Domestic workers

Domestic workers call for legal protection from sexual violence

Warning: This story contains explicit descriptions of sexual harassment.


In her six years of experience as a caregiver in suburban Chicago, Myrla Baldonado, a human rights organizer who emigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 2006, had served 30 different clients. Of those 30, she was sexually harassed by eight.

There was the older woman who asked him to grab her private parts while Baldonado bathed her. There was the older man exposing himself as she tucked him into bed. There was the son of a woman with a stroke who spoke openly about finding his mother’s dildo while alone with Baldonado at night.

One evening in the middle of winter, she says her client’s husband had tried to sneak into her room in the dark. As she feared what he might do to her as she lay in bed, she didn’t know where to turn for help.

“What are you going to do?” she remembers wondering. “I just hid somewhere else and locked the door.”

This is not a unique Baldonado experience. Since working hard as a caregiver in Chicago and now working as a full-time organizer at the Pilipino Workers Center in Southern California, the 68-year-old attorney says she has met many domestic colleagues who have been subjected to similar cases of sexual violence at work.

“It’s hidden. It’s practically behind the curtains. It really is invisible work,” she says. “And that’s something people don’t pay attention to.”

The “invisible” work that the approximately 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States do includes caring for elderly or sick clients, caring for young children or babies, cleaning, cooking, washing, gardening , caring and any other task that could be considered a fundamental and essential function of a private household. And while the absence of this labor force would surely bring all other forms of work to a halt – because the home is where workers will begin – domestic workers are by and large left to their own devices. dealing with perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault.

The United States has long excluded domestic workers — as well as other historically marginalized sections of labor, such as agricultural workers — from safeguards granted under landmark New Deal-era legislation like the National Relations Act. law, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act. Their omission was intentional. By assuring disgruntled Southern Democrats that they would not have to pay raises to black women who worked for them, former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt mentioned“No law has ever suggested that a minimum wage and hours bill apply to domestic help.”

Domestic work has always been done by people on the margins of society. Traced back in time, this work was done by black women held in slavery and, later, those who paid poverty wages during the Jim Crow era. According to a 2020 report published by the Institute of Economic Policy. They tend to be older than those in other occupations and are three times more likely to live in poverty or just above the poverty line, just one circumstance aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. All are excluded from federal laws establishing basic worker rights.

Progress towards including domestic workers in labor law has been excruciatingly slow. Although a few amendments have extended limited coverage to certain domestic workers (as seen in the amendments to the Social Security Act in 1950the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1974and the federal unemployment insurance system in 1976), it was their exemption from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that de facto legalized any sexual harassment or assault perpetrated against them.

It’s hidden. It’s practically behind the curtains. It really is invisible work.

Title VII prohibits employee discrimination based on race, religion, disability, sex, or gender. But domestic workers often fall under the “small business exemptionwhich states that those who employ less than 15 people are exempt from the law.

“Domestic work involves only one worker most of the time,” says Baldonado. “So what happens is you have to have 15 workers for this law to take effect. … There would have to be less than 15 workers for you to have a right.”

In addition to the lack of legal protections, enduring sexual violence as a domestic worker is often a shameful or embarrassing experience, preventing many people from speaking out. With a significant portion of these workers coming from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, some fear reprisals from their employers who could, for example, exploit their paper status. It is exactly this complicated web of misogyny, racism and classism that underpins an oppressive infrastructure and produces a culture of silence.

“They don’t want to lose their jobs,” Baldonado says. “They oscillate between earning a living and protecting themselves.”

In the absence of more significant progress at the federal level, a handful of states have adopted a bill of rights for domestic workers, including New York, Illinois, Oregon, California, Nevada, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Mexico and Virginia, as well as the cities of Seattle and Philadelphia. But it’s a federal bill of rights for domestic workers that workers like June Barrett are demanding.

“That would be my safety net,” says Barrett, a 58-year-old homeworker and volunteer organizer at the Miami Workers Center who has worked in the field for decades. “When you don’t have a safety net, you can’t jump.”

Years ago, Barrett, who emigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 2001, was hired for a job they initially said they were enthusiastic about because it increased their hourly wage from $9 to $12. But the first night, the man Barrett was supposed to be caring for asked them to get into his bed. Barrette refused.

“He said, ‘What makes you think you’re better than other people?’ “, they remember. As the work progressed, the man’s behavior only worsened; he was constantly trying to grope and kiss Barrett. “When I got that job, that was it for me. It was more money,” they say. “But it turned into a nightmare.”

When you don’t have a safety net, you can’t jump.

They considered reporting his actions to the agency that placed them there, but were unsure what it might mean for them financially if their agency had no other employment lined up for them. Barrett still had bills to pay and, without health insurance, needed a regular salary to pay for her medication.

“I stayed there until I could choose another job, then I left,” they explain, adding that the closed nature of a worker’s relationship with their employer leaves many in the dark. . “We don’t have HR. We don’t have any type of outlet. … The work itself is stigmatized. People don’t think of you as a caregiver; they just see you as someone who cleans old people’s butts.

For Barrett, the passage from a National Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers is urgent. Such a bill would provide groundbreaking authorization for crucial rights that domestic workers currently lack, including paid sick leave, meal and rest breaks, fair compensation, overtime pay, and civil rights coverage under the title VII. The bill would further target incidents of sexual violence in the workplace by creating a national hotline for domestic workers, requiring a study and referrals for survivors, and establishing a council that would investigate standards of industry.

We are the ones who make all the other work possible.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act was originally introduced in 2019, co-sponsored at the time by Representative Pramila Jayapal and then Senator Kamala Harris. In 2021, the bill was reintroduced with some updates by Jayapal, who this time was joined by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Ben Ray Luján. He has the support of the National Alliance of Domestic Workers, President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.

“We’ve been organizing for years,” Barrett says, “and now we’re saying enough is enough.”

People like Barrett and Baldonado carry on a long tradition of radical agency that domestic workers who came before had proclaimed for themselves. Despite the hostility or indifference they encountered, these workers recognized the value of their neglected work and organized accordingly. The early 20th century saw the proliferation of domestic worker unions from coast to coast, igniting in cities like Boston, St. Louis, Wichita and Oakland. Some joined the more militant wings of the burgeoning labor movement, becoming active participants in uprisings or strikes. They campaigned for their own inclusion in New Deal-era laws, long before the mainstream recognized their work for what it clearly was: work.

Now it will take a modern coalition that transcends the boundaries of race, class and gender to secure their rights in the eyes of the law, say Baldonado and Barrett.

“Get out and tell your story, claim your rights and be part of the movement,” Baldonado orders. “Fight for it, because it’s hard. You won’t be alone in doing this.

The necessity of domestic work — the country’s utter and indisputable reliance on it — should be reason enough for people to support their cause, Barrett says.

“We make all the other work possible,” they say. “We are the ones who weave together the fabrics of communities. We care for the elderly so that they can live out their last days with dignity and respect. We take care of babies so that people can go to work in banks, schools or hospitals. Why can’t we get the respect, dignity and protection of the law? Why not?”

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