They Take Care of Our Loved Ones, But Who Takes Care of Them?

October 7, 2014

Despite the essential labor they perform, domestic workers lack basic workplace protections, a fact the artist Marisa Jahn underscores as she mobilizes workers across the country with her NannyVan.

Video by Studio REV- featuring Marisa Jahn. Produced in collaboration with Creative Time Reports, 2014.

Natalicia Tracy came to Boston from Brazil in her late teens, lured by a family that offered to provide food and shelter in exchange for her labor as a nanny and housekeeper. She found herself working around the clock, earning $25 a week and sleeping on a three-season porch regardless of the weather. Her employers took away her passport and wouldn’t let her call her family in Brazil. Working two jobs, Tracy eventually raised enough money to put herself through school. Years later she became the executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center, a nonprofit organization that represents, supports and organizes Brazilian day laborers, migrant workers and domestic workers in the Boston metropolitan region and Connecticut. Tracy is one of many former and current domestic workers who, by speaking out, have become leaders of today’s movement for domestic worker justice.

Domestic work touches everyone’s lives, making much of what we value possible. By caring for children and the elderly and cleaning homes, domestic workers allow parents to go to work and enable families to have leisure time. Yet despite the contributions they make to our society, domestic workers in the United States have shockingly few rights. Most do not have the right to file charges if they’ve experienced abuse. Most do not have the right to file for unemployment (that’s because at least 70 percent do not have written job descriptions or contracts). As a workforce concealed in the privacy of the home, 36 percent of live-in workers report that they have been verbally harassed in the previous year (PDF), and many others have been threatened, subjected to racial slurs or sexually abused. Despite this high rate of abuse, most domestic workers do not have any legal recourse.

Domestic work cuts across issues in an
urgent way: this
struggle is about
immigrant rights,
civil rights, feminism and working families.

Since President Roosevelt passed New Deal labor legislation in the 1930s, working conditions in most sectors of the economy have improved, but the lot of domestic workers has not. Considered the most important set of laws shaping labor today, the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act and Fair Labor Standards Act granted most workers the 40-hour work week, days of rest, minimum and overtime pay, Social Security, the right to collective bargaining and more. However, Southern congressmen seeking to control the African-American workforce would not sign these bills unless domestic and agricultural labor—professions largely held by African-Americans—were specifically excluded. As an outrageous form of institutionalized racism, this discrimination against domestic workers continues today. If we consider dignified and safe labor conditions a fundamental right, how can we accept that domestic workers alone are denied this right?

Domestic work cuts across issues in an urgent way: this struggle is about immigrant rights, civil rights, feminism and working families. That’s because the historical denial of domestic workers’ rights has always reinforced race and gender hierarchies in the labor market. When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established in 1971, domestic workers were excluded from its protections because home care work wasn’t thought of as “real work.” This rationale falls flat when one considers the occupational hazards that caretakers face, such as lifting elderly patients out of slippery bathtubs, taking care of sick infants or administering intravenous medication to patients with blood-borne diseases. OSHA covers a variety of occupations in which workers perform less physically demanding tasks than these, yet inexplicably, domestic workers remain largely invisible in the eyes of the law.

Presently, as the baby boomer generation retires, Congress has an opportunity to demonstrate that it values those who care for our families by creating, strengthening and reinforcing laws to protect domestic workers. Care work is the fastest-growing occupation in the nation, not only in health care but across all occupations. Currently there are two million caregivers, and to adequately care for tomorrow’s seniors, we will need to add two million more skilled care worker jobs within the next six years (PDF). Given our nation’s persistently high unemployment, this need could be seen as an opportunity, but if all those jobs come with low wages and no benefits or rights, the graying of America will further darken our economy.

We are morally obligated to take care of those who coparent our children and provide dignified end-of-life care for our parents.

Beginning on January 1, 2015, some caregivers of the elderly will be covered by OSHA laws, but many domestic workers will remain excluded. Among other exemptions, those who spend more than 20 percent of their time performing housework or preparing meals will not be covered by these laws. Why? Despite the fact that maintaining a clean home and providing food are critical functions that ensure the health of their elderly clients, the government classifies these caregivers as housekeepers, who do not fall under OSHA jurisdiction. Rather than rationalize why any domestic workers should be excluded from basic labor rights, we should do the right thing and treat domestic workers as any of us would want to be treated.

Recent worker-led movements have achieved victories, such as the landmark New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2010, followed by similar legislation in California and Hawaii in 2013 and Massachusetts in 2014. Domestic workers’ rights are also seeing increased public support: the New York Times editorial board recently championed the rights of home care workers, and the activist Ai-jen Poo, who was instrumental in the passage of the laws mentioned above, was just awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant.

On a statewide level, then, policymakers, domestic employers, workers and their allies can build on previous victories and urge their state legislatures to adopt their own version of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which will ensure that domestic workers have the same rights as most other workers. Further, state and federal policymakers should allocate more resources to increase the visibility of laws protecting domestic workers. Despite the fact that New York passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2010, 98 percent of domestic workers don’t know about their entitlement to time-and-a-half overtime wages. This is unacceptable; we are morally obligated to take care of those who coparent our children and provide dignified end-of-life care for our parents.

In addition to redressing the structural forms of inequality, we need a cultural shift in the way we view domestic work. As part of an informally organized, isolated workforce, many domestic workers do not identify as such until they hear other domestic workers tell their stories. The same goes for domestic employers. Until we self-identify as domestic employers and workers, we cannot translate our individual experiences into the larger global patterns in which we are implicated—and which we have the ability to shape.

There are historical precedents for the strength of today’s domestic worker movement in the United States. Two decades after the end of the Civil War, 20 black washerwomen in Atlanta gathered to form a trade organization called the Washing Society to advocate for higher pay at a standard rate. With the support of black ministers, they knocked on doors and within three weeks’ time increased their membership to 3,000 laundresses, black and white. As a major workforce at a time when laundering was one of the most dangerous of household labors (imagine bending over to pick up a tub filled with gallons of soapy, steaming water), the group gained enough support from the city’s business and political establishment and other household laborers (cooks, maids, nurses) that they threatened to call a general strike capable of shutting down the city by preventing their employers from going to work. Can you imagine the impact if the 200,000 domestic workers in New York City went on strike?

Special thanks to Anjum Asharia, Larry Lieberman and the National Domestic Workers Alliance for their contributions to this piece.