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Allies or co-conspirators: what does the domestic workers’ movement need?

Improving labour conditions within individual work relationships is not enough. We need to strive for systemic change in the care industry.

Policy debate

Can employers be allies in the fight for domestic workers' rights?

We asked experts in the field of domestic workers' rights to respond to the following: 'Can employers be allies in the fight for domestic workers' rights?' This is what they answered.

Respondents

Claire Hobden & Moriah Shumpert
International Labour Organization

Saba Waheed & Lucero Herrera
UCLA Labor Center

Bridget Anderson
University of Bristol

Andrea Londoño
Fundación Bien Humano

Elizabeth Tang & Marie-José L. Tayah
International Domestic Workers Federation

Julius Cainglet & Ronahlee Asuncion
Federation of Free Workers & University of Philippines Diliman

Rosa Navarro & Mechtild Hart
Latino Union & DePaul University

Ilana Berger
Hand in Hand

Photo by Jennifer N. Fish.

Are ‘allies’ really what the domestic workers movement needs? Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter co-founder and Special Projects Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), prefers the term ‘co-conspirator’.

“Co-conspiracy is about what we do in action, not just in language,” says Garza. “It is about moving through guilt and shame and recognising that we did not create none of this stuff. And so what we are taking responsibility for is the power that we hold to transform our conditions.”

Garza is asking us to recognise a power dynamic and to want to fix it, as opposed to stewing in guilt. As employers of domestic workers, we are participating in a system that is fundamentally unjust, so we must own it and work to change it. 

For employers to be allies, or co-conspirators, they must begin by acknowledging multiple truths. First, that the domestic work industry in the United States is directly connected to the legacy of slavery; white supremacy and patriarchy are deeply ingrained in the structure of the industry. 

Second, that without domestic workers, many of us would not be able live our lives. Whether it means childcare to help manage our work and family needs, or a home care to allow our parent to age in place with dignity, we need domestic workers. Part of the work at Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network (HIH) is to support employers in participating in the industry in a way that seeks to improve conditions for workers and at best, in transforming the industry – to be co-conspirators.

Whether it means childcare to help manage our work and family needs, or a home care to allow our parent to age in place with dignity, we need domestic workers.

HIH is a national network of employers of nannies, housecleaners, home attendants and family caregivers who believe that dignified and respectful working conditions benefit workers and employers alike. In collaboration with local domestic worker organisations and our core partners the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and Caring Across Generations (CAG), we are elevating a shared vision of what care and support in the home should look like for workers and employers, and of a society that takes care of all of us. To get there, we support employers in improving their employment practices and to collaborate with workers to create cultural norms and policies that bring dignity and respect to domestic workers and all our communities. 

Our ‘special sauce’ is our core grounding in interdependence. This is especially relevant in a time when the dominant narrative coming down from highest levels of government is one of toxic individuality.

In an industry that by definition happens ‘behind closed doors’, passing legislation is not enough to improve labour conditions for domestic workers. While campaigns to pass the Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in seven states were historic victories for hundreds of thousands of domestic workers, implementation remains a challenge, and thus day-to-day working conditions across the industry have not changed substantially. Full realisation of fair and dignified workplace conditions depends on workers’ awareness of their rights and employers’ awareness of their obligations. Public education about the relevant laws has been limited and at this stage falls largely on the shoulders of community-based organisations. In most cases, domestic workers remain isolated and employers still set the terms of employment.

This is why HIH began a public education and outreach campaign: My Home is Someone’s Workplace (MHSW) has worked to support the implementation of Domestic Workers Bills of Rights. It aims to 1) ensure the implementation of all minimum legal standards on the books and expanded through Bills of Rights and 2) promote high-road ‘community standards’ that establish norms beyond legal standards and represent our movement’s vision of the best domestic workplace labour practices. 

MHSW is an intensive, high-visibility, community-targeted campaign to capitalise on the continuing momentum generated by the Bill of Rights victories around the country. Through MHSW, we hope to develop a replicable model for leveraging the visibility of these legislative initiatives, which are spotlighting the long-neglected domestic workplace.  

Through this campaign, employers are encouraged to acknowledge that their homes are, indeed, workplaces and to move away from referring to domestic workers as ‘like family’ – a paradigm shift that provides a necessary entry point for the implementation of higher standards. In order to be successful in the struggle for a fair domestic work industry, HIH must go ‘beyond the choir’ and draw in more employers than ever before.  

The biggest limitation of so much of our MHSW work so far has been that it doesn’t change the power structure: it relies on individual employers to do the right thing, but doesn’t equalise the power dynamic between employers and workers on an industry scale. Additionally, it can be limiting for employers who actually can’t afford to pay more, and who are struggling to manage to pay for the care they already receive. Despite the myth that domestic employers are white and wealthy, employers are a much more diverse group than we think, and well-paid care is simply not affordable for the vast majority of employers.

We see efforts to expand affordability as critical to the implementation of important policy wins including state domestic worker bills of rights.

Thus, even if every employer had the full information and desire to implement fair wages and conditions for their domestic workers, this aspiration would still not be fully achievable because of a systemic problem in how we both value and pay for care. Individual employers should not have to shoulder the burden resulting from the lack of a comprehensive care infrastructure to support families ― and neither should domestic workers. Therefore, in addition to our education work, HIH is engaged in campaigns to transform the care industry so that all kinds of care throughout the life spectrum are affordable and accessible to all those who need it. We see efforts to expand affordability as critical to the implementation of important policy wins including state domestic worker bills of rights.

Therefore, HIH is organising employers to expand the access and affordability of care, with a particular focus on long-term care and support for seniors and people with disabilities in California and New York, while laying the foundation for longer-term campaigns to transform the sector into one that universally supports the care needs of all families. As with healthcare reform, and so many other issues, the first state policy breakthrough expands the realm of what is possible. 

After the 2016 election, HIH staff and leaders began to think about how people who employ domestic workers, the majority of whom are women of color and immigrants, can support immigrants and other populations targeted by this administration. We created and disseminated the Post Election Tips for Employers, which was shared and viewed by thousands of people. After speaking with our employer members, as well as partners and allies representing frontline communities including the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), Cosecha, Mijente, Make the Road NY, and The California Domestic Workers Coalition, we launched our Sanctuary Homes campaign in partnership with NDWA (#SanctuaryHomes).

Participation in an industry that is so connected to slavery and white supremacy is complicated – but we believe that employers can, indeed, be allies, or co-conspirators, through changing their individual employment practices and in partnership with workers organising to transform the industry and our society.  In our work, we continue to model core values of interdependence and accessibility, and aim to shift the culture of the movement and our communities toward these shared values. 

For purposes of this article we use ‘employers’ loosely. We include in this category people who have home care workers, even if those workers are paid through an agency, Medicaid or other public dollars, so consumer may not be directly paying the worker. 

About the author

Ilana Berger brings to Hand in Hand rich experience in base-building, leadership development, and policy advocacy, as well as her perspective as a parent and employer of childcare providers. She has worked in community-based organisations in New York, Miami, and San Francisco, including ten years as co-founder and Executive Director of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE). 

Read On

'Domestic workers speak: a global fight for rights and recognition' showcases the diversity and power of the domestic workers' rights movement. Featuring contributions from 23 worker-led groups, it details the struggle of domestic workers, explores their solidarity and methods of resistance, and calls for comprehensive rights for the world's most invisible workforce.
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