Translating Rights into Agency: Advocacy, Aid and the Domestic Workers Convention
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In June 2011, the International Labor Conference adopted the Domestic Workers Convention (the Convention), the first international labor standard to set out legal obligations that specifically protect and improve the working lives of domestic workers. This paper argues that previous regulatory attempts to protect domestic workers have been inadequate and, although it is an improvement, the Convention is currently also an insufficient legal instrument. However, although the Convention is not yet in force, educational and advocacy work on this legal instrument are already underway. For example, in September 2011, I volunteered as an advocacy officer with the recently-established Working Women’s Centre Timor Leste on its first project, providing education, support and advocacy based on the rights expressed in the Convention to domestic workers in Dili and four other rural Districts. My experiences while working with this project suggested that a convention, as a legal instrument, can still have significant impact at a grassroots level without reliance on its legal mechanisms. This paper argues that the Convention may still be effective in improving the lives of domestic workers, by changing norms at the grassroots level. Crucially, the degree of effectiveness will depend on how successfully the Convention’s norms can be translated into local contexts. But there are tensions within the process of translation: between remaking rights resonantly and faithfully; between affecting local consciousness and retaining the essence of the Convention’s rights. How then to successfully harness the normative power of the Convention? This paper considers Community Conversations – a radical, participatory approach where domestic workers themselves drive the translation process – as one method of negotiating the tension inherent in translation. Such an approach may effectively engender the key Convention rights of solidarity and collective industrial agency. Through this approach, the normative power of the Convention’s legal obligations may successfully affect the protection of labor rights at the grassroots level.
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