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Dispelling myths: why domestic employer-worker solidarity is not so far-fetched

Important research from California shows that many employers have more in common with the domestic workers they employ than you might think.

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

Stefan Kellner/flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Employers can be and have been important allies in the fight for domestic workers’ rights. In 2015, Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network; Senior and Disability Action; Bend the Arc; Caring Across Generations; the California Domestic Worker Coalition, as well as Pilipino Workers Center and Mujeres Unidas y Activas, partnered with the UCLA Labor Center to launch the first-ever comprehensive study of domestic employers in California. Our data revealed three key findings concerning the potential role of employers in the advancement of domestic workers’ rights.

First, employers of domestic workers that participated in our study share a lot more in common with those they employ than most people think. For one, our study dispelled the myth those who can afford household staff are uniformly wealthy. In reality, domestic employers in California who hire for house cleaning, home care and childcare hail from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. While employers of house cleaners tend to be comparatively wealthier, white, professional, and have higher levels of education, childcare employers tend to be Latino, younger, low income, and work in frontline and service jobs such as office work, restaurant work and caregiving. And employers of home care providers are typically older, retired, or people with disabilities, half of whom are low-income. Among all the domestic employers we surveyed in California, close to 45% of are low-income and 41% need more hours of support than they can afford. This means that those who employ domestic workers do not necessarily belong to a monolith of wealth and privilege; they are for the most part regular people who simply need help accomplishing vital daily tasks.

Domestic employers in California hail from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Second, our data showed that many employers value the labour of domestic workers. Most tellingly, one-third of employers are willing to pay more than what they currently pay. And among home care employers, close to two-thirds indicated a desire to pay higher wages. This is unsurprising, since domestic workers help individuals and families to live fuller lives – i.e. by allowing them to raise children, pursue their careers, enjoy a degree of leisure, age with dignity, and live independently, among other things. Domestic workers’ workplaces are the homes of their employers, and this entails exposure to the more intimate spaces of their employers’ lives, therefore requiring a work relationship based on trust, mutual respect, and clear communication.

Third, many employers in California are already organising and partnering with worker organisations to improve industry standards and change public policy. Employers of domestic workers are in a unique position to advocate for strengthening legal protections and increasing public funding for domestic work. As noted above, many employers are willing to pay increased wages, but would require enhanced public investment – government subsidies, tax credits, among other policies – to manage the enlarged financial responsibility.

Employers of domestic workers are in a unique position to advocate for strengthening legal protections and increasing public funding for domestic work.

For instance, employers can advocate to raise the minimum wage, so that families are in a better position to afford paying increased wages to domestic workers. These employer organisations are also working on important initiatives to increase resources and support for employers, as well as safety and legal protections for workers. These examples are the result of strategic collaboration between domestic employer and worker organisations, as well as scholars and researchers.

Worker-employer organisation partnerships have also been fruitful in advancing legislation at the state and local level. For example, members of employer organisations along with domestic workers provided essential testimony in support of California’s recent legislation extending permanent overtime protections for domestic workers. The collaboration between home care employers and providers was also instrumental in the adoption of the Support at Home program in San Francisco. This program, launched in November 2016, provides financial assistance to adults with disabilities and older adults who can't afford home care and don't qualify for government-funded programs such as In-Home Supportive Services – thus ensuring that the people needing home care support can receive it, and that those providing the care are paid fairly.

It should be clear then that solutions cannot be reduced to solely changing the practices of individuals. Indeed, our report’s findings revealed that the care industry lacks essential employment standards, and must be comprehensively transformed through public investment, policy advancement, and a broader cultural reconsideration of how this kind of work is valued.

About the authors

Lucero Herrera is a Research Analyst at the UCLA Labor Center. She has 5+ years of research experience, focusing on labour issues. Her recent work includes research on domestic work and home care, as well as the gig economy. A native of Colombia, Lucero pursued her undergraduate studies in sociology at the University of Chicago and holds a Master's Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from UCLA. Before moving to LA, she worked for human rights and community-based organisations and conducted research on the impact of forced displacement on social integration and urban dynamics in Colombia.

Saba Waheed is Research Director at the UCLA Labor Center. She has fifteen years of research experience developing projects with strong community participation. With her team at the UCLA Labor Center, she coordinated the first ever study of domestic work employers, launched a study of young people in the service economy, and conducted research on the taxi industry. In addition to her research work, Saba is an award-winning radio producer and writer. She co-produces the radio show Re:Work, a storytelling show about work and Flip the Script on KPFK. She received an MA in Anthropology from Columbia University.

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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