Do you know who cleans your house?

'Do you know who cleans your house?'

A video spot made by the Association for Integration and Migration highlights the problems of foreign nationals working as domestic service providers – cleaners, maids and nannies. Approximately 27 thousand women from former Soviet bloc countries and Asia are currently employed in menial positions in Czech households. Their poor grasp of the language and scant knowledge of their rights –as well as fear of deportation -make them easy targets of exploitation and maltreatment.

'Do you know who cleans your house?',  photo: Association for Integration and Migration
Within a help-and-awareness campaign the Association for Integration and Migration launched a video spot going by the title “Do you know who cleans your house?” in which a Ukrainian cleaner turns out to be a highly qualified, experienced math teacher. I spoke to Eva Valentová, one of the organizers of the campaign about the problems involved and what the association is hoping to achieve.

“We have worked for a long time now with migrant women in the Czech Republic and we see that this group is quite vulnerable as concerns fundamental rights and especially labour rights. We know that most women migrants who come to the Czech Republic usually start out as domestic service providers. This field is largely un-researched and there is no clear definition of the framework involved –what constitutes domestic work and what laws apply to this group. That is why we have targeted this field and the campaign targets primarily the women working in domestic service. We try to show them –with the help of leaflets and this video spot - that they have certain rights and also duties related to the domestic services they provide which is a type of employment or business.”

But to launch this campaign you must have received plenty of signals that these workers are not treated as they should be, that they are maltreated, exploited, possibly verbally abused?

“The women who come to our office to seek counselling mostly complain about unpaid wages or immediate dismissals. Most of them work illegally and some have no residence permit so they fear deportation and so on.”

But your video spot conveys a different message does it not?

Photo: Jean Scheijen,  stock.XCHNG
“Yes, that spot is meant to target the general public, especially people and families who employ these women. We want to make them stop and think about the fact that they are employing someone and know very little about the person or her problems. Czechs do not have these problems and therefore they find it hard to identify with them. We want to make them stop and think about the fact that the position of these helpers is not as easy as it may seem.”

You are also getting across the message that in many cases these domestic service providers are highly educated and just happen to be doing manual work – but many employers treat them as simple-minded foreigners –is that not the case?

“Yes, it is. Migrants are generally over-qualified whatever sector they happen to be working in. But the message in the spot is that domestic workers have the right to dignity, to good treatment – in addition to labour rights. We want to show employers that they could start by treating their domestic help well and then maybe think further about their legal status for example and whether they have access to health care or social benefits and so on...”

What foreign nationals are we talking about here? Presumably they are from non-EU countries...

“Yes, the campaign focuses only on third country nationals and most of them are from former Soviet bloc states and central Asia- to simplify it.”

And they probably do not have a very good grasp of the language when they start?

'Do you know who cleans your house?',  photo: Association for Integration and Migration
“This is also one of the problems they face –the language barrier – even though the Russian-speaking foreign nationals are very flexible and they learn the language very there is also a growing number of Pilipino nannies and baby-sitters and some Vietnamese also provide domestic services –so there the language barrier is much more significant. ”

When you think about how Czechs treat them -would you say there is racism involved or a tendency to regard them as second-grade since they come from former Soviet bloc countries?

“It is hard for me to say. We only have information from these foreign nationals which is just one side of the story - so I wouldn’t like to generalize and throw all Czech employers into one bag and claim they are racists. Of course there are cases of discrimination, racism or I would say stereotyping towards citizens of the former Soviet bloc.”

Even if you have just heard one side – can you say what kind of complaints they come to you with?

“Their main problem is that they often do not know their rights and duties. This concerns labour issues for instance – that they should have a work permit or that they could start a business in this field, questions concerning health care, social benefits...they general have no clue about their rights and responsibilities. It is very important to raise awareness in this respect because this will empower them in dealing with their employers. We do not want to say by this campaign that employers maltreat domestic help – the message is more about labour rights and empowerment of these women.”

What is the fate of these women – do they, once they learn the language, go on to get a better job in line with their qualification or do they just make money to take back home?

“It is very much as you say. For example there are certain groups –like these Pilipino women – who come to the Czech Republic to make some money to take home but for example many former Soviet bloc citizens would like to stay. They come to work of course but with a vision that they will reside here for many years. But again it is not the rule – this is very individual.”

Do you feel that it is more difficult for foreigners to integrate in the Czech Republic than for instance in West European countries because for years it was closed to foreigners due to the communist regime? Do they have serious integration problems because of people’s attitude to foreigners?

“I personally think that people’s attitude does not help migrants to integrate. We have partners in other European countries, for example Portugal, where the situation is completely different and I would say they make a greater effort to help migrants integrate which is maybe related to the needs of the country itself or the general attitude of the public. It is possible that because many Portuguese people were migrants they know what it is like to live abroad. Surprisingly we forget that many Czech people had to emigrate and live abroad and faced similar integration problems in search of a decent life. We should think about this more often. ”

Do Czechs treat foreigners from different countries differently? Are they more ready to accept some than others?

“Yes, I think that thanks to our history we treat Westerners and US citizens better. Because life in the West was something we all wanted and looked up to while the Soviet Union was regarded as an enemy so the citizens of the former Soviet bloc are not well received. I think we have lots of prejudices in our society or stereotypes regarding certain nationalities.”

Of course it takes years to change that – but have you tried to change this in any way?

“For example this campaign –this video clip –it does not say so explicitly but it also involves stereotyping. The Ukrainian cleaner is just a cleaner and at the end we realize that in reality she is much more than that. So that is the hidden message in our video.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on March 15, 2012.