The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Unprotected by Laws, Domestic Workers Face Exploitation

by Megan Tady

Largely because few laws limit their mistreatment by employers, US housekeeping staff are underpaid and underappreciated. A new survey details their conditions and their predicament.

Mar. 14, 2007 – Interviewed at bus stops, parks, laundry mats and homes in the San Francisco Bay Area, immigrants employed as nannies and housekeepers revealed a stubborn stain on the fabric of American life: the women workers who clean, cook and care for families in the United States are being exploited.

Two workers’ rights groups collaborated with the nonprofit research firm DataCenter and the San Francisco Department of Health to conduct the survey of 240 domestic workers. Last week, the groups released the results, which catalogued "rampant abuses" in the domestic worker industry.

Slightly fewer than one out of five surveyed domestic workers reported making what the researchers called a "self-sufficiency wage" – the wage required to support a two-adult, two child family in San Francisco County. The rest reported making short of $14.27 an hour, with more than one in ten respondents making below the minimum wage.

The survey was administered by trained immigrant women who approached their peers on buses, in laundromats and parks and in their homes.

Almost all of the women surveyed were immigrants from Latin America. More than half said they were the primary earners for their families, and 93 percent said their incomes were not enough to pay for living expenses.

"Their vulnerable situation subsidizes the productivity and affluence of the US economy," wrote the report’s authors, "and yet this occupation is little understood and marginalized by the larger society and policymakers."

"[Domestic workers] vulnerable situation subsidizes the productivity and affluence of the US economy."

Domestic workers and their advocates say such treatment is happening "behind closed doors" not just in San Francisco, but across the country. In 2006, the worker-advocacy group Domestic Workers United highlighted the substandard wages and working conditions in domestic labor in New York City by surveying over 500 such workers.

Although most domestic workers are unorganized, a growing number are coming together through local worker collectives and advocacy organizations. With this empowerment comes a louder call for better working conditions and protections under labor laws.

Linda Abad, a Filipino domestic worker who co-founded the New York-based Damayan Migrant Workers Association, said the plight of workers has reached a breaking point. "There’s no more choice except for the worker to fight back," she told The NewStandard.

When Abad arrived in the United States, she took a job as a live-in domestic worker in New Jersey, caring for three children and cleaning her employers’ house. Her work day, which started at 6 a.m., included preparing meals, caring for the children and cleaning the house. "After dinner, I should be able to go back to my room and rest. But what do I do in my room? I am forced to iron," she said. She was paid $225 a week, regardless of how many hours she worked.

"I didn’t realize the gravity of the issues and problems in the industry until I was one of the workers," she said.

“We are disposable labor. Who’s happy working for a minimum of 10 hours a day with no overtime pay?”

Abad said the isolation of the job made her more at risk for mistreatment. "I didn’t have any contact with anybody" outside the household, she said.

Angela Pena cleans several homes in the Bay Area and is a member of the San Francisco Day Labor Program Women’s Collective, an organization of domestic workers that helped conduct the study. Pena said that although she gets paid a decent wage, the work can sometimes be hazardous. Through an interpreter, she recounted to TNS about how an employer made her wash her hands with ammonia before starting work. "It burned my hands," she said. "The scent of the ammonia made me dizzy and I felt really sick the whole time I was working."

According to the San Francisco report, 63 percent of the domestic workers surveyed consider their jobs hazardous. That might mean exposure to toxic cleaning chemicals and risk of injury from heavy lifting and cleaning high and hard-to-access places. Seventy-five percent said they did not receive protective gear, such as gloves or facemasks.

Abad said one of the biggest challenges facing domestic workers is the misconception that they are "happy members of their employer’s families." But in reality, Abad said, "We are disposable labor. Who’s happy working for a minimum of 10 hours a day with no overtime pay?"

Grace Chang, professor of women’s studies at University of California–Santa Barbara and author of a book about domestic workers called Disposable Domestics, said the "fantasy" that domestic workers are akin to family members allows employers to "rationalize not paying [domestic workers] adequate wages on the basis of believing that people are doing this work purely out of love."

“We are subjected to emotional and physical exploitation from which we cannot easily free ourselves because of the need to work and support our families in our home countries."

