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Domestic Worker Wage Theft? There’s an App for That.

Domestic worker activists are some of the most innovative organizers on the planet. So I was very excited to learn about a new app designed by immigrant rights activists in Jackson Heights for day laborers. The app allows users to record hours and wages, document working conditions, and identify abusive employers with a history of things like withholding compensation.

What is most important about the app is that it allows workers to do all of this anonymously. In addition to the isolation of the work, the risk associated with visibility is another barrier to domestic worker organizing. Because a number of domestic workers are undocumented, confidentiality is of the utmost importance.

And the hard work has already started. Just this week The Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn demonstrated against a woman named Jacklyn Wahba for refusing to pay her domestic worker…in front of her house. To which I say: good for them. Black women domestic worker organizers did something similar in the thirties.

The refusal to give domestic workers basic labor protections is an affront to their human rights. Even more than that, it gives employers the right to abuse those who work for them without every having to be held accountable. I support these workers in taking accountability into their own hands with this new app. And my hope is that we can leave abusive employers on the cutting room floor.

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2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

It’s been quite a year for me. I finished a PhD. I learned a lot of new things about the history of domestic work in my family. I traveled to three countries. I read for pleasure. I published 15 blogs on this site. And, more importantly, my musings about domestic workers became a part of an amazing media collaboratory, a project we call The Newest Americans.

But even more than that I witnessed domestic worker activists make history over and over again. I am awed by their hard work, dedication, steadfastness, and most importantly the pride and dignity with which they do this hard but important work for women, workers, and migrant families all over the world.

I witnessed a dynamic conversation surrounding Ai Jen Poo’s new book, The Age of Dignity. It’s a short book that tells a big story about the central role played by elder caregivers in the health and wellness of our society.

I share in the celebration as Oregon and Connecticut became the next two states to pass legislation guaranteeing labor rights for domestic workers.

This year, over a hundred domestic workers marched one hundred miles to bring attention to the need of immigration policies that support women and families. Side note: they are advocating for “common sense immigration policies.” Brilliant.

These historic moments are being created and facilitated by working women of color. The everyday women in families like mine whose names we may never know, but whose work we all benefit from.

I am always honored to be asked to participate in this important discourse about domestic work in any small way. The experience is always transformative and I am consistently reminded that their story is my story. Its our story. Because these are the women that make all other work possible. They  make us who we are. Literally. When they win, we win.

Inspired by their relentless journey to justice, and by several conversations I’ve had this year with those wiser than me, in 2016, I pledge to write more. Not for academic credentials. Or for visibility. But for the women in my family who have taken this lifelong journey and are unafraid to share their stories with me. For the scholars I revere, people like Mary Romero and Premila Nadasen, who have spent their entire careers researching and writing about domestic workers and lending their support to the movement in any way they can.

But most importantly for me. Because I need to write in order to understand. So here’s to a new year of blogging. (Once a week…I promise…really…I put it in my google calendar.) And to remaking these thoughts into something more powerful than the cutting room floor.

On Shame

Now that the dissertation is over, the university has #blessed me with a postdoc. A big part of my job is researching and conceptualizing this new initiative concerning the university’s partnerships with organizations and institutions in Africa. As far as this new job is from my actual interest, it seems that I just can’t get away from the issues concerning domestic work. And for this I must admit I am truly grateful.

Just last week I was attending a high level debate at the UN on unemployment and youth development on the continent. (It’s a fancy postdoc…I must admit). The importance of domestic worker rights was, to my pleasant surprise, mentioned more than once. It was a moment when the global reach of this current movement became very real to me. From the park bench to the ILO to the United Nations. Never underestimate the impact of working class women. They do not play games.

Anyway, in addition to attending UN debates (still sort of in shock about this being my life), we were also visited by the CEO of one of our South African NGO partners. Their organization is sort of like the South African equivalent of the United Way. Except, to my surprise, they have some pretty radical politics.

I sat with this gentleman, Lorenzo, one afternoon, while he was taking a bit of a breather from fancy coroprate university meetings and enjoying a very New York lunch (a bagel with lox and capers, one of my favorites). I wanted to pick his brain about the state of education in Capetown. I learned a lot about that subject during our conversation, but it’s what I learned about Lorenzo that I remember most.

