian and Polish workers to produce dozens of pierogi (filled dumplings, a shared culinary heritage of central and eastern European countries) for Sunday dinners! They communicated in Polish with some occasional back-and-forth translation. The Polish group from Chicago shared stories of how they have been fighting and winning the battle for domestic workers’ rights in Chicago, passing the Illinois Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2016. The Warsaw group was getting inspiration. The endeavour was gaining traction and they teamed up with the trade union Workers’ Initiative (OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza), a progressive bottom-up trade union known for creating space for and supporting workers from less typical sectors of the labour market. Finally on September 19 the first ever Domestic Workers’ Committee was established as part of the Workers’ Initiative Union. The rest is history. Or rather, it is only the beginning! The groups are still in touch and in the course of my project they will meet again for a workshop on activism and the pandemic in January 2022.
For me as a social researcher it has been very exciting to watch this much-needed and long-overdue initiative come to life in front of my own eyes. For the first time in my career, I felt the things I am learning in one context can be useful in a different one, for the activists who take their fate into their own hands. I also admired the participants’ perspective and ability to grasp both micro and macro levels behind which every care theory or research seems to be lagging.
This is just one instance of how mutual care knows no borders and is a strong message from the domestic workers that have been supporting the smooth operation of society on the front line, pandemic or not. Let’s hear their message as a call for reform of society in the spirit of respect and solidarity for all workers.
Anna Rosińska is a sociologist of care and domestic work. She is interested in social relationships, reproducing and constructing social inequalities, the intersectional perspective and workers’ activism of marginalized groups. She works at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Italy, within the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship financed by the European Commission.
To read more on this topic, download the Open Access Global Domestic Workers Intersectional Inequalities and Struggles for Rights by Sabrina Marchetti, Daniela Cherubini and Giulia Garofalo Geymonat.
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