Exhibition Displays Domestic Workers’ Vulnerabilities, Resilience

When Haryatin returned to her village in Indonesia after working in Saudi Arabia as a maid, she was blind. Her employer had hit her with a metal pipe, causing her to lose sight in both eyes. And when Nining, another Indonesian maid, was groped while cleaning windows in Jordan, the shock made her fall several stories to the concrete below. She was confined to a wheelchair.

Such reports of abuse are common among migrant domestic workers. Now, their scars tell their stories in “No One Should Work This Way,” an exhibition from journalist Karen Emmons and photographer Steve McCurry that opens tonight at the FCC in Phnom Penh.

A portrait from the exhibition 'No One Should Work This Way' (Steve McCurry)
A portrait from the exhibition ‘No One Should Work This Way’ (Steve McCurry)

Over the course of 18 months, Ms. Emmons and Mr. McCurry traveled to Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, Hong Kong and elsewhere, meeting women who survived abuse abroad.

“It’s a very sad, tragic situation. Their hope and expectation was to try to have a better life,” Mr. McCurry, the man behind National Geographic’s iconic “Afghan Girl” portrait, said by telephone.

“Not every woman had scars,” Ms. Emmons said. “There were things you couldn’t really see.”

Their project was funded by the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Ms. Emmons said she was moved to take part while writing a report on domestic workers for the ILO eight years ago. She then enlisted Mr. McCurry, who has worked in Asia since 1978.

The ILO estimates that there are more than 52 million domestic workers globally, most lacking basic workers’ rights protections.

“Domestic work is a particularly vulnerable sector of work because domestic workers are often isolated and kept out of sight, inside their employer’s home,” Jane Hodge, an ILO project officer in Cambodia, said in an email.

While Mr. McCurry’s photos are of women outside Cambodia, issues facing domestic workers resonate here, with thousands of Cambodians working abroad as maids. The main destination was Malaysia until 2011, when Prime Minister Hun Sen put a moratorium on sending maids there following reports of abuse.

But there are problems in Cambodia, too. Vun Samphors, deputy director of the Cambodia Domestic Workers’ Network, estimates that there are about 250,000 domestic workers in Cambodia, similarly lacking basic protections.

“When we are sick, we have no right to take days off,” said Ms. Samphors, who worked as a maid in Phnom Penh until two years ago. “A lot of domestic workers are used to their employers using violence.”

The exhibition in Cambodia comes amid a campaign to urge the government to ratify ILO Convention 189, which would extend key protections to the domestic labor sector, including a minimum wage, and set working hours.

Without such safeguards, Mr. McCurry said, “they are voiceless.”

“It was difficult often to get the women to come forward,” he said. “It’s very intimate, sometimes embarrassing, humiliating.”

And while the portraits depict suffering, they also show their subjects’ resilience. “It’s a courageous thing to come forward,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)

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