Home Is Where the Union Is

E. Tammy Kim

Members of Damayan, a migrant domestic-worker organization in New York City

Twelve years ago, "Janie"—a round-faced, single mother of four—said goodbye to her children and life as she knew it in Manila. She agreed to follow a family to the U.S., where she would fulfill a contract for live-in domestic work. In her employers' Pennsylvania home, she cleaned and cared for the children seven days a week, 24 hours a day, without any days off. Her employers held her passport, and kept her at home—not once in seven years did she see friends or family. And her pay was a fraction of the minimum wage: a mere $400 per month, most of which she sent to the Philippines. When her employers moved, Janie, who asked that her real name not be used for legal reasons, found another job. She negotiated a better salary but met a new challenge: constant verbal harassment by her employer's mother. She recalls, "I cannot bear it anymore. I'm nothing to [them]. So they gave me pay, and I said I had to leave." Janie moved on to her current job, working for a family in New York. The hours are still long, the work emotionally taxing, but, she says, "I just keep thinking about my kids—that's all."

Janie is one of over 720,000 home-care workers—a term that includes nannies, housecleaners, and companions to the elderly and disabled—who constitute an essential, fast-growing part of the economy. By 2020, the child-care sector will have grown by 20 percent, and elderly care by 70 percent. Yet because current labor laws do not regard domestic workers as real workers, they lack the right to organize, receive overtime, or be protected from discrimination and workplace hazards. Confined to the intimate, feminized space of the home, they are isolated and hidden—and, due to the racialized history of the sector, their labor degraded.

Last week, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) released a report documenting the working conditions of nannies, companions, and housecleaners in 14 U.S. cities. Their findings, based on surveys with over 2000 independent (non-agency) workers, are sobering. The average caregiver earns only $10.00 per hour, and 67 percent of live-in workers receive less than the minimum wage. Thirty-five percent of workers report long hours without breaks, and 66 percent had worked while sick or injured. Ninety-one percent of those facing workplace problems were unwilling to complain for fear of losing their jobs. Benefits, needless to say, are nonexistent. Many of these workers are also undocumented, a particularly vulnerable demographic.

"We found that workers are on 50-hour schedules but don't get overtime or breaks," says Jerretta Johnson, an energetic single mother, former home health aide, and organizer for NDWA in Atlanta. “When [workers] do negotiate, they get a flat rate and end up working more—like when parents’ work schedules change—but don’t get paid more … and none of the workers I’ve been in contact with have health insurance.”

Pema Sherpa, a nanny in New York and a member of Adhikaar, a Nepali worker organization, sees instability and employer caprice—borne of a fundamentally imbalanced bargaining relationship—as major problems in the sector. "Each job, I work two to three, four years, but I have to look for another job again. If they don't need me any more, they don't tell me by mouth, but they complain. They want your service, not you," she says. 

Against massive odds, a significant number of domestic workers have banded together to form a new labor movement. Nannies, housecleaners, and caregivers are more organized today than ever before: Over the past decade, large-scale mobilization, pop-cultural products, and new research and scholarship have made the sector increasingly visible. 

Ai-jen Poo, a 38-year-old organizer, is the most well-known proponent of domestic workers’ rights. As founder of New York-based Domestic Workers United (an organization I once worked with closely), she led a six-year campaign for a state Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. This bill, when passed with union and grassroots support in 2010, gave unprecedented protections to domestic workers, including overtime, a weekly day of rest, and paid leave. Poo went on to establish the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) in 2007 and then Caring Across Generations, which aims to improve working conditions and provide a legalization pathway for caregivers to the elderly and disabled. In 2011, the Alliance and coalition partners successfully pressed for an International Labour Organization convention that sets global standards for about 100 million domestic workers. "Care jobs are the jobs of the future," says Poo. "The question is: will they be good jobs with paths to opportunity, or will they be 21st-century sweatshops?"

To this end, NDWA currently seeks to eliminate the exclusion of 2.5 million caregivers for the elderly and disabled from federal minimum wage and overtime laws. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, whose mother was a domestic worker, has proposed a regulatory change to this effect, which President Obama endorsed in a speech last year. "The fact that Obama won is promising," says Haeyoung Yoon, a National Employment Law Project attorney. "Advocates will be pushing for him to finally change the regulations. He talked a lot about women's issues, and these are women who can't even make the minimum wage."

In addition to this national campaign, multiple states are looking to replicate what New York did in 2010 by passing their own domestic workers bills of rights. California came close just a few months ago, but Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill. Advocates in Massachusetts plan to introduce legislation in January, and an Illinois coalition is in the process of drafting. The Illinois legislature is also considering a minimum-wage bill that would eliminate exclusions for domestic workers. "We think this is part of getting people out of poverty and raising wages," says Wendy Pollack, an attorney at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago. "While many [nannies] do well in wealthier homes, [other] workers are abused and not covered by the federal minimum wage." 

These collective efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last year, in the New York Times, writer Barbara Ehrenreich called NDWA’s Poo the "nannies' Norma Rae," and Time named Poo one of its 100 most influential people in 2012. Her cause, too, has received increased media attention, thanks in part to novel-turned-film The Help, which depicted Southern Black domestic work; and actress Amy Poehler's toast to her nannies at the Time 100 gala in 2011. NDWA later enlisted Poehler to star in a video endorsement of the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, and launched #BeTheHelp, a social media campaign supported by Lost actor Harold Perrineau, whose grandmother was a domestic worker.

Visibility and legal recognition for nannies, housecleaners, and elder caregivers could have larger ramifications "for everyone in care work, whether paid or unpaid," according to Danielle Feris, director of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association. Pushed to its logical conclusion, the domestic-worker movement could reopen and extend a conversation started by mid-century feminists: What is home labor worth? Who should perform this work, and how should they be treated? And, though a private market will always exist, what role should the government play in making care accessible and affordable? 

The contemporary domestic-worker movement has begun to answer some of these questions. Issues of compensation, benefits, and working conditions are now firmly on the table, and many Americans are newly concerned with nannies’ basic rights. That nearly all nannies and other in-home workers are women of color, however, is a more intractable social fact. So is our ever-shrinking public sphere: the systems of nurture—child care subsidies, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—being dismantled in the name of fiscal austerity. Private domestic labor overlaps with, but cannot replace, these programs, which represent a commitment to care for young and old, regardless of means. Meeting these needs is a daunting 21st-century challenge, but we now have, if Ai-jen Poo is right, "an opportunity to put into place a new system, to bring quality care into every home."

Reporting for this piece supported by the Ms. Foundation for Women Fellowship.

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