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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.

The Cancerous Politics and Ideology of the Susan G. Komen Foundation February 1, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Health, Right Wing, Women.
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Published on Wednesday, February 1, 2012 by RH Reality Check

This week it became clear there are things more important to the Susan G. Komen Foundation–the fundraising giant that each year during breast cancer awareness month virtually swathes the United States in pink, a la Christo–than ensuring women are able to access exams for early detection of breast cancer.

What could be more important to an organization ostensibly dedicated to the elimination of breast cancer? Answer: The politics and personal agendas of the organization’s senior staff and board, both of which have been infiltrated by right-wing ideologues and both of which were instrumental in a decision to deny further support from Komen affiliates to Planned Parenthood clinics that provide breast exams. In fact, it is now clear that some anti-choicers on Komen’s board and senior staff are actually willing to sacrifice poor women to breast cancer to satisfy their own agendas.

Nationwide, Planned Parenthood doctors and nurses provide nearly 750,000 breast cancer screenings annually, offering risk assessments, breast exams, breast health information and education, and diagnostic and surgical referrals. Over the past five years, Planned Parenthood health centers have conducted nearly 170,000 clinical breast exams with funds from Komen, out of a total of more than four million clinical breast exams performed nationwide by Planned Parenthood clinics. Komen grants also supported more than 6,400 out of 70,000 mammogram referrals made by Planned Parenthood. These are affiliate-to-affiliate grants between Komen and Planned Parenthood sister organizations at the state level.

A large share of the clients served at Planned Parenthood clinics are low-income African-American and Latina women. The National Cancer Institute identifies lack of access to early and effective screening for breast cancer (and hence lack of early treatment) as a primary reason that African-American and Latina women die of breast cancer at higher rates than the general population. In fact, Komen itself recognized these links in a 2011 statement lauding its relationship with Planned Parenthood:

While Komen Affiliates provide funds to pay for screening, education and treatment programs in dozens of communities, in some areas, the only place that poor, uninsured or under-insured women can receive these services are through programs run by Planned Parenthood.

Komen further stated:

These facilities serve rural women, poor women, Native American women, women of color, and the un- and under-insured. As part of our financial arrangements, we monitor our grantees twice a year to be sure they are spending the money in line with our agreements, and we are assured that Planned Parenthood uses these funds only for breast health education, screening and treatment programs.

As long as there is a need for health care for these women, Komen Affiliates will continue to fund the facilities that meet that need.

But apparently those women no longer matter as Komen’s support has now been withdrawn. Last month, the national office of the Komen Foundation, which maintains tight control over its state affiliates, sent a memo barring those affiliates from using money they had raised at the local level to partner with Planned Parenthood clinics in improving access to breast exams.

Why? Not science, not evidence, not concern for women.

Politics and personal ambition, pure and simple.

It’s no secret that anti-choice legislators at the state and national level have made Planned Parenthood the central focus of their anti-woman agenda, spending well over half of entire legislative sessions in some states focused on cutting funding and limiting access to reproductive health services.  At the national level, the ongoing witch hunt aimed at PPFA has taken many forms, one of which includes a “Congressional inquiry” launched by House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.).  Stearns sent a letter to PPFA in late September 2011 asking for an avalanche of documents to “investigate” whether PPFA has used federal funds to provide abortion services.

In a letter protesting the move, Democrats Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) called the inquiry a politically-motivated waste of time and taxpayer money, stating:

“Planned Parenthood is being singled out as part of a Republican vendetta against an organization that provides family planning and other medical care to low-income women and men. … The HHS Inspector General and state Medicaid programs regularly audit Planned Parenthood … These audits have not identified any pattern of misuse of federal funds, illegal activity, or other abuse that would justify a broad and invasive congressional investigation.”

Wasteful or not, any Congressperson can start such an inquiry, even for specious reasons. This is not equivalent to a legal “investigation” of an organization. What Stearns is doing is completely unfounded and politically motivated, but when you have power you can abuse it.

What does Stearns have to do with Komen? Anti-choice groups have long targeted Komen for its partnership with Planned Parenthood, in part by haranguing the organization and listing them as targets of various protests and boycotts, and in part by touting the medically-disproven and specious claims about non-existent links between abortion and breast cancer. A group known as Life Decisions International (LDI), the website of which is “fightpp.org,” has long had Komen on its boycott list.

These efforts hardly appear to have affected Komen’s bottom line since the foundation’s total gross revenue in 2010 was nearly $421 million, only several hundred thousand dollars of which were granted over the past five years by Komen’s state affiliates to local Planned Parenthood partners for education, screening, and referrals.  Moreover, as a large and well-known organization (albeit one criticized for its work on many levels) Komen appeared until now to stay above the ideological mud-pit of the anti-choice movement.