Lorenzo spent his entire childhood in foster care. At age eleven, while still in primary school, he began working as an assistant to the janitor everyday after school. Although I am interrogating this thought process now, my initial reaction (in my head, anyway) was that young people should be able to learn and not have to work at such a young age. But before I could finish that thought, Lorenzo began telling me how thrilling an experience that was. How much pride it gave him to be a part of what allowed the school to run on a day to day basis. He helped the school survive. And, more importantly, he supported family.

It was a moment of self-discovery in his life, Lorenzo explained. He found something deep inside himself that transformed him from a victim of circumstance into a provider. And this transformation is what allowed him to shed the sense of shame he felt.

Shame is a concept that comes up a lot in conversations about domestic work. Representations of domestic workers in popular culture are so painful and pervasive that their impact spills over into questions of the labor itself. It’s something that domestic worker activists are very aware of. Every time I am in the presence of activists, they always introduce themselves by name and then express how proud they are to do the work they do. The dignity of domestic work as a form of labor that allows all other workers to work is consistent across the globe.

When I asked my mother about shame she was perplexed. “Why would you be ashamed of someone for working?” she argued. In fact, my mother and Lorenzo, who came of age at the same time on opposite sides of the world, said many of the same things. My mother told me that the work she did as a young teenager exposed her to another side of the city where they had beautiful things. She was proud to work and help support her family. The lessons she learned as a young domestic worker followed her throughout the rest of her life.

Lorenzo and my mother’s words make me think of work differently now. Student poverty certainly made me a part of the working class, but I guess I, too, took pride in the work I was doing. It is idleness that produces shame. Which makes me think that this constructed sense of shame associated with domestic work is something we should think of as a part of the system of oppression that prevents domestic workers from advocating for the rights they deserve rather than a hurdle to domestic worker organizing.

I have ardently resisted the temptation of being a theorist during this academic journey. So, my thoughts on shame shall remain here, on the cutting room floor.

A Scholar of Domestic Workers Walks Into a Bar

Last night, as a writing break, I headed to my favorite watering hole for a beer. While there, an old friend came in and introduced me to his significant other. The usual first meeting conversation ensued. Proud friend tells boyfriend that I am working on a PhD. Boyfriend asks what its about. Cue cocktail party dissertation description.

A middle-aged man nearby overhears the conversation and seems interested. He begins asking me lots of questions about my work. He seems weirdly confrontational. Asking questions like “Where are you going with this?” and “What is your argument about exploitation exactly?”

I kept asking for clarification. Because domestic workers not having the labor rights afforded to all other workers seems pretty self explanatory to me as it relates to exploitation.

I should also say that this was a black man. He asked what I thought about domestic workers since they look like him and me. I said that was the motivation behind the dissertation to begin with. This is my history as a black woman.

Then the unimaginable happened.

He pulls out a debit card for a business. His business. A home healthcare business.

It was a dramatic move on his part. He seemed disappointed that I was unfazed. But this elicited more questions than answers. I asked him if most of his employees were women? To which he responded, “I am the one asking the questions here! I am just an ignorant black man.”

At this point I started feeling angry and patronized. I hate feeling patronized. I was being put in a position to justify my work, in a sense to justify domestic worker activism in general. In academic spaces this is to  be expected. It is the responsibility of a scholar. But in this situation I couldn’t help but think: no sir, you should be the one on the defensive here.

I asked whether or not he paid his workers minimum wage. (Which, as a reminder, he is NOT required to do by law). He said they were happy with whatever he paid them. Took that as a no.

I couldn’t help but notice the gendered dynamic of the conversation. His sarcasm as he exclaimed that he was just an ignorant black man. The lack of recognition of my scholarly credibility all while refusing to accept accountability as one who employs domestic workers.

I left feeling frustrated, angry, and defeated in a way. I think this is a byproduct of the emotions of writing a dissertation that one feels so passionately about. You become really attached to the subject matter. You might even write a blog about it even though you spend countless hours a day writing anyway.

