Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Beyond individual responsibility: what domestic employers need to know

Household employers need to understand the roots of their asymmetrical work relationships before they can be allies in the domestic worker struggle.

Mechtild Hart Rosa Navarro
30 January 2018


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.

Introduction: Beyond ‘maids and madams’: can employers be allies in new policies for domestic workers’ rights?


Household worker experiences will always speak to the power dynamics in their relationship with their employers. We need to acknowledge that these dynamics are primarily rooted in the historical connection between gendered household work, or ‘women’s work’, and slavery in the United States. As an organisation Latino Union of Chicago strives to support low-wage workers to fight against unjust laws and policies that exclude them. We work to defend the rights and dignity of contingent workers, including the right to immigrate, work, live free of oppression and violence, and provide for oneself and one's family. We have been fighting alongside household workers in Chicago since 2010.

In the current political moment, household workers are especially vulnerable to abuse. The majority of household workers are women of color, immigrant and US born. They are some of the most exploitable workers, and they work in homes where they are invisible. While Black women no longer make up the majority of household workers, they still face the same discrimination. Over coffee, a Black immigrant nanny from Jamaica told one of us that she has to watch how she talks and dresses at her employer’s home. She does not wear nice clothes or jewellery, or bring expensive purses to work. Her white employers clearly do not feel comfortable with a Black immigrant woman presenting herself as someone on their socio-economic level. She is therefore relegated to “the help”. With such a mind-set, how could her employer become her ally?

A Black immigrant nanny from Belize confessed to us over lunch that she had to eat quickly so that she could make it to her employers’ house by noon, since they were returning home from a long weekend trip. “You know how they are” she said, “have to be there by the time they get home”. Two months ago upon first meeting with us, this same woman told us, “I have a great family I work for, I can't complain”. The tone of her voice, though, implied that there were other dynamics she wasn’t comfortable sharing.

Their relationship with their employer is purely transactional.

Most of the women we work with are undocumented Latinx women, and most are house cleaners. They have between four to ten employers at any given time and their relationship with their employer is purely transactional. They go in, clean, leave, and go to the next employer’s home. Most of them do not know their employer's’ full name, their occupation, or any personal details. Likewise, most employers seem to not know, or want to know, anything about the workers themselves, except that they come, clean, and leave. 

The workers we work with can also never expect reliable and consistent employment. Not only is it rare for the housecleaners to have the same employer for more than a year to two, they also face the risk of being dismissed with only a few days’ notice, therefore losing income they were depending on. There is no safety net for household cleaners despite the passage of a Bill of Rights in Illinois in August 2016 because they were not included in the law. House Cleaners were excluded from the Bill of Rights because the focus was around nannies and caregivers who have a single employer and work full-time. The rights that were enshrined in the Bill of Rights were minimal: they included the right to minimum wage, the right to one day of rest within a seven week day (for in-house caregivers), and protection against pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. It is important to note that the Bill of Rights was started by a group of household workers at Latino Union. Over the process of a five-year long struggle, it was co-opted by unions, other non-profits, and policy groups. By the end, it was non-profits that were celebrating their victory, not household workers. They were left out of the discussions and negotiations, they never had a seat at the table.

Employers who hire workers for childcare often ignore that the nanny might have her own children that she must to leave in the care of a family member or her own childcare worker, so she can take care of her employer’s children. They rarely consider transportation costs, or the time it takes to travel from a distant neighbourhood to the employer’s house. Most of our members spend roughly 40 minutes to an hour traveling to their employer’s home, often having to use several public transit services.

These examples come from only a few of the stories we have heard from the workers who come to our organisation. It is difficult to imagine how employers – who often do not care enough to know who is cleaning their homes – can be considered possible allies for household workers. What about employers who fill their own “care deficit” by employing a nanny about whose struggle to find childcare for her own children is of no interest to them? What about the employers who threaten their workers with deportation if they do not accept mistreatment or low pay?

Most household workers do not have a written contract, just a verbal promise of pay and hours expected of them. It’s an informal industry with no regulation, made even more difficult to regulate since the workplace is the employer’s home. Given these circumstances, how can we ask employers who employ household workers in the privacy of their homes to become allies without first talking about how to regulate the industry? And how do we hold employers accountable? Can they actually be real allies when most household workers in the country do not have basic labour law protections?

Household workers do the work that is often referred to as “the work that makes all other work possible”. But to us, that slogan should really say that household workers are women who perform work so that other women can become successful. And which women are we talking about? We are talking about privileged women, who are mostly white and upper middle class. We are talking about a group of women of whom 53% voted for Trump in 2016. Can we trust them to be allies to mostly working class, immigrant women? 

Becoming a political ally means employers holding themselves accountable for their own power and privileges.

Some employers may realise that they have full responsibility for seeing and treating employees with dignity and respect, although this sentiment comes more out of a sense of moral responsibility than from a desire to act as a political ally. Becoming a political ally means employers holding themselves accountable for their own power and privileges, and generating from these advantages resources for a movement carried by the workers themselves. Based on years of experiences as organisers, we know that no movement can sustain itself without the daily work of organisations that create a safe space for the workers to their stories of abuse and exploitation. Employer allies could use their resources to appeal to other employers, and perhaps even form their own social justice organisations. But their desire to make changes has to come from the experiences and demands of the workers themselves.

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