Beyond Hollywood: Domestic Workers Say #MeToo

Ai-jen Poo on how a new women’s movement is building—from house cleaners to Hollywood stars

Jessica Stites

I HAD NOT PERSONALLY MET MERYL STREEP BEFORE I CHECKED MY VOICEMAIL AND HEARD HER SOFT VOICE, familiar from so many of my favorite films, introducing herself,” wrote Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), in a January 9 blog post for Cosmopolitan. There she was, asking to discuss the possibility of attending the Golden Globes together. Yes, Ms. Streep, we can definitely discuss that.”

Streep didn’t cold-call Poo. The actress Michelle Williams had invited Tarana Burke to the awards show in recognition of Burke’s decade-old “Me Too” campaign to empower young women of color who have experienced sexual violence. At Burke’s suggestion, seven other stars brought activists as their plus-ones, including farmworker advocate Mónica Ramírez, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United co-founder Saru Jayaraman and Poo. It was a striking corrective to the celebrity-focused first wave of #MeToo. In that spirit, Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon and 300 other actors raised more than $19 million to help low-wage women workers who file sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits cover the cost of legal expenses.

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.

Did the message get through, or did you run up against reporters who wanted to only talk dresses?

AJP: I was pleasantly surprised. The entertainment media were generally interested in why we were there. Entertainment Tonightasked: What’s your message?

What was beautiful about it was that this message of unity and of inclusion carried through the program that night: everyone wearing black, and most of the women who got up on stage saying something meaningful about equity. And then Oprah of course closed it with an epic speech.

She’s an important figure to domestic workers around the country for many different reasons—one of them is that in her movies she has played strong domestic workers [like Sofia in “The Color Purple”]. That she named them in her speech was a very important redemptive measure; that Oprah, the person that they really admire, recognizes their existences, their contributions, their realities.

How is your group building on this moment in your organizing?

AJP: At least 2 million women do this work and a lot of them are still very isolated, not connected to our organization. Our goal right now is to make sure that every last one of those women know that we’re here as a resource and a home for them to connect to their peers. We did a Facebook Live after the Golden Globes. Daniela Contreras, one of our worker leaders, and also a survivor, hosted it. It was bilingual. Thousands of people tuned in.

Yours is a group that centers worker-members as leaders, and yet you’ve found yourself in the spotlight. How do you navigate that?

AJP: I’ve spent my entire adult life—since 1998—immersed in how we bring visibility and light and dignity to this work. When invisibility is such a part of the disenfranchisement of a workforce, then you’re always trying to make this workforce visible. Opportunities like the Golden Globes shine a light on the significance of the work of domestic workers and home care workers, but also on the incredible organizing that’s happening with so many amazing women beyond me. Sidestepping those opportunities is not helping anyone.

Is #MeToo personal for you?

AJP: Absolutely. I’m a survivor myself of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace. I’ve dealt with this in my life and in my own way. This moment has been incredibly healing and also put the fire of urgency in me to make sure that we achieve real and lasting change. Women have been surviving violence forever. This moment of awakening is one that we cannot squander.

Do you see the Women’s Marches as a part of that moment of awakening?

AJP: Yes. The marches were bigger this year; I think a lot of the official numbers are undercounts. That tells me that women are driving a historic transformation in our cultural and political lives in this country. This kind of transformation and activation in our democracy only happens once every few generations.

It’s important that people who are closest to the sharpest and cruelest forms of inequality are really a part of the movement. There are powerful organizations, and leadership by women of color, trans women, and women with disabilities. I feel hopeful. This is the movement that we have always wanted.

What are your hopes for this movement?

AJP: The question is: How do we ensure that we have lasting change? It’s civic engagement—all of the women who are running for office, all of the women who are talking about being campaign managers, some of whom never voted before. We need to start talking about big bold policy solutions. One idea we have been incubating is universal family care: one fund that everyone contributes to, that everyone can benefit from, regardless of where and how and whether you work, which helps you afford child care, elder care and paid-family leave. In other words, everything you need in order to participate meaningfully in the economy and have a family.

Like a Social Security for caretaking?

AJP: Yep, exactly. A social insurance program.

How do you get there?

AJP: Elected officials in Maine and Michigan are working on state-level legislation. In Washington state, they are discussing something called the Longtime Care Trust Act, a social insurance program for elder care in the state of Washington. It’s a universal program for everyone. We’re moving it state by state. Federally, we’re trying to find champions. There is an appetite for these big, bold solutions. There are candidates for Congress and others who are reaching out to us and saying: “Hey, this is the kind of thing I want to run for office on.”

And now, the most important question: Do you have an invite to the Oscars?

AJP: Not yet!

Should we tell people you’re available?

AJP: Yes, tell people that domestic workers are ready to stand with their sisters and take on the industry.

Jessica Stites is Editorial Director of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and edits stories on labor, neoliberalism, Wall Street, immigration, mass incarceration and racial justice, among other topics. Before joining ITT, she worked at Ms. magazine and George Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advocate and AlterNet. She is board secretary of the Chicago Reader and a former Chicago Sun-Times board member.

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