A new study by the National Domestic Workers Alliance shows us that working conditions and wages for domestic workers are inadequate. What will it take to change them? The answer might reshape the face of the labor movement as well as the role of the national safety net.
The recent report on domestic workers by the National Domestic Workers Alliance is the first national assessment of unregulated household labor, and its findings are alarming. Over 48 percent of workers are paid an hourly wage in their primary position below the level needed to adequately support a family. Perhaps even more disturbing is the lack of accountability for the employers of these workers: 30 percent of workers who have a written contract or other agreement report that their employers disregarded at least one of the provisions in the prior 12 months, but 91 percent of workers who encountered problems with their working conditions in the prior 12 months did not complain because they were afraid they would lose their job. It’s also worth mentioning that the vast majority of domestic workers are women of color, a reflection of the feminization and racialization of jobs with little economic stability. It’s clear that working conditions and wages for domestic workers are inadequate.
What is not covered in these statistics is the dehumanization that domestic workers face on a daily basis. Unlike labor in a factory or office, household work is deeply, intimately personal, in the way that only working in the home of another can be. Repetition injuries, contract violations and disrespect from one’s employer are part of the everyday indignities of domestic labor.
Working conditions and economic provisions for domestic workers need to change. But how does one regulate the most unregulated industry when it’s also one of the fastest growing employment sectors (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm) in the United States?
Hamilton Nolan at Gawker (http://gawker.com/5963605/domestic-workers-need-a-union) suggests that domestic workers need a union. I mean… okay. In my commie opinion, more collective worker power is never a bad thing. However, the reality is far more complex than that. While it would be ideal for domestic workers to band together and demand better working conditions and a living wage based on their common goals, domestic work, by nature of the occupation, is socially isolating. There is little opportunity in a domestic worker’s daily routine to meet other domestic workers, let alone to formulate and execute the possibility of mobilization. The head of the Domestic Workers Alliance, Ai-Jen Poo notes, “their workplaces are scattered among thousands of individual apartments and town houses and no one keeps a list of their names.” This is exacerbated by major unions like the SEIU and AFSCME’s reluctance to take on the daunting task of reaching out to a nebulous workforce. Unfortunately, this leaves the organizing of domestic workers to smaller, non-affiliated unions like the Domestic Worker’s Alliance, whose impressive grassroots mobilization is inspiring, but whose membership is only a fraction of the number of the household laborers in the country.
But even successful collective organization isn’t a comprehensive solution for the woes of the domestic worker. Unionizing (and allowing domestic workers to organize) should be a policy priority, but it won’t get the job done. Something far more expansive is needed in order to provide livable wages and working conditions for the estimated 800,000 domestic workers in the country. The best solutions to the problems faced by domestic workers are unfortunately the most politically unattractive, though it is the most expansively advantageous for all Americans. Immigration reform, raising the overall minimum wage and the expansion of health care reform for low-income workers (not exactly around the corner in terms of policy reform) are critical to ensuring equitable quality of life for domestic workers. This has a dual effect of also helping solve the crisis in elderly health care assistance that we will see as the American population grows older. The more we can ensure quality of employment for those working with the elderly, the greater their own quality of life will be.
America’s economy is increasingly towards a service economy. In the next ten years manufacturing jobs will become increasingly digitized and a private, unregulated workplace will become the norm. The plight of domestic workers is a battle that will be fought repeatedly, one of many negotiations of boundaries between the employee and the employer that takes on new, dire meaning in a floundering economy where 1 percent of Americans continue to hold 23 percent of the wealth. By supporting the human rights and dignity of domestic workers, we are advocating for the rights of workers in all sectors for decades to come.