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Eileen Boris, Hull Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara writes of Part of the Family?:
With the pointillist prose of a journalist and the comprehensive sweep of a scholar, Sheila Bapat guides us around the movement of nannies, care providers, and household workers for recognition, dignity, and justice that is reshaping how we think of home laborers. In telling the story of their struggles from New York and California to Geneva and beyond, she not only profiles heroines for our times but shows that together we can make a better, fairer, and more inclusive future.
Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week Editor Mark Karlin recently interviewed Part of the Family? author Sheila Bapat:
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Karlin: What is the history of why domestic workers have received, in general, such low pay and benefits? Is it an extension of the attitude of the privileged toward “servants”? How much does it relate to this nation’s historic promotion of slavery?
Bapat: The exclusion of domestic workers from basic labor protections has been a global phenomenon, rooted in the deeply gendered belief that domestic work – work mostly women are saddled with – is not “real” work worthy of economic value. This has held true even though domestic work – keeping homes clean, caring for children and elders, feeding everyone in a household – is what makes all other work possible.
In the United States, this exclusion is connected with slavery. Our original fair wage legislation – the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938 – excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers, most of whom were African American during that time. There is clear legislative history showing resistance from Southern lawmakers to the idea of allowing African-American workers to be on the same economic footing as white workers. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt needed the support of Southerners to pass the FLSA. To win their support, sadly, exclusions of domestic labor became part of our nation’s earliest fair wage laws.
What do you think of the paradox that society so little values the work of those who care for the people most dear to us: children, parents, disabled relatives, etc.?
Our purported values are so far from reality. If we really valued “family,” the United States would not be one of just a handful of nations that do not offer paid family leave. And, the work of nannies and caregivers would not be marginalized and so rife with abuse.
The effort to empower and improve the financial condition of domestic workers appears to be largely part of the new grassroots labor organizing efforts? Is that correct, or is it a blended movement that includes organized labor.
The domestic workers’ movement is a woman of color-led movement that, over time, has become closely integrated with labor. As Chapter 3 of my book discusses, the work toward the New York domestic workers’ bill of rights involved important labor leaders in New York state; a key labor rights lobbyist, Richard Winsten, became important to the movement in terms of winning support among legislators in New York. While labor has had a tricky history with women’s rights issues generally, we see a strong alliance between domestic workers and mainstream labor.
How has the organizing of domestic workers become a global movement?
Advocacy in the United States has strengthened and amplified activism occurring abroad. Workers and advocates in several other nations have convinced their governments to ratify the Convention on Domestic work enacted at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an important collaboration between US and global activists back in 2011. This victory at the ILO has inspired recent activism abroad: Slowly, groups of domestic workers in India are gaining health insurance coverage; workers in Peru and the Dominican Republic are advocating for basic labor protections. There is much more activism occurring elsewhere, as the International Domestic Workers’ Federation is tracking and supporting. There is much work to be done globally, but recent progress gives us reason to be optimistic.
Can you talk about the big victory in New York and the big letdown in California?
I discuss New York as being the “birthplace” of the current rising domestic workers’ movement. More than 10 years ago, New York City enacted legislation ensuring labor protections for domestic workers. Councilwoman Gale Brewer at this time pointed out that if the city’s domestic workers went on strike, the entire city would shut down. This message slowly resonated with state legislators, as workers and advocates – mostly women of color – began making trips to Albany to meet and tell their stories. In 2010, New York became the first state to enact a domestic workers’ bill of rights.
The first domestic workers’ legislation that the California legislature passed was in 2006. That was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was not an advocate for workers’ rights, and he was certainly was not interested in women’s rights by any stretch. However, even when we did elect a progressive governor, the journey in California was not easy for the California domestic workers’ advocates. Gov. Jerry Brown chose to veto very important legislation in 2012 that established overtime protections and other important protections that the book outlines. California, like other “blue” states, is a complex political terrain.