At the same time the ideas can be ambiguous. I’m writing about history. Its over. The subjects of every chapter, except for the incomparable Esther Cooper Jackson, are dead. Its all interpretation. Until these vague ideas about misogyny and class oppression take corporeal form. And then smack you in the face with their indifference to their own role in the exploitation of women workers.

This morning I woke up and realized that I had no idea how much stamina and strength is required to advocate for domestic worker rights. Everyday the women who work in this movement face this kind of somehow justified refusal of basic labor rights and a violent indifference by employers and legislators. I do not know how they do it. But I’m glad they do.

Since it is probably uncouth to include the expletives I want to use to describe this situation in my dissertation I am happily leaving this right here on the cutting room floor.

Domestic Workers Organize in the Arab World

Its a global movement my friends! Domestic workers in Lebanon are in the beginning stages of unionizing, making them the first domestic workers union in the Arab world. This is really exciting news, though the road ahead for these women will certainly not be easy.

As is true in the US, the vast majority of domestic workers in Lebanon are migrant women, predominantly from South East Asia and Africa. There are already 200 women committed to the movement, and I for one cannot wait to see what happens next.

What is particularly inspiring is that existing labor unions in the country have already lent their support to this new union. Seeing domestic workers as essential to the larger movement for workers’ rights only strengthens the movement for the working class. And let me tell you if you ever encounter domestic worker activists from anywhere in the world you would know that you want these women at the head of your movement! They are incredible organizers and tireless fighters for justice for all workers.

What is really interesting, at least to me, is how similar the language used by domestic worker organizers all over the world, and throughout history is. Poor working conditions, no minimum wage, lack of protection from physical/sexual abuse, no days off, no benefits, no insurance, no vacation…and no dignity. I read it everyday in the archives dating  back to the late nineteenth century. I read it everyday on social media as I keep track of the movement in the US. And here it is again in the Arab world.

In 2011, when I began this project I learned that domestic workers were still not guaranteed the rights that we all take for granted as workers. And I was horrified. And I’m still horrified reading it here. Honestly, it calls our global humanity into question. The cutting room floor is really comprised of the things that I just can’t stop thinking about. But if I put them in the dissertation my committee would hang me by my toes for writing too much.

But I owe to the women who fight to keep the movement growing in the US and other parts of North America, in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, and now in the Arab World to keep talking about it. And I will.

To Unionize or not to Unionize: That is the Question

For the last couple weeks I have been finishing this chapter on the amazing Esther Cooper Jackson and her master’s thesis written in 1940 on domestic workers and unions. Its pretty damn incredible. During the first half of the twentieth century domestic workers formed unions in Birmingham, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Newark, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and a host of other cities.

These unions were quite militant. Neva Ryan, the president of the Chicago Domestic Workers Association wrote in a 1934 editorial that she didn’t know why domestic workers had not revolted long ago. But that the new union was the writing on the wall.

Of course, this was not without a significant amount of resistance from employers and agencies. Take for instance this anti-union posted from a 1942 article published in NY PM Daily.

Anti Union Poster from PM Daily 1941

I’m really just sharing this because I find it laughable. One woman alone can run a household! She simply chooses not to! Of course. Sigh.

Anyway, on to the subject of this post. Currently, domestic workers in the United States are not permitted to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. Domestic workers over the years have set aside a movement for inclusion in the Act, in favor of advocating for legislation guaranteeing minimum wage, social security, maximum hours, etc.

But now that domestic worker bills’ of rights have been passed in several states the question of unionization is back on the table. It’s a really complex issue.

First, there is the issue of citizenship. Unions would not necessarily be able to protect those who are undocumented. Because immigration issues are so important to organizers, as they should be since a significant number of domestic workers in the US are immigrant women, they are invested in exploring other models for representing workers.

I wonder how well bills of rights will protect undocumented workers at all? Hmm. I will have to get back to you on this.

As an aside, in many parts of Europe undocumented workers do have certain legislative protections and can be advocated for by unions. Just gonna leave that there. Since I could write a tome about America and the politics of migrant labor and capitalism. I have to resist including this in the dissertation all the time.

