[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]
The Work That Makes All Work Possible. Organizing for basic labor rights for household workers
Domestic workers are professionals who provide critical care for homes, children, elders, parents and neighbors, yet they have been excluded from many basic labor protections. The Chicago Coalition for Household Workers is organizing Chicago’s domestic workers and is part of a national effort to advocate for dignity and basic labor protections for domestic workers. Several members of the coalition sat down with Heather Radke to discuss their work. Elisa Ringholm, Development Director at Latino Union, translated for those members who spoke in Spanish.
Can you define “domestic worker” and “careworker”?
A worker who has to clean the house, vacuum, dust all the furniture, clean the bathrooms, mop. She has to clean the stove, change the bedding, wash dishes, make the beds. A lot of people also have to wash clothing and iron. A nanny, if a worker is only a nanny, only there for taking care of the children, has to clean the children, give them baths, dress them, give them their food. A lot of times, the nanny has to cook food for the children, the type of food that the mom wants, and play with the child, and be there caring for the child all day long…It’s a lot of responsibility.
I take care of two people, I have a lady with Alzheimer’s. She’s bedridden with a bedpan, and when I get there, I have to first give her a bath in the bed, wash her, change her, clean her up. But after I do that, then the daughter wants me to clean the kitchen, clean the bathroom, wash the walls, do the windows, wipe all the furniture down in the whole house, vacuum whatever needs to be vacuumed, sweep, steam mop all the floors in the house—and that’s not even a part of my job! But that’s what she expects me to do, and right now I need the money, you know? So I do it.
Domestic workers have such a specific set of issues about organizing and rights. My understanding is that domestic work doesn’t always fit into basic labor law, including minimum wage and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws. Can you talk a little bit about why that is, and also the specifics of how that came to be?
There’s several issues… The workers that focus on cleaning, it’s extremely dangerous, with chemicals, there’s no law or regulation that protects them. Household workers are also excluded from the Illinois minimum wage, which is higher than the federal, which means they’re getting paid less. There are so many others. They’re not protected against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, civil status, whether they’re documented or undocumented.
So in my situation, when it comes to me getting a raise at work, my employer says I’m not allowed to get a raise because I don’t have papers. She also says that since I’m paid in cash, since I’m undocumented, that this is also why they can’t give me a raise. Whenever I work over 40 hours, they don’t pay me overtime, they just pay me the same.
It’s still connected to the legacy of slavery. If you can imagine if you’re a well-off family who could afford servants in your home and slavery was just abolished, you’re not in the interest of having those folks in your home have the equal rights and freedom that you expect. So as the decades move forward and the labor movement is happening, again, you want to make sure that the people in your household are not achieving those same standards as the person working in a factory, or something, whatever they’re fighting for. That also had to do a lot with how workers were defined, you know, many of them were defined as companions instead of employees, as a worker, right? In the women’s struggle, primarily it was white women who had the privilege to be able to fight for their rights, and it was not obviously inclusive of women of color, too. So, it’s really grasping that things happen on purpose and that’s what really guides us to make the change that we’re looking for—so that we abolish that legacy.
I think Eric just touched on it, but the reason why domestic workers are excluded from basic labor laws that include right to minimum wage, right to overtime, protection from discrimination, one day of rest per week, things like that, is because in 1938 when the Wagner Act was passed, during the height of the labor movement in this country, southern senators only signed the reforms which granted basic labor rights if farm workers and domestic workers were excluded from those protections— principally African-American men and women at the time. And that’s the reason why farm worker working conditions and domestic worker working conditions are so atrocious and underpaid and dangerous, is because of this legacy of slavery and racism. That’s almost a hundred years ago, and here we are in 2012.
I want to talk a little bit about the slogan that you use, which is “The Work That Makes All Work Possible.” One thing that I think is so interesting about this movement is that it’s about not just getting labor rights, it’s about respecting this work as real work, and as work that contributes to the world in a really important way. I’m just wondering what you all think about that.
Well, I just want to say that it is the work that makes all work possible—where would the seniors be without me? Because a lot of times, the family does not want the responsibility… I care for a 500-pound lady, she has three sons that live with her in the house, and they’d be mad at me ’cause they’d have to help me take care of their mom. The only reason they don’t abuse her is because I told them I’d call the people on them, you know what I’m saying? I feel sorry for her, because I’m not there every day, I wouldn’t be able to do it every day. My back is hurting right now! But where would they be without us? A lot of people would be in those homes with bedsores and some of them would suffer and die, because the family don’t care.
