Domestics: Domestic work is important. Deal with it.

Domestic labor, which includes everything from caring for the elderly to doing laundry, is a profession that exists globally. From South Africa to China to England, domestic labor exists in hundreds of thousands of households. A great deal can be learned from researching the pivotal group of domestic laborers across cultures. Domestic labor is important.

Something is important when it has great value or significance. In the case of domestic work, it means that it is worth it to take the time and energy to examine and understand the purpose, consequences, and meaning of domestic care and labor. Domestic work is important because it changes society. Domestic labor or care is an integral and important element of global society. Examining the importance of this labor form allows for a greater understanding of that global society. Through a closer examination of domestic labor, or by considering it to be significant, more can be learned about class, race, gender, cross-cultural interactions, and global exchange.

In the United States, a “care crisis” is currently plaguing families as the ageing baby boomer population heads into retirement. The crisis consists of more elderly persons needing some type of care and fewer able to provide it. Because of improvement in health care that extend a person’s lifespan, the demand for these works is likely to increase and become a serious problem. The “care crisis” cannot be managed by dealing with the number of individuals that require care. Instead, we must consider the workforce and look at how appropriate care workers can be introduced into the workforce. Caring Across Generations attempts to address this issue by finding solutions to the care crisis through training programs, policy solutions, and enhancing the relationships between care workers and those they care for. This “care crisis” is an important issue in American society today. By understanding and studying the field of care work, we can better understand and find ways to fix, manage and survive the crisis.

Part of the problem is the value of work: “It is easy to appreciate why work is held in such high esteem, but considerably less obvious why it seems to be valued more than other pastimes and practices”. Work is acknowledged as something important, and choosing to not work results in condemnation. But only specific types of work hold value. For example, there is a great difference between the work of a neurosurgeon and a janitor. It is said the former required years of education, training, and work to be able to attain his or her position. The janitor required less training and preparation to be perform her or his labor correctly. So, the janitor is paid much less than the doctor. But is the janitor’s work less valuable?

According to US standards, yes, it is. The work performed by the janitor is considered commonplace, and she or he is considered replaceable. The wages for housework is a perfect large-scale example. Housewives asking for compensation for work they were expected to perform with smiles on their faces seemed farfetched and unreasonable. Despite its budgetary difficulties, the plan had the potential to place the issue of housework on the national front burner.

The amount of work contributed through caring for children, the elderly, and maintaining a household should not be overlooked. It is a time consuming endeavor and an extremely important one. In this context, importance is so great that were the work to cease, society would collapse.

From the need for domestic workers to what the position itself can explain about social structures, domestic labor needs to be studied and understood. It is important. It deserves to be examined, researched, argued, debated, and challenged. A system of gender biases, abuse, and blatantly inhumane treatment persists in domestic labor employment. This is intolerable. Unless the field is examined, how can these systemic abuses be successfully eliminated and the contradictions of importance and value resolved?

Organizations such as the ILO are attempting to remedy the very real issues in this particular labor market, but it is a difficult road. The ills that exist within domestic labor are so ingrained that it seems nearly impossible to eradicate them completely. This, however, should not diminish the importance of domestic work. Just as poorly treated worker should not accept abuse because of fear, others should not accept silence merely because the task of change seems insurmountable. Change is slow and difficult, but it is necessary. And above all it is important.


(Image Credit: International Labour Organization)


Domestics: Tell Governor Brown Domestic Workers Are Workers

Hundreds of thousands of domestic workers will remain unprotected by state law while at work following Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of AB889. While Brown acknowledged they were doing “noble work”, he felt there were “too many unanswered questions” about the bill’s contents. A fair portion of his questions expressed concern for the employer, not the domestic worker.

The measure would have provided meal breaks, overtime pay, and rest periods during long shifts. Opponents of AB889, such as the California Chamber of Commerce, argued that allowing domestic workers to have such provisions would be “impractical at best and dangerous at worst.”

Cost effectiveness is something that should be considered in the course of any measure, but not at the expense of workers’ safety. This sort of logic is not tolerated at other levels of business. Domestic work should be no exception. There is a tendency to overlook the importance of domestic workers and to ignore the fact that they are indeed workers. Working in an environment previously deemed the private sphere is no justification for denying over 200,000 individuals their rights.

Their place within the home and their performance of duties that are not traditionally viewed as the task of a non-family member have somehow earned them a place below that of other working class individuals. Brown claimed that domestic work is a “noble endeavor”. If that’s so, why doesn’t it warrant the protections granted to all other occupations of similar status and pay?

