A Manual for Organising Migrant Domestic Workers: Lessons from The Voice of Domestic Workers in London by Dr Joyce Jiang

The concept of migrant domestic work is intrinsically connected to the wider concept of the “global care chain” (Hochschild, 2000) which describes the phenomenon of domestic work in middle- or highincome host countries being fulfilled by migrant women workers from lower-income countries. With increasing gaps in care provision, paid care work has become one of the main migrant occupations in high-income countries in Europe and the world. According to recent ILO estimates, there are 67.1 million domestic workers in the world, of whom 11.5 million are international migrants (ILO, 2015). Approximately 73.4% (or around 8.5 million) of all migrant domestic workers (MDWs) are women (ibid). 

Being enmeshed in class relations integrated with gendered and radicalised structures of oppression, MDWs experience greater exploitation than do workers in most occupations. They are not only subject to noncompliance with the National Minimum Wage and long working hours, but also to verbal, physical and sexual abuses. A survey with 539 MDWs conducted by The Voice of Domestic Workers (VoDW) in the UK reveals that 69% of MDWs did not have their own room in employers’ houses and only 49.4% had enough food to eat. The abuse is prevailing in this sector as 76.5% of respondents had experienced abuse at work, including verbal (54.4%) physical (18.9%) and sexual (7%) abuse. Many reported not being allowed to go out without the company and supervision of their employers. Jiang’s (2019) recent survey of MDWs in the UK shows their average monthly salary to be £1541; that they worked for 268 h on average per month, with an hourly rate of £5.75, which is far below the National Minimum Wage in the UK.  

The problems of MDWs are compounded by their legislative precariousness. Each year the Home Office issues approximately 19,000 Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visas under its “domestic workers in private households” scheme, which allows foreign employers to bring domestic workers to the UK (Jiang et al, 2020). Up until April 2012, provided a domestic worker had worked in the employer’s household for at least a year and the employer decided to bring the domestic worker to the UK, the domestic worker could obtain an initial visa for 6–12 months. The ODW visa could be renewed as long as the domestic worker would be employed continuously on a full-time basis in private households. In 2012, the UK government removed MDWs’ right to renew the ODW visa. This means that MDWs have to leave the UK or become undocumented after their 6-month ODW visa expires. Currently, domestic workers are also excluded from working time regulation and health and safety legislation, can be paid less than the minimum wage when they receive accommodation, and, if treated as family members, domestic workers are exempted from the Minimum Wage Act (Albin and Mantouvalou, 2012).  

MDWs constitute one of the most vulnerable and invisible groups of workers in the UK. However, the fragmented, dispersed nature of domestic work has presented barriers to the task of organising MDWs. Paid domestic work is often regarded by many as an occupational oddity that defies organisation. Despite the tendency to see MDWs as ‘unorganisable’ in terms of formal forms of union organising, VoDW in London, an advocacy and campaign group self-led by MDWs beyond the workplace, has been offering a supportive group setting in which MDWs can share their working experiences, make links between personal problems and broader economic and social injustices, and build collective power. It was established by 8 MDWs in March 2009. VoDW has been affiliated to the hotel and restaurant branch of Unite the Union and organises a wide range of activities, such as English classes, union organising courses, legal surgeries from qualified solicitors, emergency support for those running away from employers, employment advice, parliamentary lobbying and campaign organising. There are over 1500 MDW members registered with the organisation, with about 50–70 active members present in their weekly classes and monthly meetings. The majority of members are Filipinos while others are from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco and other Asian and African countries. This article reflects on the key organising practices adopted by VoDW, which has enabled community empowerment and affected positive changes of public policy.  

Reaching MDWs: public places, neighbourhood and personal contacts 

As MDWs do not have a traditional ‘shop floor’, they often congregate instead in their own versions of it: parks, playgrounds (for domestic workers who care for children), public transport, the rail or bus stations they use to commute to work, markets or supermarkets and churches. VoDW often send organisers to look for domestic workers in such public places. Once identified, the organisers provide them with information about their rights and VoDW organising activities. The recruitment method also involves a MDW asking another domestic worker, usually a friend of theirs or MDWs in their neighbourhood, to join them in coping with working circumstances. Many domestic workers often have their own social networks of domestic workers. This makes MDWs themselves key to transmitting information and identifying places where many domestic workers can be reached. Together with mobile phones, these neighbourhood and network relationships enable the rapid circulation of messages. Many MDWs also have social media accounts, such as Facebook. Identifying social media opportunities to disseminate information about domestic work can therefore be an effective strategy to reach more workers, while raising public awareness about MDWs. 