We’re living in a society where care for the elderly and the children and the family is not as much as the care that other societies give. I think that’s one side of it. Even if there are people around, they don’t want to do the work. They don’t want to wash the behind. It’s a difficult job, it’s an embarrassing job, because you have to wash the behind of a person, especially when it comes to caregiving and also taking care of children… It’s the most embarrassing and the most difficult part. To take care of the filth of another person. And then, when it comes to practicality, if there are no caregivers, no nannies, no housecleaners, people would be staying at home and doing all that work. They would lose their jobs, nobody goes to work. And what would the economy look like? So it puts also a moral touch on it, in terms of the values. It’s not just cleaning up a person, cleaning up a house. There is care involved. In fact, I was thinking, when I was trying to clean up a woman, an elderly woman who was so sick, and they move her, it’s like, oh my God I feels like I’m going to die. I was thinking, because if that would be done by a daughter, even if she loves the mother, it would be a combination of emotion and physical commitment, and it would be more emotion for her.
So you’re saying that there’s a really important value in care work, that you’re not just doing physical labor, but it’s also important emotional labor.
Emotional labor and intelligence and patience. Being able to make decisions, because you’re giving me the life of a person.
Something that comes up with a lot of workers and especially my mom, who does caregiving: who cares for the workers? And who cares for the family of the workers when they’re out caring for other families? So, one of the biggest impacts for my mom after being a caregiver for twenty-five years was the emotional impact it had on her, the depression of knowing that she couldn’t care for her husband who was disabled, or her elder son who was disabled, right? Yet every single day, to care for other patients, and all that. So, and she raised and sustained—she was a breadwinner, not even making minimum wage, really—for this family…So, one of the things that I hear that makes me emotional is hearing, even nannies, talk about, you know, I cared for and raised this child, but I didn’t get the chance to raise my child.
I think one of the things that’s extremely important to think about—that we all need care. And sometimes more than at other times, when we’re sick, when we’re tiny, when we’re small and when we get old. And somehow, whether it’s family members—some cultures are more communal in the way of caring—for us here in the United States, it’s more privatized. But it should be valued. When it’s paid, the value should be shown in the rights and the salary. If it’s not paid, the value should be shown in how the worker is honored, even if she doesn’t get paid, if she’s a family member. So somehow that value, that importance, and including everyone in that care, that’s somehow gone. That would be my life goal.
With respect to what Myrla said, about cleaning the bottoms of people, because I also cared for elderly people and I also cared for physically disabled people. For someone who is mentally sound, it’s really embarrassing to let someone else clean your behind. It’s embarrassing for them. This is really hard work, for both. And…I think what she’s saying is, why is it so difficult for this family to pay this worker while neither their children nor their other family members are doing this work. At this point, they’d rather pay someone else to do it. Because they have their own jobs, perhaps they earn a lot of money there, so if that is the case, why don’t they have the values and the sense to pay that worker well for this work they’re doing with love? And they don’t value the work that we do. They don’t give value to us or the work that we do for their own family. If these employers would pay us, those of us who do caregiving for physically disabled, for elderly, for children, for homes, if they were to pay us fairly we would bring even more love to this job.
Can you tell me what you’re asking for as part of your advocacy for domestic workers’ rights? I know you’re starting to draft the Illinois Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights, for example.
We are advocating for minimum wage, overtime pay, and paid sick days and meal breaks.
So these are really basic labor rights.
They’re basic. The ones that other types of workers get. Eric Rodriguez And it’s patronizing because these are basic things that we all take for granted. It’s almost obvious that, yeah, it’s time for my break, but there’s a whole sector that doesn’t even have that right at all.
Uninterrupted sleep I think, is an important one. In the California Bill of Rights, they called for a minimum bill that allowed for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, but then they had to whittle it down to five hours of uninterrupted sleep for the live-in workers.
There are other things like being allowed to cook your own type of meal inside the house. Very small, trivial, but very important.
In the next few weeks, the results of a survey are going to be released that explains some of the conditions household workers face. Can you talk a little bit about that? Eric Rodriguez The National Domestic Worker Alliance and the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development created a study that would be the very first national study on domestic workers, officially. The really cool thing was that the questions that were generated came from the workers themselves. And that in the process of interviewing other workers, the emphasis was to train the actual household workers to be giving the surveys. Which was a really important thing, because who better than the worker themselves, who has regular contact with another worker and can have that trust and dialogue? ◊
In November 2012, a national study was released that revealed the sobering conditions faced by domestic workers in the United States. The survey was conducted by the Center for Urban Economic Development at UIC, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Data Center, and the report that emerged will be a major foundation for future organizing efforts by local and national domestic worker rights organizations. To see the results and read the report, visit: http://www.domesticworkers. org/homeeconomics