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‘You’re mostly isolated and alone.’ Why some domestic workers are vulnerable to exploitation

Many domestic workers in the U.S. labor behind closed doors in private homes, exempt from certain types of federal labor protections.

That reality has made some of them a target for abuse by employers, according to Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which advocates for domestic workers in the U.S.

“In many ways this work is almost defined by invisibility,” Poo told the NewsHour Weekend.

Earlier this month, Judge Christine M. Arguello of the U.S. District Court of Colorado set a February trial date for a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of about 90,000 au pairs, who participate in a cultural exchange program under the State Department in which they receive a J-1 visa and a flat fee to care for a family’s children. The lawsuit claims that the program has devolved into the exploitation of au pairs for cheap childcare.

The defendants in the lawsuit are 15 of the 16 sponsor agencies that the State Department contracts with to oversee the program, who say that the program complies with federal laws and that participants receive the benefits of cultural exchange.

With that trial approaching, the NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano spoke to Poo, a 2014 MacArthur fellow, about the landscape of domestic labor in the U.S., how their work is tied to the history of racism in the U.S. and what daily life looks like for domestic workers.

Who are domestic workers in the U.S.?

Domestic workers in the U.S. are vast majority women, more than 90 percent women, disproportionately women of color, black women and immigrant women from every country you can imagine. It’s an incredibly diverse workforce. And the average age of an elder care worker, for example, is about 55. So it’s also an older female workforce.

This workforce works under incredibly vulnerable conditions [and is] vulnerable to all kinds of abuse. And annual median income for a home care worker, for example, is only $13,000 per year. So we’re talking about a workforce that’s working incredibly hard and still not able to make ends meet doing this work. And so our mission is to make these jobs really good jobs that you can take pride in and support your family on, where you can feel valued for your contribution to our economy and our society. And to also give voice to the stories and experiences of these women who really make everything else possible in our economy.

Why are domestic workers so vulnerable?

Back in the 1930s when the New Deal was being negotiated, Southern members of Congress refused to support the labor law provisions of the New Deal if they included farm workers and domestic workers who were largely African-American at the time. So in the context of those negotiations they made a concession to those Southern Dixiecrats. And to this day, farm workers and domestic workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act [and] the Fair Labor Standards Act, although many generations of activism have forced the inclusion of domestic workers under different provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

So there’s this long history, and this legacy of exclusion from basic rights and protections that has to do with our history of racism in this country.

What kind of protections are we talking about here?

We’re talking about basic rights. The Fair Labor Standards Act gives workers the right to a minimum wage and to overtime pay. The National Labor Relations Act offers the right to collectively bargain and form a union. So these are very basic, right to organize, minimum wage, right, basic things that most of us take for granted that this workforce has never been able to realize.

This is a workforce where the private home is their workplace. So you could go into any neighborhood or apartment building and not know which of these homes are also workplaces. There’s no list anywhere. They’re not registered anywhere. There’s no other coworkers. You’re mostly isolated and alone. And there’s certainly no HR department or anything like that.

The vulnerability and the power imbalance between workers and employers is incredibly stark, incredibly stark. That’s why we often compare it to the wild West. Because you never quite know what you’re gonna get. If you happen to find a wonderful family and employer you might stay with that family for years and years, even generations. But then there’s the whole other end of the spectrum where we’ve seen sexual assault and rape. We’ve seen modern day slavery type cases. And everything in between.

How does a person’s immigration status intersect with the work that you do?

There’s a lot of confusion about this issue. So the truth is that our labor laws require that everyone who is working, once they’re in a job, have equal protections. So that means even though it’s technically not legal for somebody who doesn’t have their status to work, once they’re in a job, they’re protected by the same rights as anybody else.

But what’s tricky is that if you are without status, if you’re undocumented, it’s almost impossible to really enforce those laws. And people do, right. But what ends up happening is that the employers have the ability to call immigration and threaten deportation and family separation, basically threaten immigration enforcement if you do report injustice. And so it’s tricky. Technically you’re protected by labor laws. But the actual enforcement of those laws is really, really hard because of the employers’ ability to leverage immigration laws to challenge a worker asserting their rights.

So the chances that somebody would actually report even very severe labor violations if they’re without status are much smaller because of that fear of deportation and family separation. That’s just the reality. So that is one of the reasons why, if we’re serious about ensuring that there’s a fair floor in the workplace, that we actually have to address immigration, too.

Your organization has done advocacy around a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. What is a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights?

There’s been this long history of exclusion from really basic protections under the law. And because of the vulnerabilities that this workforce faces, hidden behind closed doors, in many ways this work is almost defined by invisibility. And so we’ve got to pay special attention to making sure that there are adequate protections in the workplace so that workers can be treated fairly and also have safety at work.

As more people live longer, and more and more care is needed, and as millennials start to have children — I mean, four million babies are born every year. We’re gonna need more care than ever before. And this workforce is gonna be a huge part of how we care for our families in the 21st century. And it is so insecure. So much so that there’s high rates of turnover in the elder care workforce, for example, ’cause the wages are so low. And so what we’ve sought to do with our domestic worker bills of rights is to establish a baseline, a minimum standard of protections that’s never existed before for this workforce.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.