Additionally, a large percentage of domestic workers in California are female immigrants. Advocates of this legislation have explained that the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights would provide them with some sorely needed protections. By vetoing this bill, Governor Brown has denied domestic workers their civil rights and forced them to face unsafe working conditions with no means of recourse.

(Image Credit: California Domestic Workers Coalition)

Domestics: Who’s Burdening Whom?

Following Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of the California Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights (AB 889), the California Chamber of Commerce expressed support for Brown’s decision and claimed that the bill would have placed a “burden onto working families who are struggling.” Apparently the California Chamber of Commerce does not view sexual harassment, underpayment and  70 hour work weeks – just three of the countless unjust labor standards faced by domestic workers – to be burdensome.

What’s even more alarming than the California Chamber of Commerce’s ignorance is the fact that Brown is on their side. Brown asked, “What would be the additional costs [to the employers of domestic workers]?” But whose cost is greatest here? While the price of nannies, care takers and housekeepers may increase for employers, the cost of not having basic labor protections is surely a greater issue.

Although the business community in California considered AB 889 to be ‘radical’ in its demands, in reality, the bill would have simply extended the rights granted to the rest of the labor workforce to domestic workers. What is ‘radical,’ however, is denying the 200,000 domestic workers in California the same labor protections granted to almost every other manual laborer since the New Deal. As Caitlin Vega, a legislative advocate with the California Labor Federation, stated, “We’re not creating new rights that no one has ever heard of.”

Sylvia Lopez, a worker with the California Domestic Workers Coalition stated, “For decades we have tirelessly cared for California’s homes, children, the elderly and people with disabilities with the protection of basic rights.” Even Brown referred to the work done by domestic workers to be a “noble endeavor.” But until California grants basic labor protections to its domestic workers, a burden will continue to lie on these hard workers and their families.

Michael Smith,

Domestic Workers’ Rights: An Increasingly Relevant Transnational Issue

California Governor Brown’s recent veto of the Domestic Workers‘ Bill of Rights (AB889) has given several domestic workers‘ groups a platform on which to raise awareness about and discuss the significance of equal rights for and, even more, valuation of domestic workers. Unfortunately, this is the only positive outlook on Brown’s veto.

According to a member of the California Domestic Workers Coalition, “more than just protecting meal breaks, the workers had hoped the bill would signal a fundamental shift in the way society regards their work.” Domestic workers, most of whom also need to provide and take care of their own families, deserve to both feel and actually be legitimate in regards to their job security and self-representation while on the job.

By referring to domestic workers as “companions” to the elderly and disabled, it evokes a responsibility of love and devotion to their employers – one that is too easily manipulated and exploited by the state (in this case, Gov. Brown specifically) who believes it would be dangerous for the elderly and disabled to regulate domestic work.

However, this seems like it would be a very workable issue once domestic workers are recognized under the basic protection of job rights. In fact, the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Ai-jen Poo, says that “it was clear [they] would work through [the state’s questions] during the regulatory process [after the bill was signed].” One foreseeable solution could be the implementation and regulation of shifts by domestic worker unions. This would hopefully allow the workers to receive eight hours of daily and fairly paid work.

Without saying it, it appears that another concern of Governor Brown’s is the immigration status of these California domestic workers. As a US citizen myself, I am less concerned with this aspect of the issue. Since these domestic workers are worthy enough to take care of other people’s children, grandparents, houses, etc., this should earn them the right to visibility in regards to both the law and society.

Zoë Waltz

(Photo Credit: California Domestic Workers Coalition)

Domestics: Governor Brown’s veto of California’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights

Last week, Governor Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, a three-year grassroots campaign, blaming “increased costs” and increased “burden onto working class families.” Among other basic worker protections, the bill called for overtime pay, meal and rest breaks, and adequate sleeping conditions for live-in domestic workers. For domestic workers in California, where over 90% do not receive overtime pay and many cite issues of sexual harassment and violence on the job, Brown’s decision to prioritize working-class families illustrates a continued disregard for domestic workers as not “really” workers and a continued commitment to the status quo.

