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Inside the Invisible World of Domestic Work: An Interview with Ai-jen Poo December 7, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Women.
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What we found is that the people, mostly women, who we count on to take care of the most precious elements of our lives — our homes and our families — do not earn enough to take care of their own families or themselves.

November 30, 2012
by Lauren Feeney

Ai-jen Poo

Domestic workers — the nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides who care for our young children and elderly parents — have traditionally been excluded from the most basic protections, like minimum wage. Their jobs are inherently insecure, ending abruptly when the child goes off to school or the patient passes on, yet few collect Social Security or are eligible for unemployment benefits. Working behind closed doors in private homes, they are vulnerable to abuse and unable to organize.

Enter Ai-jen Poo. The community organizer has been advocating for domestic workers’ rights for over a decade, and in 2010, led the campaign for the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which theoretically guarantees overtime pay, paid vacation, and basic human and civil rights protections for over 200,000 workers in the state of New York. Now she’s working to bring the same rights to domestic workers nationwide.

This week, Poo’s organization, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, together with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the DataCenter, released the first-ever national survey of domestic workers, Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.  Poo sees it as a call-to-action for the nation to tackle the problems of this unregulated sphere, problems that in a Venn diagram would overlap with race, immigration, gender, and the modern, middle-class dual-income family.

Lauren Feeney: What are some of the most important findings in your report?

Ai-jen Poo: The fact that the report exists at all is important because for so long there hasn’t been any real data on domestic work, and that’s contributed to the invisibility of these workers and the Wild West nature of this industry. Now we have data from surveys of 2,086 domestic workers in 14 different cities from 71 different countries of origin.

What we found is that the people, mostly women, who we count on to take care of the most precious elements of our lives — our homes and our families — do not earn enough to take care of their own families or themselves. Twenty-three percent of domestic workers earn below minimum wage. That’s not counting live-in domestic workers. Among live-ins, sixty-one percent earn below minimum wage. And I think all of us know that even minimum wage is impossible to survive on.

Feeney: How is it that in 21st century America — after all the successes of the labor movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement — there is still this segment of the population that lacks even the most basic protections under the law? Why were these people left behind?

Poo: One reason is the legacy of racism in this country. In the 1930s, Southern members of Congress refused to support the labor laws within the New Deal if farm workers and domestic workers, who were largely African-American at the time, were included under those protections — protections like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

The people who have done this work have historically been poor, working poor women — immigrant women, African-American women, white poor and working class women — socially disadvantaged people. Then there’s the fact that this work has been seen as women’s work and has never really been valued or recognized as real work — it’s a battle to even get recognition as work and as workers versus just help or companionship.

All of those factors connected have meant that this work is done in the shadows. Now, with the need for this work just growing exponentially and becoming so much a part of the lifeblood of this country and the economy, we have an opportunity to really turn the tide on that.

Feeney: What makes domestic work so important to the economy?

Poo: The economist Jared Bernstein calls it a “critical input.” We call it the work that makes all other work possible. It’s this invisible layer of work — raising families and taking care of homes — that allows other people to go into their public lives and work, achieve, build.

Feeney: You call for a living wage, paid sick days, paid vacation and health insurance for domestic workers, and I don’t think anyone would argue that these women don’t deserve these basic protections. And of course, it’s easy to point a finger at wealthy executives and politicians who don’t treat their nannies well. But what about middle-class working women with limited options for child and elder care who really can’t afford any more than they’re already paying?

Poo: We need to take a holistic approach that’s not just about workers’ rights but about a whole set of policies that will make it more possible for all of us to take care of the people that we love. So we also promote tax credits and paid family leave policies and all kinds of workplace flexibility policies for working parents.

We’re living in a 21st century economy where the majority of paid workers are women, yet they’re still responsible for the vast majority of caregiving responsibilities. Our society, in the rules and structures that currently exist, has not accounted for that whole arena of work. And the manifestation of that is the low wages and invisibility and abuse of domestic workers. But really every single family is impacted by the fact that we haven’t adequately accounted for the work that goes into caring for families. Families need help, they need childcare, they need eldercare, and they don’t always have the resources to afford it. Why don’t we have universal childcare?  Why don’t we have workplace flexibility policies that account for the fact that people get sick and family members have to take care of them? It just seems very basic and it can absolutely be done. We really need to rethink the whole way we account for work and structure the economy in a way that works for everyone.

Feeney: In the meantime, what would you suggest concerned employers do to make sure that they’re treating their caregivers fairly, and what can domestic workers and their allies do to get involved in your campaign?

Poo: If you’re an employer, I would really encourage you to go to the Hand-in-Hand Domestic Employers Association website and sign up for their list. And for domestic workers, I would say join one of our affiliate organizations or the national alliance. We’re doing work in twenty-four cities in fourteen states and the District of Columbia, so we have affiliates all over the place, and if people want to form an organization in their town, we’ll support it. We’ve got big campaigns moving forward in California, Massachusetts and Illinois in 2013, so people can get involved in changing the policies and laws that will affect their lives in the future. That’s a call for employers too — we need employers to support our standards and guidelines, and their voices will be really important in that cause. Finally, there’s a measure that’s waiting in the wings at the Department of Labor that would bring 1.8 million home care workers under federal minimum wage and overtime protection, and we need people to write letters to their local Congress members and to the president himself saying that they want to see homecare workers included under basic protections. We’ve got to take care of our caregivers.