Individual empowerment: education, counselling and emergency assistance

Instead of merely focusing on high-profile social actions, the bulk of VoDW’ work aims at individual empowerment. Before joining VoDW, many MDWs had language barriers, low self-confidence and were not aware of their employment rights in the UK. VoDW has been providing English and IT classes in a place offered by Unite the Union every Sunday. It also offers employment advice and legal sessions to MDWs. The primary purpose of education is to equip MDWs with the necessary language skills and other knowledge so as to improve their working conditions. The educator also has an explicit aim of improving MDWs’ awareness of their employment rights in the UK and stimulating their sense of injustice. For instance, when members describe their job as ‘servant’ during the conversation sessions, the educator develops the process of reframing by asking MDWs to use the term ‘worker’ to describe themselves. The chair of VoDW emphasises that language and skills training is essential because it helps to develop members’ personal value and self-esteem, which is the very first step in developing collective agency. Her consciousness of educating MDWs was shaped by her personal experiences with critical learning: ‘I was very depressed when I was writing “Cry of a Migrant”. Then they (Unite the Union) found me. I got a series of training and became much more politically active. I know the importance of education’. ‘Cry of a Migrant’ was a personal story written by the chair of J4DW and awarded the first prize at a union festival organised by Unite the Union. Recently, VoDW has published a book entitled ‘Our Journey’ (figure 1) – a collection of individual stories written by MDWs themselves with the support of their English tutor. Many MDWs have reported that they have improved their self-confidence and gained a sense of fulfilment from their learning experiences. 

Figure 1: book cover of ‘Our 
Journey’ (Source: VoDW website)

MDWs who live in the homes of their employers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In the worst-case scenarios, MDWs are held in slavery conditions, their passports taken, and locked in their room or the house. MDWs who escape from the home of an abusive employer will need urgent assistance to meet their basic needs, such as food and accommodation, while they go about finding another job, returning home or taking legal steps. VoDW has a rescue mission led by MDW themselves. They arrange travel, provide urgent assistance and recommend new jobs to domestic workers who escape from their abusive employers. MDWs who have emotional and psychological trauma are also able to access free professional counselling provided by psychiatrists within VoDW. 

Art Matters

VoDW monthly art workshops have been organised since VoDW was founded in 2009. Members have shown great passion for these art workshops, and there are 20-30 members who participate every month. The workshops take place in Unite the Union (figure 3), The Showroom Gallery or Cubitt Gallery (figure 2) in London. There has been a range of art practices undertaken, including singing, drawing, painting, writing, acting and constructing and presenting satirical sketches. These art practices are participatory in nature, and are undertaken outside of the dominant code of aesthetics that valorises individual elite artists. The sense of community and solidarity that develop within the process of making the art is often more important than the artistic outcomes itself. VoDW focuses on the quality of the art processes themselves in terms of art as safe space, motivation and empowerment, and art as an external communication tool.

Figure 2: Drawing workshop in Cubitt (source: Joyce Jiang)
Figure 3: Participatory video work- shop in Unite (source: Joyce Jiang)

Art as safe space. The art workshop space has been provided by Unite the Union, The Showroom and Cubitt for free and is used exclusively for VoDW activities on Sundays. This ensures intimacy within a small-scale community setting. Many MDWs said that this is the only physical space where they are not watched by their employers and where they are able to make friends who share similar concerns. The majority of VoDW members work for six or seven days a week and have little time to go out freely. The session often starts with warm greetings between members, involving kisses, hugs and laughter. Just as important as the physical space, VoDW also creates an art space that is safe in that there is no scrutiny by dominant aesthetic standards relating to art. The art tutor noted that ‘this type of art has no common aesthetic standard. It’s grounded in its content. It’s as much about process as it is about the artistic products and outcomes.’ So, for instance, the drawings of the crocodile and the caged bird (figure 4) are not judged in terms of their conformance to dominant aesthetic standards. Rather, they are primarily seen and discussed as important and meaningful expressions of participants’ experiences. VoDW art workshops are characterised by informality and a sharing culture. Members can interrupt the art tutor at any time if they have any questions or other issues to raise. People who are shy and less active are always encouraged to participate by the tutor. Many MDWs stated that building friendship counts among the most important experience that has happened during the art workshops. 

