The home page of the website for the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA), an NGO based in the United States, includes some stark facts. One of them is that two million workers — nearly all of them women — take care of the nation’s homes and families, particularly children and the elderly. The other is that most of those two million are immigrant women and women of color. They are underpaid and undervalued. Historically, they have had few legal rights. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation, particularly in the case of undocumented migrant workers.
Ai-jen Poo has been facilitating the organizing of domestic workers in their efforts to expand their legal rights for 20 years. In 2001, with no prior experience in legislative work, she helped introduce New York City legislation that would protect and promote the rights of domestic workers. It was driven, she said, “by domestic workers who took time off work and learned” about the legislative process. It was, she emphasizes, a collective endeavor. “We learned as a group,” she said.
Domestic workers are “dehumanized and marginalized” for reasons of race, gender and immigration status. “So there are a lot of layers to break through” — in other words, there are multiple levels of confidence that must be rebuilt on the way to self-empowerment. “There’s always a lot of fear,” explained Poo, who co-founded and is the Director of NDWA. “A lot of these people are working pretty much in the shadows. They’ve risked everything to come to this country to work and their families back home are depending on them.” They also often work alone and in private spaces, making it harder for them to access a community of support or organize. And many employers of domestic workers don’t think of themselves as employers with all the responsibilities of that term.
Since its founding in 2007, NDWA has come to represent some 20,000 nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly. The organization places a strong emphasis on collective empowerment and mobilization, from the grassroots, and a deep understanding of the emotional aspects of working in the domestic work sector. “My whole approach to social justice is rooted in my work with these women, many of whom live at the bottom of the economic spectrum and work with people at the other end of the economic spectrum, paying more for a pair of shoes than the workers earn in two weeks,” she said.
One of NDWA’s largest priorities, therefore, is to invest in media campaigns and in partnerships across the country to raise awareness among employers about domestic workers’ rights, help them understand and value their work while appreciating their situations, and to commit to improving working conditions. In order to facilitate the sense of belonging and empowerment for domestic workers within the organization’s activities, NDWA makes sure that all their material is translated into the languages of their membership and that there is simultaneous translation at all their assemblies. And they co-create innovative outreach initiatives with their domestic worker community.
With thousands of women working together on a volunteer basis, holding town meetings and organizing marches, it took seven years to get a legislative bill passed in New York State. And they succeeded: Today, New York guarantees domestic workers basic rights like three days of paid leave, which was, said Poo, “unprecedented.” And the New York-based domestic workers inspired a movement. Today a total of eight states have passed legislation regarding the rights of domestic workers. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Labor extended certain wage and overtime protections to home care workers for the first time in 80 years.
The efficacy of Poo’s work and the work of the NDWA is grounded in solidarity, respect for the lived experience of members of the affected population, and an understanding that their work is collective. They are seeking to broaden their work to encompass an understanding that all informally employed workers are facing vulnerability and uncertainty.“ When asked about the future of work in the United States and the movement for workers’ rights, Poo responded “I think it will take a combination of [models] getting to sufficient sophistication and scale, and a very broad-based movement of people who are invested in the creation of good jobs, can connect to the issueon a deeply personal and emotional level and want to take action.”
Learn more: www.domesticworkers.org