Jill Shenker, an organizer with the Women’s Collective, said because of the casual and informal nature of the industry, people who retain domestic help do not usually think of themselves as an employer. But, she said; "This is a profession. When women come in to clean [someone’s] house, they are professionals, and they need to be treated with respect."

The federal government does not fully recognize home-based labor as "real work," either, as indicated by its refusal to extend many labor laws to protect domestic workers. The National Labor Relations Act specifically omits domestic workers from the right to organize unions and bargain collectively. The Fair Labor Standards Act extended minimum wage and overtime rights to domestics in 1974, but it excludes "casual babysitters" and "companions" to the elderly. The Act also says that live-in domestic workers do not qualify for overtime pay.

Domestic workers are also explicitly excluded from protection under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which enforces safe working conditions. And civil rights laws, which bar workplace discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin," only apply to employers with fifteen or more workers – shutting out most household staffs.

"Exploitation of domestic workers is legalized and institutionalized in this country," Abad said.

Abusive Roots

Workers’ advocates say ties between domestic work and a legacy of slavery and the reliance on females for free labor make it even more difficult for household workers to gain rights and respect.

According to the Domestic Workers United (DWU) report, domestic labor in the US was often done by slaves, indentured servants or as a woman’s only source of income.

"[Domestic work’s] historical roots in slavery, its association with women's unpaid household labor, its largely immigrant and women-of-color workforce, and exclusion from legal protections reinforce the notion that domestic work is less valuable than work outside of the home," wrote the report’s authors.

“People will place the blame on individual employers, but the fact of the matter is, it’s the government's responsibility to ensure that workers have safe work places and [are] paid [a] minimum wage.

Because domestic workers are primarily immigrant women of color, the report said, they "embody subordinate status both racially and as immigrants." And often immigrant workers are undocumented, making them even more vulnerable to abuse.

"Tania," a housecleaner from the Dominican Republic who was interviewed for the DWU report, told the researchers: "We are subjected to emotional and physical exploitation from which we cannot easily free ourselves because of the need to work and support our families in our home countries. For some of us, being immigrants – this makes our situation worse, because the employers take advantage of this situation, increasing our work hours, many times reaching 24 hours."

Chang of UC–Santa Barbara pointed out that many domestic workers have experienced economic oppression on both sides of the border, having migrated to the United States in search of work because US economic policies have driven them out of their own countries.

Chang said the poverty that drives people to migrate to the United States "is created and exacerbated by neoliberal policies" imposed by international financial institutions. She also criticized trade agreements that "force governments of indebted countries… to comply with all kinds of policies that will hinder workers’ rights, cut down environmental regulations, slash social services, and allow for foreign investors to come in and displace small producers." In turn, she said, "people [are] unable to sustain themselves… so they leave."

Fighting Back

In assigning responsibility for their exploitation, the groups involved in the study are steering away from pointing fingers at individual employers; instead, they are looking at institutional forces.

"We really need the government to take some responsibility," said Andrea Mercado, a member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (United and Active Women), the other workers’ group that helped with the San Francisco survey. "People will place the blame on individual employers, but the fact of the matter is, it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that workers have safe workplaces and [are] paid [a] minimum wage. We definitely need to push our local, state and federal governments."

Domestic Workers United succeeded in getting a law passed in New York City in 2003 that requires domestic-worker placement agencies to provide employers with a "code of conduct" explaining labor laws. Legislation backed by DWU to establish a domestic workers’ "bill of rights" is also currently being considered in that state.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas and the Day Labor Program Women’s Collective are calling for worker protections to be extended to domestic workers.

Despite some advances, Abad said, organizing domestic workers is slow and difficult. "[Domestics] work five days a week, or they live in and have part-time jobs on days off. So their days off are very precious," Abad said. She also noted that if domestic workers are undocumented, the risks are higher for protesting abuse. "[If they] start talking and declaring their rights, they could be deported, so they choose to be silent."

Abad said Damayan’s organizing strategy has been to hold small house meetings where people invite their friends and share experiences.

But even as Damayan has grown to over 300 members, Abad has trouble remaining hopeful that conditions will change for domestic workers. "Immigration is really a tough problem here," she said.

Abad continued, "But somehow we should act, or otherwise things will just get worse for us."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


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Megan Tady is a staff journalist.

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