In his statement last week announcing the vetoed legislation, Governor Brown called domestic work “a noble endeavor” which deserves fair pay and safe working conditions. Domestic work is indeed a noble endeavor, but in measuring silences we can effectively unpack Governor Brown’s words. Calling domestic work an “endeavor” suggests that the work of caring and maintaining the home is less of a job but more of a service. It is “noble,” because though no one wants to do it, it still must be done. All in all, as the doers of “a noble endeavor,” domestic workers are not real contributors to capital. By calling their work “noble endeavors,” Brown makes the domestic work visible in recognizing its importance; however, Brown’s subsequent veto of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights keeps the domestic workers invisible in failing to recognize domestic work as a “profession” which deserves the same respect and protections found in other jobs.

Furthermore by taking the side of working-class families who “are struggling, I’m sure, to already afford a nanny,” Brown avoids the bigger issue of class production. Both the production of middle class success and the reproduction of the middle class status rely on the burdening of domestic workers. In other words, the middle class cannot survive without the hiring of domestic workers to reaffirm middle class status. At the end, a veto of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights is really a commitment to prioritize middle class comforts over the domestic workers’ basic rights. Brown’s ultimate decision to avoid burdening the middle class is a decision to continue burdening domestic workers in order to distinguish class.

Governor Brown also cites the possibility that increased rights for domestic workers could result in job cuts. Brown raises potentially negative consequences to justify his veto rather than working through these issues later, as Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance maintains: “it was clear we would work through those questions during the regulatory process.” Essentially, Brown’s veto put an end to possible negotiations and other ways to look at the issue. As Kathi Weeks recommends, we must be careful of knowing “too much too soon” and continue to imagine other possibilities and different ways to live. Another household is possible.

(Photo Credit: California Domestic Workers Coalition)

Domestics: A Blessing?

I had no idea. Despite limited activity on Saturday and Sunday. Despite eating every weekend dinner with my aunt. Despite extra trips to the grocery store. Despite added stress and limited sleep, it wasn’t until I was much older, did I finally have an idea that my mom was a domestic worker.

Starting when I was five years old, my mom started working every Saturday and Sunday evening cooking for an elderly couple. From 5:00pm until 8:30pm she’d stay at their home, preparing, cooking and serving dinner and dessert. She helped occasionally for several months, until the weekend cook left and she agreed to take her position and started working Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. She says she considered the job, “a blessing. I received good pay for what I did. They were good if I wanted to take time off. I could always switch things around with someone else that cooked. Also, they were in good health and I could prepare things for them before I left and they still had a nice meal the night I wasn’t there”.

When the wife passed away, my mom started working more evenings and by the time I went to college she was working five, sometimes even six nights a week. Then, “Everything was a different story. He took advantage of me and the other people helping him. I observed how he treated the woman that helps him during the day. He refused to buy her health insurance and he expanded her hours, but didn’t pay her for the extra time”, my mom said.

Often, the line between her personal space when she is or isn’t at his house is blurry. “Last week he called my office because he said he didn’t know where I was. He called simply because he thought he had a right to”, she says. “Sometimes he asks me to go early to spend extra time with him, but he never pays me the extra hours,” she says.

“Other times he’ll call me when he is in town and I’ll help him out with rides to where he needs to go. I feel like I’m doing him a favor because I’m fond of him, but then I realized he’d ask for help because he knew he didn’t have to pay us,” she explains.

Despite the fact they had a friendly relationship, when I asked her why she didn’t ask him for compensation for the additional work, she said, “I needed the job and I felt lucky to have it”.

He also makes her feel extremely guilty. “Sometimes he’ll make snotty comments. That’s stressful,” she explains. If she does something he doesn’t like he’ll “be quiet with me for weeks on end. I know he’s mad and not happy. It’s his way of staying in control. He’ll do anything to stay in control no matter what the impact is on our schedule, time or personal lives”, she explains.

Last Christmas my mom was with him on both Christmas Eve and Christmas night. “He’ll be thrilled I’ll be there Christmas Eve and he doesn’t care that I won’t be with my family”, she said. Although two of his grandchildren want to cook for him on Christmas Eve, his children decided my mom had to cook the holiday meal because they said she is a better cook.  “Just because I’d be better, I can’t be with my family,” my mom says.

My mom’s employer is ninety-four. Contemplating the day he’s gone leaves my mom with many mixed emotions. “As frustrated as I’ve gotten, I think about him being gone and it makes me sad”, she says. She knows she’s going to miss him.  “He’s the person I’ve had dinner with five days a week the past three years and for the past seventeen years we’ve eaten dinner together at least two nights a week” she says.  On the other hand, “I’ll be relieved when he’s gone. I feel guilty about that”, she says as she begins to cry. “Knowing no one will yell at me or put demands on me will be nice,” she says.

