A Direct Legacy of Slavery, Domestic Worker Exploitation Is On the Rise In the U.S.

The pandemic has left already vulnerable workers even more exposed to abuses on the job.

Maurizio Guerrero August 26, 2020

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Glo­ri­a’s job as a domes­tic work­er was hard enough before the pan­dem­ic hit.

We were forced to clean the floors on our knees. It made me feel humil­i­at­ed,” says Glo­ria, a 36-year-old Ecuado­ri­an immi­grant who arrived six years ago in New York, where she works as a house­clean­er. (Glo­ria is undoc­u­ment­ed; In These Times is using a pseu­do­nym to pro­tect her iden­ti­ty.) The eco­nom­ic needs have forced me to per­form a job that I was not expect­ing to find here.“

Glo­ria even­tu­al­ly refused to kneel down to clean the floors, despite her fear of being sacked from the job and the lan­guage bar­ri­ers. Now, the pan­dem­ic has imposed anoth­er bur­den on domes­tic day labor­ers like her. Domes­tic work­ers and their advo­cates say that the Covid cri­sis has caused wages to drop and work to dry up, and has left already vul­ner­a­ble work­ers even more exposed to exploita­tion.

The pan­dem­ic caused an imme­di­ate dip in Glo­ri­a’s pay. With work even more pre­car­i­ous than before, she was forced to accept low­er wages. After earn­ing $13 or $14 per hour before Covid hit, Glo­ria says, we have to work now for mea­ger wages, for $10, $11, $12 per hour, even though our job is tough and con­sid­ered essen­tial.“

Glo­ria usu­al­ly works for Hasidic Jew­ish fam­i­lies in Brook­lyn, some of whom refused to wear pro­tec­tive equip­ment in her pres­ence, at least dur­ing the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic. She did not receive pro­tec­tive gear her­self.

As a day labor­er in New York, Glo­ria has no legal recourse to denounce abus­es. She is far from alone: unlike oth­er work­ers who, regard­less of immi­gra­tion sta­tus, are pro­tect­ed by fed­er­al and state laws, the vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­ca’s 2.5 mil­lion domes­tic work­ers are explic­it­ly left out of these pro­tec­tions.

Domes­tic work­ers live in the lega­cy of slav­ery, and this lega­cy con­tin­ues to shape the sec­tor today,” said Alli­son Julien, co-direc­tor of the New York Chap­ter of We Dream in Black and a found­ing mem­ber of the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA), dur­ing an August 13 video-con­fer­ence to com­mem­o­rate Black Women’s Equal Pay Day.

Gov­ern­ment lead­ers delib­er­ate­ly carved out domes­tic and farm­work­ers” from any law that could pro­tect their rights, Julien added.

Domes­tic work­ers were exclud­ed from the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Act and the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act because South­ern sen­a­tors refused to grant equal pro­tec­tion to a work­force made up large­ly of black women. That lega­cy is alive and well today.

Domes­tic work­ers are enti­tled to the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage of $7.25 an hour, but they do not have the right to form unions and are not cov­ered by fed­er­al anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws. Employ­ers are not oblig­at­ed to pro­vide safe work­ing con­di­tions or pro­tec­tive gear for work­ers.

Nine states and the city of Seat­tle have ver­sions of a domes­tic work­ers’ bill of rights,” although most of them lack enforce­able frame­works, accord­ing to Polaris, a non­prof­it that oper­ates a nation­al human traf­fick­ing hot­line, con­ducts research and pro­motes pol­i­cy changes.

New York has a domes­tic work­er law, but peo­ple who work less than 40 hours a week can­not access its ben­e­fits. Day labor­ers like Glo­ria, who are hired by the day or by the hour, are sim­i­lar­ly exclud­ed from the law’s ben­e­fits, as are undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple.

Black and undoc­u­ment­ed domes­tic work­ers have been dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed by these exclu­sions, com­pound­ed by the cur­rent health emer­gency and the result­ing eco­nom­ic reces­sion.

