Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault.
Isabel, 59 and an immigrant from Guatemala, was vacuuming her employer’s bedroom when he attempted to rape her.
“I was able to leave, and I never went back to that job,” Isabel, who prefers not to share her last name, told Truthout. “But I didn’t tell anyone.”
The incident took place 19 years ago, when she was a housekeeper in Chicago.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein story that broke in October, with more and more famous entertainers revealing their experiences of harassment and assault in professional settings, many perceive this moment to be a turning point for women’s ability to speak out about sexual assault.
Yet many women in the United States are presently enduring harassment and assault that they dare not publicly share for fear of losing their job, or experiencing other forms of retaliation, including deportation. These women include the approximately 2 million domestic workers — nannies, housekeepers and caregivers — in the United States, who work and sometimes live inside of the homes of their perpetrators.
The highest rates of sexual assault are to be found in low-wage sectors, such as farm work, and the restaurant and retail industries.
The vast majority of domestic workers are women, and many, like Isabel, are immigrants and women of color. The sector is known for low wages and wage theft. Immigrant women hired as domestic workers are sometimes threatened with rape if they displease their employer.
“I almost always felt unsafe, or at least concerned about my safety, in a lot of jobs,” Isabel said. “I’d be entering strangers’ homes. I would often carry my money on my body so if I needed to leave quickly, I could.”
“These workers are isolated,” Almas Sayeed, supervising attorney at the Home Care Worker Team for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) told Truthout. “It’s one of the reasons that they are vulnerable, just like the women in Hollywood we are hearing about. They are alone with their perpetrators, and they’re trying to keep their job. It makes it very difficult to get them to talk about these issues.”
Sayeed recently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a New Mexico-based home care worker in her early 50s, “Linda,” whose 67-year-old male client has been inappropriately touching her breasts and lower back, and refuses to stop. The complaint alleges that when Linda tried to tell her employer — a private agency that contracts out domestic worker services — her manager at the agency began sexually harassing her as well.
Unlike Angelina Jolie, Selma Blair, Rachel McAdams and the other actors who have come forwarded recently, Linda is choosing not to speak with the press, for fear of losing her job.
Linda’s experience reminds us that women across a wide range of ages and professions are harassed and assaulted. While many women actors are speaking out about abuse that took place in their early 20s or before, domestic workers like Isabel and Linda are oftentimes middle-aged women who are continuing to experience sexual harassment and assault on the job.
Moreover, many domestic workers are mothers and grandmothers who are providing for their families. Quitting isn’t always a feasible option and losing their job could be economically disastrous.
Indeed, the sectors with the highest rates of sexual assault include low-wage sectors, such as farm work, and the restaurant and retail industries.
The history of domestic workers being sexually harassed and abused by their employers dates back to the days of slavery. In addition to having no legal freedom or power over their own lives, enslaved people who labored in US homes were subject to rape and sexual assault.
One enslaved woman wrote, “If God has bestowed beauty upon a slave woman, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white women only hastens the degradation of the female slave.”
Slaves who labored inside of homes were extremely isolated. Many enslaved women — whether they were working inside of homes or not — were raped and forced to bear children by their male masters.
“The men that we work for? They are still in plantation mode. They still think we are their property.”—June Barrett, domestic worker and organizer.
These indignities reappear in modern domestic workers’ lives.
Today, worker centers like Arise Chicago and the Miami Worker Center, which are nonprofit organizations that advocate for low-wage or immigrant workers, are helping to grow workers’ power and ability for self-determination. In line with this mission, these centers are providing opportunities for domestic workers to share their stories — as well as report the abuse when it happens.
Like Isabel, June Barrett has chosen to speak publicly about the sexual harassment she faced as a home care worker. Barrett, 53, is a Jamaican-born domestic worker and organizer in Miami. She has worked as a domestic worker since the age of 16 and has experienced sexual assault on the job.
“For a long time, I had to stay silent,” Barrett told Truthout. “I had to put up with unwanted kissing, groping of my breasts, because I needed work, I needed to pay rent.”
Barrett says she now feels comfortable speaking out because of her activism with the Miami Worker Center. Barrett told her story of sexual harassment at the first Florida Domestic Workers Assembly, a July 2016 conference that included domestic workers, city commissioners and legislators.
“The men that we work for? They are still in plantation mode. They still think we are their property, they think it is okay to say sexually suggestive things to us,” Barrett said.
Advocating for Protections
In some states, new laws are helping codify protections for domestic workers who experience harassment or other abuses, including wage theft and retaliation.
Several of the eight state domestic workers’ bills of rights that have been enacted include protection from sexual harassment. New York’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was enacted in 2010. The first in the country, it protects individual domestic workers hired by families.
The Illinois Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, enacted in 2016, includes domestic workers within Illinois’s Human Rights Law, which protects against sexual harassment.
And Oregon’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, enacted in 2015, includes protection from harassment as well.
Critically, many of these domestic workers’ bills of rights apply to employers who only employ one worker, in addition to those who employ multiple people. Typically, anti-discrimination legislation only covers employers who hire a larger number of employees. Federal anti-discrimination law only applies to employers who have 15 or more employees. But many domestic workers employ themselves or work for smaller companies, and they need codified protection from harassment as well.
This gap in protections points to the historic exclusion of domestic work from federal employment protections. Major labor legislation of the New Deal era, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a minimum wage, and the National Labor Relations Act, which protected collective bargaining activity, did not protect domestic workers.
Moreover, when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, domestic workers face unique circumstances that render longstanding laws inadequate to address their needs.
“Domestic workers are often alone in private residences, so they don’t usually have available witnesses or other evidence that a worker in a more traditional workplace may have, and yet, under the law, they are often held to the same standard,” Rocio Avila, NDWA state policy director, told Truthout.
Many domestic workers’ bills of rights do require that workers file a complaint with the relevant state agency within one year of the harassment taking place.
Ensuring more domestic workers know about emerging legal protections and the potential for relief can help domestic workers stand up for themselves, Avila said. That is where advocacy groups like Arise Chicago and the Miami Workers Center play a critical role. These groups, affiliates of the NDWA, conduct “know-your-rights” trainings and organize domestic workers throughout their communities. Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), an NDWA affiliate in Oakland, runs a sexual assault hotline for domestic workers to report abuse.
In addition, state agencies that investigate employment discrimination and harassment claims should be equipped to effectively and expediently investigate claims from domestic workers, Avila said.
A federal domestic workers’ bill of rights would help ensure that all domestic workers throughout the country are protected.
“Enforcement agencies should assess the threat of retaliation domestic workers may face for speaking out, and prioritize their investigations based on that,” Avila said. “These agencies should recognize how vulnerable domestic workers can be and process their claims expediently in partnership with workers’ rights organizations.”
Organizing efforts, coupled with state and local policy, are beginning to help domestic workers speak out and remove themselves from abusive situations. At the same time, domestic worker advocates are also being elected to policymaking positions — further strengthening the domestic workers’ movement’s ability to advocate for workers. Lydia Edwards, formerly an attorney who represented domestic workers with the Brazilian Worker Center in Massachusetts, was recently elected to the Boston City Council.
While this is all important evidence of progress, it is piecemeal. A federal domestic workers’ bill of rights would help ensure that all domestic workers throughout the country are protected, Sayeed said.
“Before the 2016 election, we were on [the] precipice of moving legislation forward at federal level,” Sayeed said. “My hope is that eventually all domestic workers will be protected against harassment and retaliation by a federal law.”