But then there is the pressing issue of enforcing the bills of rights. Many domestic worker advocates and activists see unionizing as the answer. It would give workers the ability to collectively bargain, and a way to combat the isolation of private household work.

I have no idea what the right answer is here. Its a really tough question. But what I will say is that I learned an important lesson as a scholar by witnessing these debates at various times.

I think labor scholars and Leftists like myself sometimes get caught up in the magic that was early twentieth century labor organizing. To be barred from unionizing was a major injustice in my eyes. Because I know what unions can do. Or, should I say, did do.

I have watched labor scholars both relish in the melancholy that is the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the glory days of Left labor organizing, while advocating for unionizing where ever it is not.

Thanks to my research and conversations with current domestic workers, I realize that unions are not the only, and not always the best means for organizing. Especially in this moment, which is nothing like the moment in which Neva Ryan called for domestic workers to revolt.

Parts of that long gone movement seem to be returning. I see elements of it in the organizing of fast food workers, for instance. But issues of race, gender, and citizenship complicate this question for domestic workers.

I find that the debate has really expanded my historical lens and compelled me to ask new and different questions. I’m a better scholar for it.

As for now, I can finally remove the post-it on my desk reminding me to write this post. And leave the question of rather or not to unionize here on the cutting room floor.

The First Lady…or The Help

So…this headline happened: Obamas on Race: We’ve Been Treated Like the Help. To which I responded: Come again? Sigh. Click.

The absence of quotes in the headline is intentional since the Obamas said nothing of the sort. (So glad I didn’t have to write that blog) What’s described are the Obamas’ experiences with racial microaggressions. You know, not being able to hail a cab, being mistaken for a valet, assuming that a person works at the place where you are shopping just because their melanin levels are different than yours, woe is me etc.

At the end of the article Obama is quoted expressing his support for those speaking out against recent events relating to police brutality, especially celebrities and athletes.

I assume that this is the Obamas’ subtle (because…public relations and stuff) way of asserting their identities as a black family in addition to (in spite of?) the role they play as the leading family in the free world. Pardon the expression. I like rhetorical drama. What is the “free world” anyway?

But I digress. There is, of course, that one *small* issue that being mistaken for the valet seems awfully minor when compared to, I don’t know, violent death of a young black man at the hands of police. Thankfully, I am not a political scientist, a journalist, or a pundit, so I can just leave this here without commentary. *PHEW*

Now back to that ridiculous headline.

Obamas On Race: We’ve Been Treated Like the Help.

Thank you internet headline writer for exemplifying in just nine words the racial stigma surrounding domestic work and the reason why we desperately need this movement for domestic worker rights and the wonderful women who run it. You have done this better than I ever could. Sarcastic slow clap.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with being “the help.” In fact, can we move on from that movie and re-eliminate this dumb phrase from our lexicon? I have said it before and I will say it again: domestic work is real work. It is skilled work. It is work that is imbued with both love and dignity.

Domestic workers are not some symbol of racial regression or lack of progress. If there is anything we should be ashamed of it should be the inability to provide domestic workers with basic labor rights, minimum wage, maximum hours, healthcare, and workman’s compensation.

Thankfully organizations like the Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance are giving us a chance at redemption. Go ahead and click those links to find out how you can support the workers who make all other work possible.

But I digress again.

Domestic work is not, and should not be, a metaphor for white supremacy. Ever. Full stop.

This easy metaphor is based on an archaic cultural stigma, dating back to slavery, concerning the triad of blackness, whiteness, and labor. But domestic work is different now. It is a part of a growing service industry that includes nannies, eldercare workers, and housecleaners. Shame on you ABC news for reducing this amazing community of workers to “the help.”

But as always, those who do domestic work can explain this so much better than I can. When The Help film was released, NDWA began a #bethehelp campaign that included a video series where domestic workers told their stories in an effort to capitalize on the success of the film but also to resist our fixed image of what it means to be a domestic worker thanks to a cornucopia of films, books, and characters in the American racial imagination.

Ugh. I’m so annoyed that I had to write this. But its still a chance to continue to bring visibility to the amazing activists and advocates for this incredible community of workers. Thankfully, this one will remain on the cutting room floor.