I think sometimes when a state is known for being a progressive state, there are a litany of progressive issues that a legislator, or governor, is considering at any given time. It is hard to say why Gov. Brown vetoed the 2012 legislation; some believe he was more focused on an education initiative that required more of his political capital, and others believe it may have been in response to concerns expressed by the disability rights community
What can be done to protect the wages and improve the living circumstances of the many immigrant workers who comprise the domestic care workforce?
Unfortunately immigration reform has stalled, but once Congress hopefully revisits it, we really need to make sure that we are offering visas for caregivers. Given the rising aging population in the United States, there is a clear demand for caregivers. Yet immigration reform tends to focus only on securing visas for people with skills in technology or other high-wage sectors. We need both types of workers in the US.
You have a chapter on collective bargaining. Can you comment on that in light of the 54 Supreme Court decision on June 30 that struck down mandatory paycheck contributions to public unions based on a state-paid mother who is a domestic worker in Illinois taking care of her child with special needs?
The US Supreme Court just dealt domestic workers a blow on Monday in its ruling in Harris v. Quinn, a case out of Illinois which weakens the ability of domestic workers who are employed by state-funded care programs to collectively bargain for higher wages. Remember these are among the lowest-paid workers in the United States, and domestic work is a fast-growing sector. State-funded programs like the one in Illinois have been shown to improve care for the most vulnerable people – elders, ill and those with disabilities – as well as improve retention among domestic workers. Given this decision, there needs to be continued focus by states and the federal government to raise wages and to ensure that these workers have the means to advocate for higher wages.
You write about the trafficking of persons forced into onerous domestic labor. Can you discuss that a bit?
We often think about trafficking in terms of sex trafficking. Indeed, labor trafficking is also a very serious problem. Many workers who are living in abusive situations are indeed brought into the United States to serve as domestic workers. The story of Shanti Gurung in my book details this: Shanti was brought to the US from India at the age of 17 to work as a housekeeper for an Indian diplomat. When she arrived she weighed 147 pounds. After a couple of years of being denied food and forced to work arduous hours, Shanti’s weight dropped to 80 pounds.
To address this problem, one thing we can do is reform diplomatic immunity. Currently, sitting diplomats are immune from civil or criminal prosecution even when there are allegations by their domestic workers of wage theft, mistreatment or even trafficking. This is policy that keeps workers – who are overwhelmingly women – deeply vulnerable to abuse. We recently saw CASA de Maryland bring a case for a Kenyan domestic worker who is alleging egregious abuse at the hands of her employer, a foreign diplomat. It is critical that we reform diplomatic immunity to hold diplomats accountable for worker abuse that they commit.
I interviewed a poet awhile back who held workshops with domestic workers, all of whom were from Latin America or the Caribbean. He mentioned how unempowered the women felt, and writing poems helped them regain dignity and a sense of personal value. How often did you encounter domestic workers who felt powerless and lacked self-esteem because of how they are treated?
I live in San Francisco, and I often see nannies with the children they care for. Last year while writing this book I befriended one nanny who cares for children on my block. I told her about my writing project, and we chatted quite a bit. I asked her if I could interview her anonymously, and she said yes. But when I followed up with a phone call, she never responded. Later I ran into her again, and she told me that her employer did not want her to talk to me. I felt that this was a very disheartening reality that many workers face: fear of retaliation or anger from their employers simply for speaking up or advocating for their own rights.
Your conclusion covers policy recommendations to improve the lives of domestic workers. Can you briefly describe some of them?
In addition to reforming diplomatic immunity, I also discuss the importance of paid family leave. Many families in the United States risk losing a great deal of income when they must take time off to care for ill relatives or when they have a child. We are one of just a few nations that do not offer paid leave for all. Currently, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey offer paid family leave programs. I am hopeful more states will move in this direction and that we will see paid leave at the federal level as well.
One major policy recommendation in my book is funding community organizers. Groups like Casa de Maryland in Baltimore, Mujeres Unidas y Activas in Oakland, Adhikaar in New York City – they are on the frontlines ensuring that domestic workers can seek refuge and advocate for their rights. These women-of-color-led groups are doing work that is crucial for all of us; they are protecting and defending our nation’s caregivers! I am hopeful that my book will show how important the work of organizing domestic workers actually is.