A sur­vey con­duct­ed in May and June in Mass­a­chu­setts, Mia­mi-Dade Coun­ty, and New York by the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies and NDWA found that, in the wake of the cri­sis, 70% of the Black immi­grant domes­tic work­ers sur­veyed had either lost their jobs (45%) or received reduced hours and pay (25%). Black undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers were near­ly twice as like­ly to be ter­mi­nat­ed than doc­u­ment­ed work­ers (64% com­pared to 35%).

Domes­tic work­ers’ plight can be seen every morn­ing on the cor­ner in Williams­burg, Brook­lyn, where dozens of them gath­er to get a job for the day. It’s a lit­tle vignette of the real­i­ty women migrant work­ers face in this coun­try,” says Ligia Guall­pa, co-exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Work­er’s Jus­tice Project (WJP), a grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion.

Before the pan­dem­ic, 40 to 50 women labor­ers showed up every morn­ing. Now, Guall­pa says, that num­ber has climbed to between 70 and 80. You can imag­ine that employ­ers now have a big­ger advan­tage. They know that the need is greater for work­ers,” she says.“Apart from com­pet­ing for work with 80 oth­er labor­ers, these women are now forced to accept what­ev­er the employ­er offers –$10 or $8 per hour.“

Traf­fick­ing goes up


The vast major­i­ty of domes­tic work­ers are immi­grants, which makes them par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to exploita­tion and labor traf­fick­ing –when employ­ees are forced to remain on the job through threats, vio­lence or oth­er forms of coer­cion, or brought to a coun­try through fraud­u­lent means.

Andrea Rojas, direc­tor of Strate­gic Ini­tia­tives at Polaris, says that this is a form of mod­ern-day slav­ery. This sit­u­a­tion, she adds, sends the very dan­ger­ous mes­sage that since these work­ers have been exclud­ed from pro­tec­tions grant­ed to oth­er work cat­e­gories, they are less valu­able.“

Polaris reg­is­tered 8,000 labor traf­fick­ing cas­es in the U.S. from 2007 to 2017, the high­est num­ber of which involved domes­tic work. The pan­dem­ic has coin­cid­ed with a spike in refer­rals to the orga­ni­za­tion.

The num­ber of traf­fick­ing cas­es (both from sex and labor traf­fick­ing) han­dled by the Polaris hot­line increased by more than 40% in the month after the lock­downs in the U.S. com­pared to the pri­or month – from approx­i­mate­ly 60 to 90.

New York state has expe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar trend. The New York State Traf­fick­ing Vic­tim Refer­ral Process processed 177 refer­rals between Jan­u­ary and June, a 70% increase over the same peri­od in 2019.

Domes­tic work­ers have often been left to their own devices and the mer­cy of employ­ers.

We are talk­ing about for­eign work­ers who often do not know the lan­guage, who are iso­lat­ed and with­out their safe­ty net­works,” Rojas explains. There’s also a pow­er imbal­ance, she adds, when low-paid labor­ers work in wealthy peo­ple’s hous­es.

Even work­ers who arrive in the U.S. with visas as nan­nies or au pairs receive a know-your-rights” brochure that makes them respon­si­ble if they become labor traf­fick­ing vic­tims, accord­ing to Polaris.

With­out legal pro­tec­tions, civ­il soci­ety groups and inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions have launched ini­tia­tives to reduce domes­tic labor exploita­tion. Polaris and the NDWApro­mote a code of con­duct for employ­ers and a pro­gram to train any­one who hires a for­eign domes­tic work­er for the first time.

The WJP offers employ­ers the chance to hire domes­tic work­ers under secure con­di­tions for both par­ties. Accord­ing to Guall­pa, the con­di­tions include a $20 per hour min­i­mum wage and a require­ment that employ­ers give their work­ers pro­tec­tive equip­ment.

With­out these pro­grams, and the gen­eros­i­ty of some employ­ers, Glo­ria says she would not be able to nav­i­gate the cur­rent cri­sis.

We pay our tax­es but have been exclud­ed from all gov­ern­ment aid,” she says. We have to keep on risk­ing our lives for very lit­tle money.”

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