Domestic work standards would tame the 'Wild West' of care work

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Domestic work standards would tame the 'Wild West' of care work

Caring for households requires clearer standards, a move that would benefit both employer and employee, panelists say

by Healy Ko on Thursday, May 30, 2013 - 9:41am

image of Irene Jor

When Stanford senior Irene Jor was a child, her aunts, first-generation Chinese immigrants, worked as nannies in Boston. Years later, circumstances have shifted and Jor's family now employs a caregiver to help bathe, cook, and clean for her grandmother.

Such a personal history has led Jor to believe that domestic work touches all of us, both the employee and employer. However, the realm of domestic work is a modern day “Wild West,” with few guidelines or legal standards to structure the work of housekeeping and caregiving. What results is an “anything goes” mentality that bewilders both employer and worker and, ultimately, devalues domestic work on interpersonal and institutional levels.

Jor, who wrote an honors thesis about the California Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights campaign, is part of a national movement trying to raise the visibility of the estimated 800,000 to 2,000,000 domestic workers in the U.S. and to bridge alliances with employers.

The Clayman Institute for Gender Research brought leaders from the domestic worker rights movement to Stanford this Spring for a panel discussion titled “Ethics, Wealth, and the Work that Makes All Other Work Possible.”  National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA) Director Ai-Jen Poo and NDWA National Organizer Maria Reyes joined Jor on the panel to talk about the growing movement to bring respect and recognition to domestic work. Philosophy professor Debra Satz moderated the discussion.

The ‘work that makes all other work possible’

A key challenge for domestic worker rights advocates is bringing visibility to the issue of domestic work itself. Primarily composed of immigrant women who work in private households, domestic workers are an invisible work force. With a large undocumented contingent within the workforce, the precarious legal status of domestic workers relegates them to the margins of society. As panelist Maria Reyes put it, domestic workers are "living in the shadows where their work is undervalued."

 "Domestic workers are living in the shadows where their work is undervalued." — Maria Reyes

Domestic workers are employed in the most intimate spheres of the home as nannies, housekeepers, and caretakers. Because their work takes place behind closed doors in the privacy of a home, they can be susceptible to exploitative working conditions. A survey conducted by NDWA reveals:

  • 23 percent of all domestic workers are paid below their state’s minimum wage, while 70 percent are paid less than $13 per hour
  • 65 percent do not have health insurance, and only 4 percent receive employer-provided insurance
  • 91 percent report that they have been afraid to speak up about problems in their working conditions within the past year for fear of losing their jobs

Yet, domestic workers are critical to the economy because they do “the work that makes all other work possible,” according to Poo. They take care of children, the elderly, the disabled, and the home so that their employers can pursue their careers. 

How do you bring visibility to ‘invisible’ work?

Activism can help raise the visibility of domestic work and protect workers’ rights. Reyes, for example, became involved with the movement after participating in Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco. There she learned about her rights as a domestic worker and became a national leader in the movement by organizing her fellow domestic workers. By focusing the movement around the voices of the workers themselves, the campaign has provided a platform to empower some of the most vulnerable sectors of society.

image of Maria ReyesThat sentiment has transferred to legislative action. NDWA, founded in 2007 by 13 local organizations of domestic workers, has been campaigning to change laws throughout the United States, through what it calls the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. After a six-year campaign, NDWA experienced its first major victory when New York State passed the legislation in 2010. The New York bill promised domestic workers basic labor rights, including paid overtime, a rest day every seven days, and three paid rest days each year. NDWA and its local member organizations then mobilized to pass a similar California bill called AB 889.

However, state Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill in 2012, saying the proposed law might unreasonably burden low-income elderly or disabled people needing around-the-clock care. Despite the veto, domestic workers and supporters have continued the campaign, advocating for the passage of a revised domestic worker’s bill—AB 241—which will include special provisions for low-income employers.

According to Jor, Stanford students, faculty, and staff have a responsibility in raising the visibility of the bill. “There is a name to Stanford,” she says. “There is a type of privilege we have when we say something, and how it is seen and legitimized in society.” Jor advocates that researchers who study domestic work take a stance on the issue and that the Stanford community push their elected officials to support the bill.

Employers take initiative to change domestic work

For employers, the "Wild West" phenomenon means there’s nothing to mediate the relationship between worker and employer.

"Employers ask for more structure,” said Poo. "They want to do the right thing but don’t actually know what that is because there are no guidelines," she said.

For employers, the lack of standards—the "Wild West" phenomenon—means there’s nothing to mediate the relationship between worker and employer, Poo explained.  While many who hire domestic workers want to be responsible employers, some are ashamed to admit people work in their homes.

In small steps, employers have taken the initiative to change the nature of domestic work. The domestic employer association Hand-in-Hand, for example, organizes employers to get involved in the campaign. Recognizing the interdependence between employer and employee, Hand-in-Hand has made information accessible to employers, both about the responsibilities of the employer and the specific needs of the employers, has held political education workshops, and has organized legislative visits, working closely with partner domestic worker organizations.image of Irene Jor and Ai-jen Poo

Alliances between domestic workers and employers along with the broad involvement of diverse groups, have aided in fundamentally shifting the way the country understands and values domestic work, according to Jor. This, she said, is the sensibility she hopes her family brings to its new role as an employer. “My parents do their best to check-in with the caregiver about how she’s doing and have been trying to help my grandmother build a healthy relationship with the caregiver where there's mutual trust and respect.”

More generally, Jor said, people feel shame because of the difference in power dynamics. “But at the same time,” she added, “if we reframe what the work looks like, that could really change the way we feel about it.”  In that sense, she added, taming the Wild West requires reframing domestic work and bringing visibility to the cause by organizing domestic workers and employers alike.


The panel on "Ethics, Wealth & the Work that Makes All Other Work Possible" was sponsored by the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and was co-sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, the Program in Feminist Studies, the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality, and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. More information about domestic work is available through these resources: "Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work," "Impairment and Disability: Constructing an Ethics of Care that Promotes Human Rights," and "The 'Nanny' Question in Feminism."


Maria Reyes has been an active member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), one of the NDWA’s founding member organizations, since 1999. She is a National Organizer with NDWA who has mobilized countless other domestic workers to build support for the California Bill of Rights Campaign and other NDWA initiatives. 

Ai-jen Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She is also co-director of Caring Across Generations, a national coalition of 200 advocacy organizations, advocating for home care workers and patients, and was the lead organizer and founder of Domestic Workers United.

Irene Jor is a senior earning her B.A. in Urban Studies at Stanford. She wrote her honors thesis on the California Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights engagement of disabled employers as allies for domestic worker’s rights. 

Healy Ko is a senior majoring in Asian American Studies and History. After graduating in spring 2013, she hopes to work as a community organizer at the intersection of gender and immigration. She is a member of the Clayman Institute’s student writing team.



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