Marissa Begonia is a domestic worker as well as a founding member and director of The Voice of Domestic Workers. She is a leading campaigner for the welfare, protection and rights of domestic workers in the UK. Marissa will be appearing on a panel with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to celebrate International Women’s Day discussing ‘The Resilience of Women During the Pandemic’ on Tuesday, 16 March. She shares the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable migrant workers and her hopes for the future.
How has the pandemic affected women from migrant backgrounds?
The Voice of Domestic Workers is a community of migrant domestic workers who are mostly women. Even without pandemic they are already the most vulnerable group of workers, so the impact of Covid-19 and the lockdown has been severe. The pandemic has worsened the already exploitative conditions which they live and work with. Many migrant domestic workers have had their jobs terminated without notice and pay. Others were so afraid of losing their jobs that they were forced to work extra hours even during their day off and not given any time off. The lockdown is a painful reminder of imprisonment for those who have been previously locked in private homes and abused mercilessly by their employers. Many have an insecure immigration status and have no passport or official address so even registering with a doctor is difficult. They can’t access healthcare or benefits like the Covid-19 furlough scheme. With nowhere else to go, domestic workers were forced to care for their infected employers but were not supplied with PPE and so became infected themselves. They were very scared even to order Covid test kits and go to A&E because they feared possible arrest and deportation.
How have you been responding through your own work?
At the very beginning of the lockdown our trustees set-up a Covid-19 emergency hardship fund, and we are grateful that many have responded and donated. We also received extra Covid-19 support from our existing funders. Through this, we have been able to deliver food, medicines, PPE and cash to our members affected by the virus and lockdown so none of them would starve and become homeless. We also transferred all our classes (IT, ESOL, Body, Mind and Wellness, Finances, Media and Communications) to online sessions. We up-skilled our members to help them adapt to digital, supporting them in every step, often working with people one-on-one to ensure they could get online. We have also continued our counselling services for members who are suffering from PTSD and other mental health problems.
For our members who can’t get online, we check in with them on the phone. We have monthly meetings to update them on important issues and with Doctors of the World make sure they can access the healthcare they need. Now we are talking people through how to make sure they get the Covid-19 vaccine. Of course, meeting digitally can never match the benefits of meeting together physically, so we are very much looking forward to when we can go back to our regular Sunday in-person gatherings.
What do you think are the main things we need to do to create a better society for women from migrant backgrounds?
Domestic Workers and other women on the frontline are the essential workers in our fight against this pandemic despite being the hardest hit. We should recognise and value their existence and skills as an important workforce that keeps our economy going. While migrant women care for us, we also need to continue to work on how to improve their lives including their families. We need to organise and empower women to ensure their voices are heard and that they are part of lobbying and campaigning for their own rights. Domestic workers must be allowed to renew their visas and settle in the UK. Having more rights will help them to take action against abusive and exploitative work. The government needs to pay attention to the needs of migrant women and end the hostile environment. Migrant women need to be given the chance to engage and contribute to society.
Have you seen anything positive come out of the last year?
The economic cost to the country and to individuals globally is massive and we can never weigh the cost of the lives we lost to this pandemic; and many of them were migrant women on the frontline. There are important lessons we learned and we need to continue to build-up strength in those weaknesses we’ve found during this battle. What became very clear was the vulnerability of the already vulnerable migrant women in particular domestic workers. But what I have really seen is the unity of the community. What was touching for me was the love and support of people who donated to our hardship fund appeal and helped us buy food and deliver to the door where the domestic workers live and work. Even people we had never met before helped us – it was overwhelming. We also launched our campaign during November with MP Jess Phillips to ask for domestic workers to be allowed to renew their visas (currently capped at six months) and ensure there is a route to settlement. In spite of the lockdown, we felt it was too significant to wait any longer.
How will you be marking International Women’s Day?
In the run up to International Women’s Day we have a live talk show every night on The Voice of Domestic Workers Facebook page. The aim is to give an insight into the lives of migrant domestic workers to help people understand and support us more. It also helps our community to build their confidence and courage to speak out, so they can be at the frontline of our campaigning and be the voice of their own rights. We are covering different topics like family, health and future plans. On International Women’s Day the Facebook Live will focus on campaigning and organising as voices of domestic workers. While we are not yet out of this pandemic, we are already starting to rebuild our community, continuing to work and collaborate with other groups, trade unions and individuals to organise around our urgent campaigns.
Do you have any words of inspiration for women on IWD?
My best wishes to all women who tirelessly work in supporting many others, we find strength in you in rebuilding our own broken lives. Let our loudest voice be a threat to end an unjust system. Women, let’s take the lead in every step all the way up!