Domestic Workers Emerging from the Shadows

Stephen Franklin

Ania Jakubek, a domestic worker organizer at Arise Chicago and former au pair, discussing how the movement for domestic workers' rights has grown rapidly in recent years. (Photo by Shelly Ruzicka)

Domestic workers’ stories about how they are cheated out of their wages, overworked or not treated with respect often move Ania Jakubek.

But every so often she hears a truly troubling story like one offered by a woman, who told her how a middle-income family made her live in their garage, sleep on a flimsy cot and use a bucket for her toilet because they would not let her into their house at night.

People treat their pets much better,” said Jakubek, an organizer for the Arise Chicago Worker Center, which has served several thousand workers since its founding a dozen years ago.

Jakubek works with Polish domestic workers, who make up a large number of Chicago’s domestic worker ranks, and with whom she has a special bond. She came to the U.S. from Poland to work as an au pair and was plunged into sub-minimum wages and a heart-breaking job.

Her description of the indignities faced by domestic workers came at a recent forum in Chicago at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Gallery 400, sponsored by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and In These Times. She and others spoke of continued abuses, but also the progress spawned by efforts to help domestic workers.

Sheila Bapat described domestic workers’ march towards their rights in the U.S. as an upward effort with laws guaranteeing them protections already passed in California, New York, Massachusetts and Hawaii.

It is an effort, she explained, that links the two million domestic workers in the U.S. with the domestics around the world, whose ranks have been estimated at from 50 to 100 million. A San Francisco-based labor lawyer and writer, Bapat is the author of Part of the Family?: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights.

As their efforts and support grow, Bapat suggested that domestics could benefit from help from organizers. She lamented the long-term setback that domestic workers suffered when they were excluded from the pioneering workplace protections laid down by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

Domestic workers also need legal protections from the abuses sometimes carried out by employers protected by diplomatic immunity.

She was referring to the Indian envoy who left the U.S. earlier this year after she was charged with making false statements on a work visa for a domestic brought from India. Prosecutors said the maid was earning less than $3 an hour. A federal court judge later dismissed the charges, saying the envoy had diplomatic immunity.

Besides the lack of workplace protections, one of the major challenges domestics face is that they are socially and culturally invisible,” Bapat said.

The impact of their invisibility, said Jakubek, leads to a sense among domestic workers that they are not worth much.” As a result, Jakubek said she works to bring domestics together regularly to share their experiences as well as to help them bond.

That kind of outreach mattered to Magdalena Zylinska.

It gave me hope and reason to believe that we are not alone,” said Zylinskia, who began working as a maid soon after arriving in the U.S. from Poland and has since become a volunteer with Arise Chicago.

She has thrived, she said, when work was plenty, and suffered when people cut back on hiring her, sometimes canceling jobs without any notice.

Sometimes people, who hire us don’t realize that we are also people with bills to pay.”

The invisibility and abuses moved Bapat, drawing her deeper into the issue, and leading her into writing about them, she said. But so did her conviction that the struggle of domestic workers is no longer a hidden struggle.

It is finally beginning to change — who is listened to and who gets power,” Bapat said.

Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.

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