When I asked her to express her general sentiments of being a domestic care worker. She says she never considered herself domestic help.

I just never thought about it. In my mind, I think of domestic help as taking place in a different time. I know I’m a caregiver, but I never put myself in the context of domestic care worker. I was always so quiet about the job and I just did what I did. I just felt like I was there to cook dinner and do odds and end things around the house. He needed so little care, that he was just looking for company. I think falling into the job and not considering it a profession made me never think of it that way. It was just an extra job, extra money.

Maybe I couldn’t identify my mother as a domestic care worker because she doesn’t identify as a domestic care worker. The work of care workers is defined as the relationships and activities involved in maintaining people on a daily basis and intergenerationally. It often involves emotional, physical and “community care”. Just as my mother and I didn’t know, I assume there are many other domestic care workers throughout the world unaware of the position they serve. In order to ensure all domestic care workers receive fair and just working conditions it is imperative that they accurately recognize the work they do.

(Image Credit: National Domestic Workers Alliance)

Domestics: I am myself and my circumstances

I am a member of a women’s group called Woman, Action and Change. We are part of Tenants and Workers United of Northern Virginia. We are predominantly Latina immigrant and migrant women from all parts of Latin America. Our members include Mexicans, Dominicanas, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chileans, Argentines, many women from many countries. I am from Nicaragua. I have been living continuously in the United States for only 16 months.

When the group selected me to talk about domestic work, I was worried about how to approach a subject of which I am not an expert and then I remembered an expression of José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher, who said: “I am myself and my circumstances” so I decided to approach it from my own experience.

I’m from Nicaragua. My mother came from a poor farming family. As a single mother she raised 5 children alone. My mother was an entrepreneur. She had a store and all of us had to work ever since we could remember. I grew up with the image of a strong, working woman, and in an environment where domestic work was part of an effort to sustain the family. I grew up working and studying, got married and, as my mother did, I took care of my home and my children as part of my duties to support and protect my family.


As we all know, in developing countries, domestic work has been used as a mechanism to preserve machismo. In most of these countries, girls are educated to manage the home and boys are educated to have jobs and participate in the greater world.

Under these conditions, domestic work is a form of subjugation of women because their principle duty is to look after the home. Often, women are exploited and in the case of working women, they work the equivalent of triple shifts in order to manage a career and take care of the home. This represents an obstacle to professional development because many women drop out of school to find jobs to solve the needs of their family. For Latin American women like me, completing household chores in addition to our career responsibilities is a source of identity and pride.

There are countries that have incorporated legislation for domestic workers and social security. In some cases this is an appeal by the ruling parties to provide a progressive image and appear concerned about this part of the electorate marginalized by all public health policies.

This is a way to hide the inability to create better jobs. However, the inclusion of the domestic worker in the social security system provides them with medical care benefits and pension rights.

Domestic work in the USA

In this country domestic work has become a job for immigrant women to allow them to survive and meet the needs of their family. Except for in the movies, where we see an elegant butler, well trained and educated for these tasks, this “profession” seems to be exclusively for poor immigrant women.

A little while ago, the National Domestic Workers Alliance convened in Washington, D.C. This organization deals with the work of humanizing domestic work. It has brought to the table an interesting proposal to give more substance to this career.

Estimates are that the Baby Boomer generation reached 13 million in 2000 and in 2050 will be 27 million. This will require over 3 million healthcare workers to take care of them as they gradually age, making geriatric care a moral imperative for this country. Thousands of people, who have built the economic success of this country, will enter old age alone and without help as a result of globalization and the global economic crisis.

We have heard a lot about the budget cuts to social services in the media and the only proposals for jobs seem to focus on technology. In my opinion, there is no effort being made to support real people living in this country today. This is very irresponsible. Domestic workers can help resolve major societal issues through the care of the elderly, disabled and young members of our community. In the long run, this is much more important for building our quality of life because each of us will eventually be old and need help, too.

Today anti-immigrants accuse immigrants of taking jobs from Americans. I don’t think anyone is taking anything from anybody. The jobs filled by immigrant women, in particular, are low-wage domestic workers. These women work in horrid conditions for the chance to feed their families.

It is important that we discuss the legislative opportunities available to improve working conditions and educational opportunities for domestic workers. Improvements in those areas are connected to the outcomes and improvements in the care and wellbeing of our health, for the elderly, disabled and children. By supporting the development of women we will make our society stronger.

