By Preeti Shekar
There are nearly two million domestic workers in the United States today. More than 60 percent of them are immigrant women of color. It’s no surprise, then, that the struggle for domestic workers’ rights is at the intersection of diverse social justice issues—immigration, migrant labor, and gendered division of labor—in a context of growing feminization of poverty and globalization.
The domestic worker movement, which started as a small group of women organizing against unfair exploitation and pushing for some basic rights, has grown to be one of the most exciting labor movements, both in the United States and globally.
“The domestic workers’ movement today is over a decade old and is one of the most cutting-edge movements in the ability of its leadership to forge alliances and partnerships both globally and locally, with unlikely allies, including various labor unions,” notes Sheila Bapat, author of Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights.
In her book, Bapat summarizes the short but delicious history of this movement in the U.S. with her skillful policy expertise, drawing on the many individual stories she researched for the book. “Every case study points to the one stark reality that ultimately, how domestic workers are treated depends largely on their employers,” she says. “Families that hire and fire these workers at will can range from being quite compassionate and just, to downright cruel and unbearably exploitative… many [of them] immigrant or diplomat families.”
Diplomats and Domestic Workers: A Troubled History
“For every case of worker exploitation, abuse, and violation that makes headlines like this, there are thousands that go unreported,” notes Nahar Alam, a founder of Andolan, a collective in New York that has organized hundreds of immigrant South Asian women workers.
A leading figure in the domestic worker movement, Alam was talking about the infamous case of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who was leveraging her diplomatic immunity to get away with exploiting her domestic help, Sangeeta Richard.
While this case held the headlines for a while, it is a sad reality that many more such heinous cases go unreported or under-reported, Alam emphasized. However, she went on to explain, the enormous publicity and media frenzy around such cases helps immensely to raise critical visibility and build solidarity on these issues that no one cares about when ordinary middle class families exploit or abuse workers.
Even as the domestic workers’ movement has been gaining momentum steadily through high-visibility cases, the stellar feminist leadership of young women has also helped pave the way for rapid mobilization and some concrete policy gains.
Ai-Jen Poo, a long-time labor activist and campaigner, is widely seen today as the face of the domestic workers’ movement and rightly so for her role in making it the highly visible, highly intersectional movement it is today. Under her astute leadership, the movement has forged strong partnerships with immigrant rights groups, labor movements, and even environmental movements focusing on the disproportionate impacts of climate change. This last was evident at the People’s Climate March in New York City ahead of the UN Climate Change Summit, where a domestic workers’ group showed up in full force to join the hundreds of thousands of grassroots environmental activists and their allies.
Last August, Ai-Jen Poo won the prestigious MacArthur Genius award for her work. While this is cause for celebration for both the domestic workers’ movement and young feminist leadership, we also need to reflect on who gets to lead the movement and be its face. Alam urges social justice activists to be truly mindful of a reality that often leaves workers unable to lead their own struggles because of their vulnerabilities. We need to examine how the nonprofit industrial complex has created “career-activists” who are professionally trained to be dynamic leaders and act as external catalysts of change, as opposed to leaders grown from within a movement. In this regard, the domestic workers’ movement is not dissimilar to others, such as the restaurant workers organizing.
From Slavery to Surefire Liberation: The Long Slow Arc of Justice
Slavery, author Sheila Bapat reminds us in her book, is deeply imbricated with the evolution of domestic labor in 20th century America. “The roots of domestic work are deeply connected to the history of slavery in the U.S. It’s no accident that a vast majority of domestic workers were African American women to begin with, and increasingly now, immigrant women of color.”
With a deep and long history of exploitation rooted in slavery, making domestic work visible as critical labor has been a decade-long struggle. But thanks to strong feminist analysis undergirding the movement, it has grown to be quite a formidable one. A shining example is Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), an organization that both empowers domestic workers and enables them to find well-paid work in the Bay Area, where they are based.
