Poo’s appearance at the Golden Globes is part of a long arc of bringing domestic employment out of the shadows and into the spotlight. She fell into the work after volunteering during college in a domestic violence shelter in the Asian immigrant community (she learned Mandarin from the immigrant grandparents who raised her) and witnessing how survivors in the low-wage workforce struggled to put food on the table for their families. The organization Poo went on to lead, Domestic Workers United, became a model for how to organize the supposedly “unorganizable”: a workforce splintered by language barriers and workplace isolation. Recruiting in playgrounds, enlisting an army of translators, and building a network of worker-organizers, in 2010 DWU pushed the landmark Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights through the New York state legislature, a template for laws that are being duplicated across the country.
In These Times spoke with Poo shortly after the Golden Globes about how domestic workers are experiencing the #MeToo moment, how she navigates the tension between her own growing celebrity and elevating workers, and why she sees this as a once-in-a-generation women’s movement.
How are sexual harassment and assault experienced by domestic workers?
AJP: They are all too common. This is a female-dominated workforce—disproportionately women of color and immigrant women—doing care-giving and cleaning work that is associated with women and taken for granted. This workforce has been discriminated against in the law ever since the New Deal. You have isolated workplaces, often just one woman working for a family. There is no list, no registry, so nobody really knows that you work there except for your employers and whoever you tell—which is usually just your family. And the precariousness of the employment compounds the vulnerability to abuse. That abuse is sometimes economic: poverty wages, nonpayment of wages, late payment of wages. It can also be emotional, verbal, physical and sexual. It comes down to abuses of power that prey upon the vulnerability of the workforce.
Women have been incredibly resilient and courageous in the face of that power dynamic and have organized in many different iterations over generations. What we’re seeing now is that domestic workers are coming forward as part of the #MeToo movement to say, not only are we not alone as domestic workers, we are not alone as women working in this economy. Women across the board face this imbalance of power, which makes us susceptible to harassment and abuse, and limits our economic and human potential.
We say that one domestic worker can transform a family and 250,000 domestic workers can change a country. It’s about the power of women’s voices when they are unified around a collective courage to transform our culture. What is so powerful about this movement is the way that we are speaking to each other, like a call and response between women across so many different experiences and communities and industries. We are saying to each other: I see you. You’re not alone. I’m here.
Given that domestic workers can be isolated and face language barriers, to what extent is this #MeToo moment reaching them?
AJP: What does reach domestic workers is media. Media exposure is hugely helpful in terms of the awareness that we exist. The Spanish language press and mainstream media covered the Golden Globes. And everybody knows who Meryl Streep is.