Last fall, however, things began to change. LDI began quiety telling other anti-choice groups that it had “won” the battle with Komen and that they should await public announcement of a policy change.

And suddenly, Cliff Stearns’ inquiry became a reason for the Komen national office to change what state affiliates could do with their funds. Komen’s board recently approved a new policy stating that affiliates can only provide grant funds to other organizations if:

• The applicant is not currently debarred from the receipt of federal or state funding.
• No key personnel of applicant or any of its affiliates has been convicted of fraud or a crime involving any other financial or administrative impropriety within the last year.
• The applicant or any of its affiliates is not currently under a local, state or federal formal investigation for financial or administrative impropriety or fraud. (“Affiliate” means any entities that control, are controlled by, or are under the same control as applicant or independent entities operating under the same name or brand as applicant.)

While the policy ostensibly affects “any” organization to which Komen affiliates might grant money, the memo sent to state affiliates specifically targets Planned Parenthood.

“Currently, however, various authorities at both the state and federal levels are conducting investigations involving [Planned Parenthood] and some of its local chapters, and the organization is barred from receiving government funding in numerous states. Under these new criteria, Planned Parenthood will be ineligible to receive new funding from Komen until these investigations are complete and these issues are resolved.”

But these are lies and innuendo: There are no “authorities” investigating Planned Parenthood and Planned Parenthood is not barred from receiving federal government funding in any state.  No mature organization concerned about the health and well-being of women at risk of breast cancer would have created a policy targeting another respected organization with a record of saving untold lives.

But Komen can no longer claim the mantle of a respected organization. First, Komen last year hired Karen Handel, a former Georgia anti-choice gubernatorial candidate and Sarah Palin acolyte who promised as part of her platform to defund Planned Parenthood and other vital health services.  Handel, who lost her race but is said to have future political ambitions, is now Senior Vice President for Policy at Komen. She was originally endorsed in her race by and received money from current GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, with whom some sources suggest she remains closely allied. Romney, in turn, has suddenly become more anti-choice than thou and has promised a federal person-hood amendment as well as to defund Planned Parenthood.

Second, sitting on Komen’s Advocacy Alliance Board is Jane Abraham, the General Chairman of the virulently anti-choice and anti-science Susan B. Anthony List and of its Political Action Committee.  Among other involvements, Abraham helps direct the Nurturing Network, a global network of crisis pregnancy centers, organizations widely  known for spreading ideology, misinformation and lies to women facing unintended pregnancy and to use both intimidation and coercion in the course of doing so.  Also on the board of Nurturing Network is Maureen Scalia, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, no hero to women’s rights and health.

That Komen–an organization ostensibly dedicated to scientific exploration of cures for breast cancer–has invited on its advocacy board women so closely allied with organizations that so blatantly ignore science and medicine and spread outright lies to other women about their health and welfare speaks volumes about Komen’s ethical principles as an organization.

While anti-choicers including those on Komen’s board are spreading lies, Komen’s steps will ensure that more women who might have been screened will now lack access to early detection and treatment and may die from breast cancer. This is in keeping with a general and patently insane approach of the anti-choice movement: Decry abortion, for example, but limit funding for contraceptive education and supplies which can prevent the unintended pregnancies that lead to abortion. Decry the plight of minority women, but make their access to care increasingly limited. Cry for the “babies,” but defund pre- and post-natal care, nutritional support, and other forms of life and health care for infants and mothers.  It is a venal and disgusting strategy that until now I would have thought well beneath the Komen Foundation no matter other issues.

But Komen as an organization now appears so little able to stand the truth that it is deleting comments from its website protesting the policy change. And this is not the first time Komen has come under fire for misinformation or questionable affiliations. Some point to concerns about Komen’s influence on a recent Institute of Medicine report playing down environmental factors in breast cancer, and its close affiliation with many companies that manufacture products using cancer-causing agents.

Given these and other links, it may be no surprise that Komen’s own memo to its affiliates spreads lies about Planned Parenthood, nor that Komen’s actions belie its own claims to care about racial, ethnic and income disparities in access to breast cancer screenings.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control on disparities in access to care noted that women without insurance (38.2 percent) and women without a usual source of health care (36.2 percent) were least likely to be screened for cancer and that such disparities remained stark among Latina, African-American, and Native American women.

In response, Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker, founder and CEO of Komen, said: “This gap in care for uninsured and low-income women is particularly troubling and one we have been working very hard to fill at Susan G. Komen. It’s clear that we have far more work to do for women who have no resources, no insurance, and no steady source of healthcare. They need our help the most.”

© 2012 Jodi Jacobson

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Jodi Jacobson

Jodi L. Jacobson is a long-time leader in the health and development community and an advocate with extensive experience in public health, gender equity, human rights, environment and demographic issues. She is currently Editor-in-Chief of RH Reality Check.

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