Figure 4: ‘Life river’ drawing by MDWs (source: Joyce Jiang)

Motivation and empowerment through art. Many MDWs reported that the art practices themselves are inspiring and motivating. They felt emotional energy and mutual support when singing and acting together (figure 5).

Figure 5: Christmas song co-written by VoDW members (source: Joyce Jiang)

To counter feelings of powerlessness among MDWs, VoDW also organised a self-portrait workshop. MDWs were told that they would be photographed individually by a professional artist, and were en- couraged to present themselves positively. They were then taught to put a piece of thin paper on top of their own portrait photos, draw outlines of their major features, and finally colour it. At the end, all draw- ings were displayed so that MDWs could exchange their views on each other’s work (figure 6). Most self-portraits featured smiling faces.

Figure 6: Self-portrait workshop (source: Joyce Jiang)

Art as a tool of external communication. Between 2018 and 2019 Dr Joyce Jiang, an academic from University of York, and Tassia Kobylinska, a filmmaker from Goldsmiths, ran a collaborative, participatory video project with 12 MDWs from VoDW[1].  MDWs were trained in video production and created a short documentary video – ‘Our Journey’ (figure 7) which consists of video interviews and mobile phone footage. The co-produced film, ‘Our Journey’, has been screened alongside a self-curated exhibition of artefacts from their lives as migrant domestic workers, such as family photographs, letters from children back home, employment contracts and work uniforms, in a number of galleries including L’etrangere, Stephen Lawrence Gallery, Cubitt, Unite the Union and Goldsmiths in London and Norman Rea Gallery (figure 8) in York. The exhibitions gave a unique and intimate insight into a hidden world of exploitation, abuse and ultimately strength in solidarity and community. Through exhibitions, MDWs communicated a collective narrative in the public sphere, articulating who they were, what they stood for and what they stood against. The exhibitions were well received by visitors, who consisted of media representatives, trade unionists, NGO staff, community activists, politicians and the public. Many responding to our exhibition survey reported that it had changed their way of thinking and made them more aware of the situations of MDWs who are often invisible in public space. The Guardian published an article on the exhibition and the stories of MDWs in the UK (Karpf 2019). 

[1]Project website: https://myhomeisnotmyhome.wordpress.com

Figure 7: Still from the film ‘Our Journey’ (source: VoDW, Joyce Jiang and Tassia Kobylinska)
Figure 8: ‘My Home Is Not My Home’ exhibition in Norman Rea Gallery, York (source: Joyce Jiang)

Intersectional and intercultural organising

MDWs often have multiple identities – as workers, as women, as migrants and as marginalised and radicalised ethnic minorities. While VoDW’s lobbying and campaigns mainly articulate MDWs’ claims in the field of labour rights, their struggle for decent work also addresses the redefinition of cultural meanings associated with reproductive work; this involves a challenge to class, gender, race, migrant status and other social hierarchies. The limitations on domestic workers’ rights have, in many ways, been the product of radicalised and gendered social norms about women workers, the home and the labour of care. The cultural and ideological transformation needed to validate domestic workers as ‘real workers’ and to challenge the social and cultural legacies of domestic servitude, has long been a crucial agenda of VoDW. Labour organising in this case often goes hand in hand with organising activities based on gendered and racial representation, legal precarity and deep emotions related to stigmatisation, shame and silence. To emphasise the nature of domestic work as real work and achieve decent work for MDWs, VoDW has launched a campaign to address the legal precarity of MDWs. As noted earlier, MDWs do not enjoy the same legal rights as other migrant labour in the UK. They are currently tied to the non-renewable 6-month ODW visa. Therefore, many MDWs have become undocumented and often have to accept any work offered to them or face destitution. Some employers exploit their vulnerability and set them up in exploitative work conditions by telling workers they are taking a risk in hiring them. With the introduction of the offence of illegal working in the Immigration Act 2016, some employers refuse to hire at all. This legal precarity also affects the mental health of MDWs, with undocumented MDWs reporting that they feel worthless, frustrated and subservient. The campaign led by VoDW together with Unite the Union, Kalayaan and Anti-Slavery, recommends that the government reinstate the pre-2012 ODW visa. This would allow MDWs to renew their visas and apply for permanent residence and further citizenship – the same legal rights enjoyed by migrant labour in other occupations (figure 9).  