Independent Appeal: Modern Face of Slavery December 29, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Human Rights, Labor.
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 23 December 2008, www.truthout.org

by: Andrew Buncombe, The Independent UK

india-domestic-workers(photo, savethechildren.org.uk)

   They are lured by the promise of money and training, but end up as domestic workers who endure abuse and beatings at the hands of their masters.

    She came to Delhi dreaming of a new start, of escape from a life of poverty and hardship. Yet when she arrived, Sushma Kumari quickly realised she had been tricked.

    Far from being trained in the skills of acupuncture, for two years she was forced to work as an unpaid domestic help in the home of the “doctor” supposed to be teaching her. She toiled from 5am to midnight, seven days a week. She was abused and mistreated. Almost certainly she was brought to Delhi by a professional trafficker; what is beyond doubt is that once she got here she lived the life of a slave.

    For a woman who has the right to burn with anger, Sushma talks in little more than a whisper. “I really wanted to go home but I was not allowed to talk to my father,” she says. “I felt desperate, cheated.”

    The story of Sushma is a journey to the dark side of the New India, away from the tales of soaring economic growth and gleaming fashion malls, of Western-style coffee shops filled with a newly wealthy class. The two are surely connected; chief among the reasons for the growing demand for young, poor women from places like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and other desperately poor states to come to toil in India’s growing metropolitan centres, is that a new generation of professional women entering the workforce no longer have the time or inclination for household chores. Human traffickers fill the gap.

    And in a way, Sushma had been drawn by the promises of the New India. After she was forced to leave school early because the family were so poor, her father learnt, through an acquaintance, of an acupuncturist in Delhi looking for a trainee. A middle-man arranged that Sushma could be that person.

    “When we left the village, we were taken to another village for a month and then brought to Delhi. In the first weeks there was some informal training but it became obvious we were there to work as domestic servants,” she recalls. “After that, we just had to work. When my father called I was told to say everything was fine and that I was doing well.”

    The reality was quite different. Beaten and abused, accused of stealing and worked to the bone, Sushma wanted to escape but did not know how. She suffered for two years before learning, through another domestic worker, of an organisation that could help. Then she ran away.

    The treatment of India’s domestic workers is a topic the establishment rarely addresses. Relied upon to cook, clean, shop, wash and iron clothes and even nanny children, they become indispensable for many families. Yet while some employers treat them well, many are remarkably cruel. Stories of abuse abound. Last month, a badly beaten 13-year-old girl was rescued from the home of a professional couple in Gurgaon, Delhi’s hi-tech satellite city. The couple told police they beat the child to get rid of their stress.

    The charity Sushma ran to for help is called Nirmana. Established 12 years ago, the group uses trained overseas volunteers from a partner organisation, Voluntary Services Overseas, one of the charities being supported in this year’s Independent Christmas Appeal. One of the volunteers working with Nirmana is 25-year-old Serena O’Sullivan.

    Serena worked for a FTSE 100 company for a year after leaving university but decided she wanted to do something more fulfilling. After working for several charities, she became convinced that governments in poor countries needed to be pressed to include the poorest people in their programmes. “It led me to accept a VSO placement in India with Nirmana. I am able to share my skills in communications and advocacy, but also spend time with rescued workers and help to get their voices heard at a national and international level.

    “It is very hard to reconcile your own life and those of the people here. You hear the worst stories you can imagine. You wonder how one person can treat another person like that,” she says. “It is as if some people here think that others are not deserving of the same rights.”

    The scale of the problem Nirmana is trying to deal with is vast. A full 40 per cent of the people involved in domestic work are below the age of 14. And the number of people being trafficked is growing. The agencies which place them are unregulated and unsupervised.

    But slowly the country is being forced for the first time to consider the problem. The work of Nirmana and VSO is one factor. Another has been the publication of Aravind Adiga’s novel White Tiger, which won this year’s Booker Prize with its account of the abuse and mistreatment of servants. Some abused servants are summoning the courage to speak out.

    One such is 17-year-old Meena Tirki. Meena says she is 17 but she could be younger. Though Meena tries to smile as she tells her story, her face is impossibly sad. And with good reason. The eldest of four girls from a village near Siliguri in West Bengal, Meena’s family could never afford to send her to school. Earlier this year, an agent came to her village looking for girls who wanted to work in Delhi.

    Under pressure from her step-mother, Meena agreed. Placed with a family in East Delhi, Meena found herself sleeping on the roof during the blistering summer, rising at 5am to begin a day of exhausting labour. The family said they would not pay her and the abuse began almost immediately. “The husband would hit me. He would accuse me of not working,” she says. But Meena heard about Nirmana and she also ran.

    With the help of Nirmana, Meena and Sushma have since been placed with other families in Delhi where they are working as domestic help. It would be a lie to say their stories have a saccharine-sweet ending. While they are now being paid, they receive only a pittance – less than £30 a month – and they still work gruelling hours.

    But there is the vaguest flicker of hope. Sushma has been attending an open school in Delhi and hopes to complete her exams in April. She says: “Then I will decide whether to go home or not.” She has begun to take control of her life.

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