Let's get organized: Domestic workers fight for their rights

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Deemed indispensable by the families who hire them, why are domestic workers excluded from legal protection?

When Juana Flores first arrived in the United States from Mexico 27 years ago, she found a job taking care of a child for what seemed like a huge amount of money: $75 every two weeks. After the first two months, her employers told Flores that she would need to care for two additional children. “A few months after that, the first boy’s father began to intimidate me, to insult me, and talk to me in suggestive ways,” says Flores, speaking through a translator.

While the husband was responsible for most of the intimidation, his wife overworked Flores, expecting her to do all the cleaning in addition to the child care Flores had signed on for. Her employers psychologically bullied her by telling her that at any moment someone could break into the house and assault her or the children. “I had to always be there, always alert, because at any moment someone could do something horrible to the children,” she says.

Flores was a textbook example of a vulnerable domestic worker. Alone in a foreign land, she was naïve and unfamiliar with her new surroundings. Like most domestic workers, she worked alone in an isolated position without the support of fellow workers—much less a union.

Ninety-five percent of domestic workers are women, and they’re doing “women’s work”—work that has traditionally been seen as having little financial value in the marketplace. They do the work that wives, slaves, or unemployed family members (grandmothers, for instance) used to perform without pay. Domestic workers include nannies like Flores as well as housecleaners and caretakers for the elderly and disabled, often called home health care workers. Their numbers are growing: There are at least 1.8 million home health care workers in the United States, with that number expected to swell to more than 3.2 million by 2020. More families are also hiring nannies and housecleaners.

It’s often thankless work. According to a 2012 survey from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, 23 percent of domestic workers are paid below the state minimum wage, with the average hourly pay for live-in workers being $6.15. That pay isn’t low because the work is easy: Twenty-five percent of live-in workers were not able to get more than five hours of uninterrupted sleep in the week before they answered the survey, and 36 percent of live-ins have experienced threats, insults, or verbal abuse.

Legal protections? Think again

Domestic workers, like agricultural workers, have long been part of the universe of “excluded workers,” that is, excluded from union support. That’s because the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 specifically barred domestic workers from forming unions. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 also excluded them. That act, which established a minimum wage and overtime pay for many jobs, and which made child labor illegal under most circumstances, was a huge victory for unions and created the basis of the middle class. The exclusions were concessions to Southern legislators who would have otherwise voted against the acts.

“Why would you exclude these most vulnerable employees?” asks Juan Perea, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago. “It was racism, pure and simple, and the current abuses are the legacies of it. It was anticipated to affect blacks; now it mostly affects immigrants.”

The exclusions weren’t only at the behest of some openly racist Southerners, however. Depression-era progressive women’s organizations that had fought hard for the earlier labor bills were not in favor of a minimum wage or guarantees for decent working conditions for domestic workers. Women’s organizations in New York were overwhelmed by the negative reaction to the idea from their members. Those matrons explained they were good to their “help” and didn’t need government labor rules invading the privacy of their homes.

That’s still a concern today. Anne Cohen, a disability consultant who has a disability herself, explains that many people with disabilities were against the 2013 California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights because they wanted to be able to hire, manage, and fire their own workers without red tape or meddling by a union. Cohen finds that people with disabilities are saying, “Don’t make decisions on our behalf without us.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed that bill into law after those who supported it made compromises so that several disability groups—and the California Catholic Conference (the lobbying arm of the California bishops)—supported it. In its final form, the bill only provides basic overtime protection to domestic workers. It didn’t go nearly as far as the groundbreaking New York Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights, passed in 2010. In addition to overtime pay, that law provides domestic workers with a day of rest every seven days, three days of paid vacation a year, and protections against discrimination. California advocates were pleased nevertheless.

Strength in numbers

An Old Testament author sums it up: “Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help” (Eccles. 4:9-10).

No one understands that precept better than domestic workers, the archetype of the “solitary person.” In response, over the past two decades domestic workers have founded and furthered advocacy groups. Juana Flores found the courage to escape her abusive job—she simply walked away from it. The experience led her to join a San Francisco advocacy group for domestic workers, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, in 1991. An active volunteer for many years, she was eventually asked to join its staff and now leads workshops to help other women.

Unions are paying attention, too, supporting new efforts to protect domestic workers with laws that cover other workers. “A significant theme in [the 2013] AFL-CIO convention was connecting with workers who are not traditionally part of the labor movement,” says Father Clete Kiley, director for Immigration Policy at the union Unite Here. “The National Domestic Workers Alliance was a very big presence.”

The National Domestic Workers Alliance now has 39 local member organizations, including Arise Chicago, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, and El Centro Humanitario Para Los Trabajadores in Denver. The groups won several huge victories in 2013: The Department of Labor now includes home health care workers in minimum wage and overtime pay requirements, and Hawaii and California joined New York in adopting domestic workers’ bills of rights.

El Centro, housed in a lilac-painted former warehouse in downtown Denver, was founded to support male day laborers but expanded to cover domestic workers, because they kept showing up. During a recent visit, Ai-jen Poo, head of the national alliance, sat at a table with eight domestic workers. Poo admired the bounty of red tomatoes and green chili peppers from the women’s gardens at the table’s center, as well as the prepared dishes at a side table, saying it was also an Asian tradition to bring food to gatherings.

The workers told her their stories, often using the words dignity and respect. Poo, named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2012, told the group how she began organizing in New York City 17 years ago after meeting four Filipina domestic workers. “They were tired of being abused,” Poo says, “tired of being told they couldn’t use the same bathroom as the family, tired of not being paid on time.”

