Where Are the Protections for US Domestic Workers?

Nannies. Housekeepers. Cooks. Care providers. The faces who slip quietly through the houses of the wealthy and some members of the middle class, making their lives run more smoothly, distancing them from the dirty realities of cleaning toilets, peeling potatoes, holding back the hair of a sick child, turning a paralysed family member to prevent sores. These faces are primarily those of women of colour, many of whom are undocumented.

And they enjoy few legal protections when compared to other workers, not just because of their undocumented status, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers, but because their legal vulnerability is enshrined in the law. The low pay for people like disability care workers, for example, was permitted by law because they were ‘companions.’ Not people providing a service, and thus not subject to the same minimum wage laws that dominate many other professions. President Obama proposed a change to this policy in December 2011 and, unsurprisingly, was met by opposition from people who argued that it would become too expensive to pay care providers—many of whom were relying on government services to survive because of their low wages.

A survey conducted last year shed some stark light on working conditions for domestic workers in the United States. 23% made less than their state minimum wage, and 48% made less in their primary jobs than they needed to support their families. That estimate was made using a conservative metric, I’d note, and is probably much higher in reality. Few domestic workers receive pension, retirement, or health benefits from their employers, and many cannot afford to fund such benefits on their own. Needless to say, few employers pay into Social Security, leaving domestic workers with few options when it comes to claiming disability and retirement.

Meanwhile, most have appalling working conditions, including extremely long hours, the expectation that they won’t take breaks on the jobs, no contracts or outlined job responsibilities, and orders to perform tasks that are not within their skillset or job type. For those who do have formal agreements with their employers, 30% said their employers completely ignored at least one provision within the last year; fat lot of good contracts do when employers treat them as utterly optional. And, of course, this work is extremely dangerous; the rate of injury is very high for domestic workers due to long hours, heavy lifting, frequent bending, and other physical strain. Repetitive stress injuries are common, as are injuries to the neck and back.

As if this isn’t enough, many of the domestic workers surveyed reported abuse as part of their experience in the workplace as well, including sexual abuse from their employers. Fearing employer retaliation, they rarely challenged abuse, and rightfully so, given the large numbers fired for complaining about working conditions and asking for more fair treatment. The job environment for domestic workers in the United States is a hostile and dangerous one, and they are well aware of it, yet many have limited recourse; especially if you are undocumented, your only option may be domestic work, often under the table, and subsequently under the radar.

Where is the justice for US domestic workers? Like housekeepers, janitors, food service workers, and many other people in low-wage work, they are a key part of the system that makes the country function. They provide demonstrably needed services and can occupy very important roles in the lives of their employers, although their employers appear reluctant to admit this. Particularly in the case of caregivers for children, older adults, and disabled people, domestic workers can literally keep their clients alive, help them retain independence, and ensure that they are able to complete tasks of daily living.

Yet, they’re treated like garbage, as disposable things that can be used up and thrown away. Any attempt to request better pay, benefits, safer working conditions, a better contract, can be met with a curt refusal, and potentially the threat of a report to immigration authorities. Employers seem to rest confident in the fact that they can find another person to replace a domestic worker in the blink of an eye, because this is a market in which many people may be desperate for work and willing to take it even if the terms are poor and they know it might endanger them.

Organising is challenging when domestic workers are consumed with all the hours they spend on the job, and in many cases, jobs; when you don’t make enough in one position to support yourself and your family, when there are days of the month where there is no food in the house because you are paid so little, you must seek additional employment to survive. Between multiple jobs and the stress of injuries and emotional distress over workplace abuse, it can be hard to drag yourself to an organising meeting, to make your voice heard, to stand up to your employer.

The government, which should be stepping in to protect domestic workers as well as all labourers enduring untenable conditions, is slow to act, and seems singularly disinterested in addressing the issue. It seems to buy the argument that more regulation could cause costs to skyrocket, which might put ‘unreasonable strain’ on employers; evidently the government is more concerned with protecting the fortunes of the wealthy than the lives of the oppressed, and would prefer to focus on making sure there’s a steady supply of cheap, disposable labour than on making sure all working people in this country are treated with dignity and respect.

The woman who cleans houses deserves the same legal protections as the CEO of the Fortune 500 company, because both are human beings.