Accompanying the campaign, VoDW organised an exhibition entitled ‘Domestic Work is Work’ in 2019 (figure 10). Hosted by Cubitt gallery in London, the exhibition presented video installations, paintings and other art works produced by MDW which tackle the issues of racial discrimination, labour exploitations and gendered norms that affect the labour of care in the domestic work industry.  

Figure 9: VoDW campaign banner (source: Joyce Jiang)
Figure 10: ‘Domestic Work is Work’ exhibition in Cubitt (source: Joyce Jiang)

VoDW organisers also believe that positive gender and ethnic identities could reinforce MDWs’ confidence as proud workers who believe that they are capable of challenging exploitative structures. A good example was Miss VoDW Valentine’s Beauty Pageant (figures 11 & 12). VoDW encouraged members of different ethnicities and ages to participate in the pageant. On the runway, contestants were asked to present traditional costumes of their own cultures. One organiser of the pageant explained that the purpose of the contest was to develop domestic workers’ self-confidence, derived from positive gendered identity or ethnic identity, and that they believed that this confidence could be transferred to the political arena. As another organiser noted: 

‘Many of us have the feeling of being abandoned. This contest helps us to discover ourselves, especially the positive self, and recognise our own beauty. Of course, when we say beauty, we don’t just mean beautiful women . . . Beauty also means courageous women who are able to speak out and defend her community. The winner will represent us to do lobbying.’ 

Figure 11&12: Miss VoDW Valentine’s Beauty Pageant (source: Joyce Jiang)

Grassroots leadership and participatory democracy

Participative democracy and grassroots leadership development constitutes an important part of the organising process within VoDW. VoDW has sought to avoid the danger of a professional cadre of leadership developing by explicitly seeking to develop the leadership roles taken on by a range of MDW members. The chair of VoDW, rather than being an outsider, comes from the MDW community, and is a Filipino domestic worker herself. Among twelve members of the trustee board of VoDW, half are MDWs. There have been attempts to develop a group-centred leadership to develop members’ participation. There are five working groups within VoDW, including education, well-being, trade union, media and communication and fundraising. Each working group is led by one MDW. Various VoDW members have represented MDWs in public forums and parliamentary meetings to report on their work and life. The major decisions affecting MDWs are collectively discussed at the monthly self-regulated meetings that all VoDW members are encouraged to attend. A few MDWs have been transformed from powerless migrant women to worker activists and potential organisers. VoDW also has a conception of leadership as supporting and educating. The chair is more like a ‘bridge leader’ who crosses the boundaries between the public life of an organisation and the private life of its constituents. As one activist from VoDW noted: 

‘We are different from professional leaders of other organisations. We give our mobile phone number to our members. They can contact us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you don’t work as a domestic worker, it is difficult to understand our needs. For example, they might escape their employers or be abused by their employers at night . . . This is not what professional organisers can offer.‘  

Building alliances 

To strengthen organising capacity, VoDW has built alliances with a variety of allies including trade unions (Unite the Union in particular), Kalayaan (a professional-led NGO which provides advocacy and support for MDWs in the UK), Anti-Slavery International and supportive employers. Together with these allies, VoDW has launched campaigns to raise awareness among the public, shift perceptions of domestic workers and the industry in general, and address the legal precarity of MDWs in the UK. A notable collective success for the campaign led by VoDW and its allies involved the UK government in 2016 granting MDWs the right to change employers (within a 6- month visa window). The on-going campaign led by VoDW and its allies urges the UK government to reinstate the pre-2012 ODW visa which allows MDWs to renew visa provided that they are hired as full-time domestic workers in private households and recognise MDWs as real workers. It is hard to predict the policy outcome of this campaign, but the campaign itself has boosted MDWs’ self-image as real workers deserving of protection. 

Figure 13: VoDW International Women’s Day celebration with its allies including Unite the Union, Kalayaan, Anti-Slavery International and academics (source: VoDW website)

VoDW’s link with the trade union is innovative in this case. Since its establishment, VoDW has cooperated with Unite the Union to organise campaigns and classes without sacrificing its autonomy – each is aware of the importance of enhancing the self-organising capacity of MDWs. On the one hand, Unite has offered venues for classes and monthly meetings, and organised campaigns with VoDW on the issue of migration policy and employment rights. On the other hand, VoDW is an independent entity that has autonomous decision-making. The chair of VoDW has no position in Unite, however it is compulsory for VoDW members to join Unite in order to get access to education. After 10 years’ collaboration, Unite the Union set up a domestic worker brunch with the support of VoDW in April 2020.  

