[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
The housekeeping industry in Chicago, as well as many other cities, employs many immigrant workers from different countries. Many of these workers are women, and a substantial number are undocumented. The perspective of these workers is rarely presented in mainstream media publications. My initial interest in this issue arose a few years ago as the result of a research project in which I interviewed immigrant women survivors of domestic violence. Many of these women spoke about experiences of abuse in their jobs in the housekeeping field and compared that experience to the violence they suffered in their intimate partnerships. They explained that in their opinion the two experiences weren’t very different.
For this article I interviewed members of the cooperative Cleaning Power and members of UNITE HERE—women who both work in the cleaning industry and are activists in the field. They talked about the difficult working conditions in the cleaning industry, as well as the steps they are taking to combat this situation, and in turn, create more just working conditions. In this article, I use pseudonyms to protect the identity of the women who shared their stories with me, and I leave the agencies discussed unnamed to avoid retaliation against workers.
Several of the women I spoke with have worked for cleaning agencies at some point. Therefore, they know firsthand the general working conditions in the industry. They agreed that the employees in these agencies work long hours and don’t get fair pay. For example, one of the members of Cleaning Power related: “last year I cleaned houses through an agency; I worked from seven to seven, and cleaned seven houses a day.” Moreover, she didn’t get a break—the workers ate in the car, while they were driven from house to house. She was paid two hundred and thirty dollars for four days of work (about $4.79 per hour). Maria, who worked for a national level cleaning company that subcontracts with hotels and offices, explained that she worked seven days a week. Now a member of UNITE HERE, Maria elaborated on the exploitation scheme of these types of agencies. She estimates that, working for the agency, she did the work of two or three hotel employees. According to Maria, the agency required that she clean 21 rooms a day, while employees working directly for the hotel clean about 13 rooms a day. In addition, Maria related: “the hotel would pay the agency for 30 workers but the agency would only bring 12 workers to clean the hotel.” She explained that the hotel would give the agency what the workers called “phantom checks”—checks payable to people who didn’t work—and in that way the agency made a huge profit.
Another concern of the workers is the risk to their health. Maria described how workers were given pure ammonia to clean with but that nothing was explained to them about this substance. They were not given gloves or any other protection to use in their work. Ammonia can cause irritation to the eyes, skin and respiratory system if not used in the right proportion, and long-term exposure to this chemical can have lasting effects on the health of these organs. In addition, the mix of ammonia and bleach can be extremely toxic.
In addition to physical and economic exploitation, the workers I interviewed talked about being vulnerable to verbal abuse and sexual harassment from their supervisors while on the job. The agency that Maria used to work for usually has a supervisor for each cleaning group. According to Maria, the agency usually hires an immigrant man to supervise a group of immigrant women. To Maria this is a strategy that the agency uses intentionally to benefit from traditional male domination. Maria lived with and witnessed yelling, humiliation, and threats of firing. Moreover, she described an environment of extreme sexual harassment. For example, the supervisor would make sexual propositions to workers and threatened to fire them if they didn’t give in. He also tried to touch and kiss some of the workers. This supervisor also took photos of some of the workers to later coerce them. In summary, Maria’s opinion is that in these agencies “women are subjected to a doble latigo.” The expression doble latigo conveys that women are subject to oppression and exploitation on two fronts: economic and sexual.
To combat this environment of abuse and exploitation, the workers see collective action as a principal strategy. For Maria, this meant finding a job where she could join a union. In her opinion, unions don’t solve everything, but undoubtedly being a member of a union brings a lot of power in dealing with the employer. Maria sees the collective contract as a significant tool of defense against labor abuse. As an example of this, Maria told a story about the hotel where she works. A group of workers used the contract to exert pressure when they were given detergents without proper labels to explain the chemicals they were exposed to. The workers stopped working, and to justify their action, used the section of the contract that states that to perform their work they have to be given the necessary materials. After a few days, the hotel gave them properly labeled detergents.
Another collective answer came from a group of Latin American immigrant women who, with the support of Mexico Solidarity Network, founded the cleaning workers’ collective Cleaning Power. According to the members, Cleaning Power was born of a need to look for work without intermediaries, be their own bosses, and defend their rights. Currently, the cooperative is a tool to distribute the work they receive in an equitable way, negotiate fair working conditions, and protect themselves from abuse. For instance, to protect themselves from possible abuses, they send two workers when they go to a house or property to work for the first time. Moreover, the members feel that employers treat them with respect because they know the women belong to a cooperative and that they have support. In the future, Cleaning Power hopes to invest more in their structural development as a cooperative. In order to grow as a cooperative, one of their challenges is to have more steady work. Nelly, one of the members, explained that “people feel more comfortable with cleaning agencies because they feel the agency will respond if something happens.” To further bolster the comfort of potential employers, the members of Cleaning Power have created presentation cards and informational pamphlets and have done presentations for various organizations. Although they confess their disappointment because not many organizations have welcomed them, they affirm that the idea is to continue the struggle and not give up. According to Cleaning Power, the message is “No more exploitation, we are human beings.”
Cooperative self-employment and collective bargaining are some of the ways in which immigrant workers in Chicago are organizing to defend their rights and improve their working conditions. There are also a couple of sewing collectives, as well as other immigrant-run cooperative businesses. In addition, there are more organizations working in the housekeeping field. For example, the collective Tejiendo Sueños (Knitting Dreams) is an organization through which houseworkers are autonomously organizing themselves to improve their working conditions. Tejiendo Sueños and Cleaning Power support each other and work in solidarity. Activists and people of conscience who use housecleaners are encouraged to work in solidarity with this collective by employing members of Cleaning Power. So in the midst of vulnerability to oppression and exploitation, immigrant workers say Ya Basta (no more) through self-organizing, solidarity, and collective action.