According to Bapat, the domestic worker movement has organically drawn from the “best feminist theories out there—from intersectionlity to inclusiveness. But for all its theoretical underpinnings of feminism, labor economics, and human rights, its demands are quite basic: rudimentary overtime, breaks in the work day, and a decent wage rate. And as a labor movement, it’s unlike any other—women-led (with women caring for each other’s children at meetings)—and inclusive of the most silenced voices.”
“Groups like MUA and others have come up across the country—in the midwest and East Coast—to serve domestic workers,” she adds, having spent a considerable amount of time with various leaders in the movement. And in the last decade or so they have grown to be powerhouses of organizing, representing a new and radical model, unlike any union.
A Tale of Two Labors—One Not Valued
For all its successes and promise of changes down the road, the domestic workers’ movement raises stark questions about the larger issues of labor and how our economies are structured to value certain forms of it and not others, which are subject to exploitation.
It is hard to not get outraged or upset as you read and learn about the history of how domestic labor— that crucial work, which ensures that our children are taken care of, allows our elderly and disabled to live with care and dignity, and sends out the workforce everyday, clothed and fed and taken care of—is rendered invisible and valueless. The very struggle to have domestic work recognized as valuable labor mirrors the women’s movement’s struggle to make women’s voices heard. So it’s no coincidence that over the years, as the feminist movement has gotten more inclusive of women of color and is no longer dominated by white women, it has taken on complex issues involving labor rights, economic justice, and environmental justice.
Mapping the Local and the Global, the Personal and the Political
“At the end of the day, our movement needs to be not just local or regional—it has to be globally connected,” Alam notes. Her analysis stems from the reality that a lot of global economic shifts—brought on by neoliberal economic policies—have enabled this growing network of global migrant labor. Massive socio-economic changes have entirely transformed the physical landscape and triggered the global migration of labor, creating a new underclass of cheap, dispensable (and therefore exploitable) workers who are unprotected by the state because many toil in foreign countries with vulnerable temporary or even undocumented immigration status and long path or no path to citizenship.
Several countries in the global south have also made a deliberate shift to neoliberal models of globalization. While these models have benefited a few in the middle and upper-middle class strata, the vast majority have been left to fend for themselves in the informal economies of wage labor which sometimes come dangerously close to slavery. At the same time, countries like the U.S. have witnessed a steady decline in social services, health care, and other vital public spending which enabled the middle and lower middle class to have a decent quality of life on limited incomes.
Domestic workers organizing globally have drawn from U.S. domestic worker organizing and in turn, lent it enormous solidarity and strength. It’s a two-way street, remarks author Bapat. The International Domestic Workers Network based in Hong Kong has been pivotal in raising the visibility of basic domestic worker rights with the International Labor Organization, and also in tracking the successes of domestic workers’ groups in different countries—from India and Singapore to the United States. Minor though these gains may be, they are a tremendous boost overall to the movement that works for the rights of millions of domestic workers around the world.
Putting the Power into Empowerment!
As bleak as things seem in the U.S., “We need to remind ourselves that there is still tremendous hope, as you can see from the growth of the movement and its leadership and the gains made by legislation in the few states,” notes Bapat. In several Arab countries, where workers’ rights are non-existent, we cannot even begin to imagine what fighting for the basic rights of domestic workers would look like because there are no provisions in the law and the media is silenced. In that sense, it’s critical for international organizations like the ILO to be involved, in order to ultimately democratize these human rights that currently only exist in certain countries, such as the United States.
This is definitely an exciting time for the movement, both globally and domestically, where a handful of states have already signed a domestic workers’ rights bill. But that law needs to be implemented or actively enforced to make it a reality.
“We need political power, not just paper power,” Alam reiterated at a recent meeting in the Bay Area. “There have been hundreds of stories of immigrant women who toil away and put up with abuse not knowing their rights. We still need to fill that information and advocacy gap, lacking which, thousands of immigrant women remain trapped in their isolation and fear. Only the time-tested ways of old-school organizing and consciousness-raising can enable that. Not all your state-of-the-art technologies and social media campaigns can transform that ground reality.”
Preeti Shekar is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at RP&E.