Concluding remarks 

Despite the fragmented nature of domestic work and MDWs’ legal precarity in the UK, VoDW has successfully mobilised MDWs, enabled community empowerment and affected the positive change of public policies. The case of VoDW points to the potential of a creative, flat, associational organising model that is based on grassroots leadership, participative democracy, a move away from the formal hierarchical relationship, and the involvement of a wide range of progressive organisations in organising migrant workers in the informal economy. Participatory art is also found to be compatible with, and supportive of, this flat, associational organising model. We do not want to necessarily suggest that these organising practices are the ‘best practices’ for organising MDWs or migrant workers in the informal economy. However, the case of VoDW suggests that this mode of organising may be sustainable at least in the medium term. The most important thing to learn from VoDW, therefore, is that social scientists and practitioners should go out in search of new creative modes of associational organising, where they are being enacted.  


Albin E and Mantouvalou A (2012) The ILO convention on domestic workers: from the shadows to the light. Industrial Law Journal 41(1):67–78.   

ILO (2015) ILO global estimates on migrant workers: results and methodology-special focus on migrant domestic workershttps://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_436343.pdf. Accessed 22 Apr 2021.

Jiang Z (2019) A special vulnerability: migrant domestic workers enslaved by the non-renewable six month overseas domestic worker visa in the UK. Policy report for The Voice of Domestic Workers, London. https://16fae8ab-6f0a-412c-b753-4986ecc84967.filesusr.com/ugd/6608f3_39dcbbd4f03245a7b795dc4c40a890d6.pdf. Accessed 28 Apr 2020.

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Karpf A (2019) When Escaping an Abusive Employer is a Crime: the Trap Britain Sets for Filipino Domestic Workers. The GuardianJanuary 15.https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jan/15/when-escaping-an-abusive-employer-is-a-the-trap-britain-sets-for-filipino-domestic-workers.

Hochschild AR (2000) Global care chains and emotional surplus value. In: Hutton W, Giddens A (eds) On the edge: living with global capitalism. Jonathan Cape, London


Dr Joyce Jiang is a lecturer in Human Resource Management in University of York, UK. Her main research areas include migrant labour, trade unionism, social movement and art activism. She has conducted research on migrant domestic workers over the last decade. She specialises in ethnography with a particular focus on the use of art-based methods, such as photography and film, in the study of marginalised communities. She has published papers in leading management journals, such as Human Relations.  She has recently produced a participatory film on migrant domestic workers and organised exhibitions on domestic work across the UK (https://myhomeisnotmyhome.wordpress.com).  She is on the editorial board of the journal Work, Employment and Society and also the trustee of the charity organisation—The Voice of Domestic Workers in London.

Author: Joyce Jiang

Publication Date: 21 May 2021

Category: Reflection

Review status: Peer Reviewed (Editorial Group)

Article DOI: https://toolstotransform.net/portfolio/joyce-jiang-20210521-a-manual-for-organising-migrant-domestic-workers-lessons-from-the-voice-of-domestic-workers-in-london/

Cite as Joyce Jiang, "A Manual for Organising Migrant Domestic Workers: Lessons from The Voice of Domestic Workers in London," Tools To Transform, May 2021, https://toolstotransform.net/portfolio/joyce-jiang-20210521-a-manual-for-organising-migrant-domestic-workers-lessons-from-the-voice-of-domestic-workers-in-london/

Credit as Joyce Jiang, "A Manual for Organising Migrant Domestic Workers: Lessons from The Voice of Domestic Workers in London," Tools To Transform, May 2021, https://toolstotransform.net/portfolio/joyce-jiang-20210521-a-manual-for-organising-migrant-domestic-workers-lessons-from-the-voice-of-domestic-workers-in-london/

Tools to Transform was initiated by Asia Art Activism, in partnership with DAMN*/Deutsche Asiat*innen, Make Noise! (DE), Healing Justice London (UK), House of Saint Laurent Europe (DE), Unthaitled (DE), The Voice of Domestic Workers (UK) and The Six Tones (VN/SE). This project has been supported by the European Cultural Foundation’s Culture of Solidarity award and University of York and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).