The Filipina women told Poo it didn’t have to be this way. In Hong Kong, where a couple of them had previously worked, the law required employers to offer contracts to domestic workers that specified wages, time off, holidays, and working conditions. Domestic workers had organized there and set higher standards.

“They were shocked when they came to America and found that dog walkers were treated with more respect,” Poo says. “They told me, ‘We need to organize, so we can work with contracts, and get days of rest and holidays.’ ”

It was a slow start. A hundred flyers for a meeting would bring in five women. Over time the group discovered that offering nanny training, cleaning training, and other educational programs brought in women who were then willing to speak out. Their numbers grew from a handful in 1998 to 3,000 in 2003.

They launched a six-year campaign for the country’s first domestic workers’ bill of rights that became law in New York in 2010. After the recent successes in Hawaii and California, advocacy groups are now working on campaigns in Massachusetts, Illinois, Colorado, and elsewhere.

“It’s not everything we need, but it’s a beginning,” Poo says. “It sends a message to employers that they need to follow the rules and treat us with respect.”

Employers who care

Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association has supported domestic workers’ bills of rights and similar legal protections. Representatives from Hand in Hand, as well as individual employers such as Kathy Barry, spoke out in favor of the California bill. Barry’s support included traveling with her longtime housekeeper to the capitol in Sacramento to lobby. “It didn’t seem fair to me that so many of the workers that our economy depends upon are badly treated and poorly paid,” Barry says.

A professor and clinical psychologist, Barry wouldn’t be able to work outside the house if she couldn’t hire someone to care for her home. “Women’s work would come to a grinding halt if we weren’t able to employ domestic workers,” she says.

Barry’s current housekeeper has worked for her a couple days a week for 15 years. Prior to that, she employed another woman for about 10 years. Barry, who was raised Catholic, keeps track of what the going rate is in her California community and makes sure she pays well above that.

Hand in Hand’s “One Step Up” campaign asks employers to make an improvement to their current employment practices, whatever they may be. According to the Hand in Hand website, “By professionalizing these relationships, we show value for the work and help bring dignity and respect to our homes, families, and the domestic workers whom we employ.”

That’s because, ironically, part of the reason domestic workers are exploited is because employers tend to think of them as part of the family. “A lot of exploitation isn’t nastiness, it’s just not thinking of the person as a paid employee,” says Tony Robinson, a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver.

Out of sight, out of mind

The issue of social justice for domestic workers has been invisible to most Catholics—even those who care about social justice—if the lack of initiatives, pastoral letters, or books on the issue is any measure. “Domestic workers are perhaps the most invisible and isolated workers in our society,” says Jesuit Father Thomas Massaro, dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University in California and the author of several books on Catholic social justice. “You just don’t see them unless you knock on the door.”

“This should be hugely important to Catholics,” says Kiley. “Catholic teaching can work to change the global acceptance that it’s always about cheaper labor, leaving people in desperate situations and having to put up with a lot of abuse. It’s almost unfathomable that people could go to work every day and have no protections.”

“They’re doing a difficult job and taking care of our loved ones,” says Anna Jakubek, the Polish-language organizer for Arise Chicago, an interfaith advocacy group for which Father Larry Dowling is board president; their religious advisory board includes Bishops John Manz and Alberto Rojas, both auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“We’re not saying they’re always abused; some are treated very well,” says Jakubek. “But guidelines are needed to protect both families and workers. We’re asking, ‘Why is this not part of the law?’ ”

Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Jose, California is one parish that has taken on the issue of social justice for domestic workers. Its pastor, Father Jon Pedigo, considers the issue to be inextricably entangled with social justice for immigrants because so many domestic workers are immigrants. Pedigo includes announcements from the pulpit on upcoming actions, and he preaches on social justice. “Not about a labor campaign or workers’ rights, but telling a human story,” he says. “How a struggling person is able to overcome through her faith, her community, and her pushing back—what she does to recover her dignity. Telling the story is a healing moment for the community.”

Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, says her group also approaches congregations with messages about their concern for specific people rather than generic workers’ rights. “As a society we can raise core standards for everyone, raise the minimum wage, for instance,” she says. “Congregations are very open to this message.”

Pedigo would like to see the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsor a hearing so that the bishops could hear people’s stories. “They could then hold a reflection with these individuals, and together write up a pastoral response. It would address questions such as: What is the obligation of the Christian and the Catholic tradition? What is our response? This would be consistent with Pope Francis’ methodology of listening, accompanying, and, at the end, issuing a proclamation. This would return us to our gospel roots of listening and accompaniment.”

The bishops might begin with Eva Aucapina’s story. When Aucapina first arrived in the United States, she took a position as a live-in domestic worker, earning $100 a week for around-the-clock work. After talking with other domestic workers, she learned that her sense of injustice over her low wages was correct; what she was being paid wasn’t just, and others in her situation earned more. She also saw a news segment on television about organizations like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) marching in the streets for domestic workers.

When Governor Brown signed the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, Aucapina was the woman with the big smile in the pink CHIRLA shirt standing at his side.

Speaking through a translator, she explains that she got involved because she realized one day that she had to act. In an act of bravery and determination, she decided at some personal risk that she had to join the movement for domestic workers’ rights. “I’m not going to be a spectator anymore,” she thought. “I’m going out to march. I know that the Holy Spirit leads me. With God’s help we are mutually helping each other.”

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 1, pages 17-21).

Want to read more? Here are some tips for employers of domestic workers and some questions you should ask to make sure you're taking care of your caretaker.

Image: Flickr photo cc by Dzhingarova