(Photo Credit: D.C. Intersections / Kate Musselwhite)

Domestics: We are here. We are organizing. We have something.

Two years after Montgomery County, Md.,’s domestic workers law went into effect, just one worker has made a complaint under the law. Yet domestic worker organizers have a spring in their step, and that feeling took hold even before the first complaint was filed in August: They have hope.

The law requires employers of domestic workers who work more than 20 hours a week to negotiate contracts with their employees or to have them sign a disclosure form saying they refused a contract. The written contract must spell out work schedule, duties, salary, overtime, payment schedule, time off, living conditions, length of the contract, and termination details.

A domestic workers committee from advocacy organization Casa de Maryland started the lobbying efforts in 2005 for a comprehensive bill of rights. The law that passed July 15, 2008, and went into effect in January 2009 is a limited version of what was proposed. But it’s a starting point.

“We don’t have everything we asked for, but we have something,” said domestic worker Martha Alvarado. “We have to continue working for the other things we wanted. Now when we do outreach we tell them that we have that and you don’t have to be afraid or anything.”

Alvarado is a live-out domestic worker in Montgomery County. She has been active with Casa de Maryland for six years, and is a leader on its Committee of Women Seeking Justice. She said the committee does outreach at metro stations and acknowledged that many domestic workers they encounter do not know about the law.

The lack of outreach seems to be one of the biggest obstacles to the law having further reach. Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal, one of the council members who sponsored the law, said he views the law as a major accomplishment. However, he said the government’s limited budget means little has been done by way of outreach.

“I think sadly probably most people covered by the law are not aware of it,” Leventhal said.

Members of the Committee of Women Seeking Justice and other Casa de Maryland officials have tried to fill in the gap, but ultimately Casa is short-staffed and has more egregious human rights violations that demand attention, said Ashwini Jaisingh, domestic worker organizer. In addition, domestic workers are a historically isolated population because their workplace – and sometimes where they live – is their employer’s home.

However, Jaisingh said that based on the number of calls Casa has received and what she has heard from domestic workers, the law seems to have generated an awareness of domestic workers’ issues in general. Domestic workers “feel change is possible,” she said.

In addition, Montgomery County’s domestic workers had a significant role in the law’s enactment, so they feel a sense of ownership in the movement and confidence in their power to bring about change, Jaisingh said.

The first person to file a complaint under the Montgomery County law was domestic worker Janet Gonzalez of Washington, D.C. Her attorney filed the complaint in August against her former employers alleging that they did not provide her with a contract. Gonzalez’s complaint was in conjunction with a federal lawsuit that accuses her employers, Belinda and James Caron of Dickerson, Md., of not paying her wages for more than four months and includes a trafficking claim for indentured servitude.

The complaint with the county is on hold while Gonzalez’s trial proceeds through federal court, set to start this spring, said attorney Nathaniel Norton of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau.

Norton said he thinks the law is a great tool although it was a “bit peripheral in Janet’s case.” Gonzalez called a trafficking hotline after she saw a program on TV and was then linked to Casa de Maryland.  Her decision to come forward led three other domestic workers who had previously been employed by the same family to speak out. They are now a part of Gonzalez’s lawsuit.

Norton said the Montgomery County law “certainly didn’t hurt our case. I can see it going forward that it will help our case given that employers are required to do certain things under the code and they haven’t done them, so that helps our argument.”

Although it is not known precisely how many domestic workers there are in Montgomery County, a county-commissioned 2006 survey of 286 domestic workers showed that they were uniformly deprived of health benefits, retirement provisions, and standard breaks and holidays.

Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection Investigator Lorena Bailey, whose office puts out a model contract for domestic workers and handles complaints, said most of the complaints she hears from domestic workers are beyond the scope of the law. Bailey said the law’s impact has been in raising awareness; “from an enforcement perspective, the numbers aren’t there.”

“The fact that we’ve just had one complaint is a testament to the vulnerability of the workers. Everyone is worried about job security. It’s difficult for an employee to file a complaint about not having a contract when they’re worried about not having a job,” she said.

For Alvarado, her hope has risen to a dream. She wants the Montgomery County Council to create a shelter for domestic workers. The shelter would provide them a temporary place to live if they need to leave their work quickly and a place to stay while they look for new jobs.

But until she can persuade the council members for a shelter, Alvarado will continue her message of outreach.

“We are here. We are organizing. We have something,” she said.


(Photo Credit: Yana Paskova/ The New York Times)