Every once in a while, when my four-year-old’s expressive chaos has gone too far, I hire people to clean my apartment. It’s amazing—a rebirth. Granted, my dog gets anxious and has diarrhea for the following thirty-six hours. But that’s a small price to pay.
The actual price tag is somewhat larger. That’s because I use Apple Eco-Cleaning, a cooperatively-owned, environmentally friendly cleaning business. Founded by people from NYC’s Worker’s Justice Project, the idea is to create a sustainable model of domestic work.
It’s a great organization, but paying a living wage is expensive. That’s why most people don’t do it. Last week, the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance released what many are heralding as the first systematic survey of the domestic work industry in the United States. The report is a powerful indictment of the industry, and of our collective failure to regulate it: domestic workers have been excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act since its passage in 1935.
Among domestic workers, intimacy and exploitation seem to go hand in hand, as live-in workers are treated even more poorly than their live-out counterparts. For example, two-thirds of live-in domestic workers reported being paid below state minimum wages (among all domestic workers the rate was 23%). A quarter of live-in workers reported having job responsibilities that prevented them from getting at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep the week prior to the interview.
What is to be done? A big start would be increasing regulation of the industry, as the report suggests. But another important part here is cultural. As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her introduction to the report, much domestic work is intensely personal in nature, and many domestic workers come to care about the families for whom they work. Cruelly, these emotional attachments are used to reinforce workers’ subordination: “What is being exploited in these instances is not just the domestic worker’s labor and skills, but her sense of interpersonal responsibility, her capacity for love.”
An important part of a domestic workers’ movement, then, is collectively reconfiguring these emotional attachments in ways that help workers have more control over their work and more agency in their lives. The report itself, to which numerous domestic workers contributed, is a significant step in this direction. Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, thinks we are on the cusp of bigger change:
We have an opportunity to reverse this history of discrimination, with policy changes — at the state and federal levels — that establish basic rights and standards and ensure that these workers can live with dignity and safety. Over the past decade, domestic workers in California and New York have organized to pass Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in their state legislatures. Workers in Massachusetts and Illinois are now developing their own bills of rights, but it’s time for more states to take up the task.
In a nation based on the values of liberty and justice for all, the people who are raising our children should not have trouble feeding or caring for their own children, and the people who provide care for our elders should receive support for their own retirement. We should honor, respect and value the precious labor that they provide: the labor of love that serves as the foundation of our economy.