The deal that brought Fatima to America seemed—as it so often does for domestic workers—solid: $1,000 per month to clean, cook, and care for the children of a couple living in the United States. The first few months went smoothly, with Fatima settling into her new country. Though she spoke no English, the couple she was working for promised to help her enroll in English classes and possibly attend college.
Around month four of her new life in the United States, however, things began to fall apart for Fatima. First, the husband, also a native of Paraguay, became emotionally abusive. “You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for me. You owe me,” he started telling her on a regular basis. In addition, the couple wouldn’t always pay her regularly. When she asked for her money, Fatima would receive $100 or $150 at most. Not that Fatima had any time to spend her money, as her days began at six in the morning, when she fed the children and got them ready for school. After the kids left, Fatima would spend the rest of the morning cleaning the house and caring for the family dog. At two o’clock, the children would come home from school and Fatima would take care of them, cook for the family in the evening, and then clean up after everyone. If she was lucky, she’d be in bed by nine thirty or ten o’clock. She slept on a sofa in the basement, which she shared with the dog. And she worked weekends as well.
At some point, the couple Fatima was working for separated and moved into different homes. Fatima’s job became twice as hard, as she was now responsible for cleaning both houses, for the same amount of money. Since she had never been taught how to use the local public transit system, she was required to ride a bike from one house to the other—while taking the dog with her.
This situation continued for a year and a half, at which point the couple said they could no longer afford to pay Fatima the same amount of money; she was forced to find work cleaning other homes while still working for her original family part-time. Eventually, she shared her story with one of her new employers. “They can't do this to you,” the woman said, after Fatima revealed the saga of the past eighteen months of her life. The woman told Fatima about Casa de Maryland, an immigrant rights organization. It was there that Fatima met attorney Sheena Wadhawan. And that was when Fatima’s life began to change.
Advocates from Casa de Maryland helped Fatima discreetly move out of the home she had been living in for the past eighteen months. Wadhawan determined that the couple owed Fatima upward of $30,000, and Fatima sued for unpaid wages and overtime. Of critical importance to Fatima’s case, Maryland law does not exclude domestic workers from overtime pay—as a number of states do. The couple offered to settle for $10,000, and Fatima ultimately accepted their offer. Tired of letting this couple control her life, Fatima just wanted to move on. She now lives a life free of abuse, earns money cleaning houses, and is learning English through classes organized by Casa de Maryland. She also attends weekly meetings with other women who have experienced this type of employment abuse. “I had such low self-esteem because of this situation,” Fatima says. “And Casa de Maryland helped me regain my self-confidence.”
Casa de Maryland has been working on immigrant rights issues since its founding in 1985 by Central American refugees. In response to a growing need among immigrant populations, the organization now focuses extensively on low-income workers, with a special concentration on women. Casa de Maryland is among the many multiethnic community organizing and legal aid nonprofits throughout the country that have built the foundation of today’s domestic workers’ movement—acting as “domestic insurgents,” as one article dubbed them.
Not all domestic workers’ experiences are rife with mistreatment, as Fatima Cortessi’s was. Like most sectors, domestic work encompasses a range of situations and environments. Fatima’s experience was far different, for example, from that of Tania, a nineteen-year-old nanny in Oakland, California. “For Tania, we are like her extended family,” says Meg Yardley, Tania’s employer. Tania cares for Meg’s two children, her four-year-old daughter, Laurel, and her four-month-old son, Owen.v “Tania would come over for work and Laurel would be so happy to see Tania that her whole body would wiggle,” Meg says. “I need to work to earn enough for my family, and I really like my job. So it feels good to leave my children with someone they love.” Tania is now expecting her first baby. When the child comes, she will care for Meg’s children along with her own.
Fatima and Tania’s contrasting stories reflect the subjectivity and luck inherent in domestic labor. Whether a domestic worker will be treated with fairness and dignity or exploited and abused depends on the whims, character, and awareness of her employer as well as where in the world she happens to be. And what encourages this subjectivity is the variable legal status of the work itself: domestic workers are far less likely to be protected by the laws that regulate most other sectors of employment. Globally, more than 40 percent of domestic workers are not legally entitled to earn a minimum wage, while one-third are not eligible for maternity leave. And this is despite the fact that domestic work is a swiftly expanding sector of the global economy, having grown from thirty-two million domestic workers worldwide in 1999 to eighty to one hundred million today, fifteen million of whom are children. Nearly 85 percent of domestic workers today are women. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), approximately one in thirteen wage-earning women in the world are domestic laborers.
In the United States alone, numerous key labor and employment regulations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and various occupational safety regulations, have historically excluded domestic workers. The nearly two million domestic workers in the United States—and the millions worldwide—are treated as a casual, ancillary part of the workforce, neglected by labor laws, even as they take on the most crucial work for families and communities, cleaning homes and caring for children and the elderly.ix Even when there are protections in place, many domestic workers like Fatima are from foreign countries, do not speak the local language well, face challenges negotiating wages and terms of employment, and are often unaware of their rights. Love and compassion are central to the work of nannies and caregivers, yet many live and labor in subpar conditions and receive little or no respect for their work, in addition to being excluded from legal protections.
Against the backdrop of the political and economic tendency to render invisible the labor of the domestic sphere, there is a movement to establish labor protections for domestic workers that has gained impressive momentum worldwide over the last fifteen years. Multiple actors in the feminist-labor-activist realms—including nonprofit advocacy and legal organizations like Casa de Maryland, traditional labor unions, lawyers, and policymakers representing many diverse ethnic groups—have deepened their advocacy on behalf of domestic workers, appealing directly to the public to build support. These efforts have resulted in concrete policy and cultural changes, bringing to light the value of domestic work and the systemic exclusion of domestic workers from labor protections. The first major victory of the movement was the passage of New York State’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2010, which affected an estimated two hundred thousand domestic workers. California and Hawaii have since followed suit.
Activism in the United States is fostering change at the international level as well, evidenced by the ILO passing the Domestic Workers Convention, along with increased activism among domestic workers in multiple countries, including Brazil, India, and Singapore. Activism abroad is perhaps even more crucial, given that the situation of domestic workers in non-Western countries is often far more dire than that of domestic workers in the United States. Despite some significant setbacks along the way— including Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of California’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2012—the movement for domestic workers’ rights has quickly achieved policy reforms and has the potential to transform over the long term the ways in which domestic labor is valued throughout the world. Viewed in the context of women’s persistently subpar economic status, the movement to recognize domestic work is making concrete gains in improving women’s economic status generally.
Above all else, the movement is cultivating the leadership of domestic workers themselves, who have been central to the lobbying and legislative activities being undertaken on their behalf. “Know-your-rights” trainings and community organizing are becoming common practices among domestic workers in many cities in the United States, as well as globally. The movement is also an illustration of how labor law has evolved, with change no longer driven by behemoth legislation like the NLRA but by smaller-scale, group-based advocacy. The movement’s objective does not end with more regulations; the overarching goal is achieving empowerment and justice for a vulnerable population of workers, revealing domestic labor’s value to the broader economy, and establishing its social and cultural dignity.
Sheila Bapat is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her book about the U.S. domestic workers’ movement, Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers' Rights, was released by Ig Publishing in May.