Meet the L.A. Household Worker Taking On the Toxic Cleaning Industry

Brooke Anderson September 6, 2017

María is one of many house workers on the front lines of the fight for environmental justice. (Brooke Anderson)

In 2016, after more than a decade of intense strug­gle, a statewide coali­tion of domes­tic work­ers won a land­mark Domes­tic Work­er Bill of Rights in Cal­i­for­nia. The leg­is­la­tion estab­lish­es over­time pay for some of the low­est paid and most exploit­ed work­ers in California’s mas­sive economy.

Now this scrap­py but increas­ing­ly influ­en­tial coali­tion of most­ly first-gen­er­a­tion Lati­na and Fil­ip­ina immi­grant women is tak­ing on the pow­er­ful con­sumer clean­ing prod­uct indus­try that is poi­son­ing their bod­ies, chil­dren, air, water and soil.

Like many of the women who mop floors and scrub toi­lets in oth­er people’s homes, when María first start­ed clean­ing, she devel­oped a nasty rash and cough, among oth­er ail­ments. Now she’s one of the lead­ing orga­niz­ers behind an effort to require that the con­sumer clean­ing prod­uct indus­try include ingre­di­ent lists so house­clean­ers can iden­ti­fy health risks.

While peo­ple have made and cleaned homes for tens of thou­sands of years using nat­ur­al cleansers and dis­in­fec­tants — from vine­gar and cit­rus fruit peels to rose­mary and thyme — the pro­duc­tion of syn­thet­ic chem­i­cals sky­rock­et­ed after World War II. Of the at least 80,000 chem­i­cals on the mar­ket in the Unit­ed States today, tens of thou­sands have nev­er been test­ed by the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. Stud­ies show that our bod­ies — includ­ing our breast­milk — are awash in these chem­i­cals, lead­ing to a host of health issues like asth­ma and can­cer. Now, women like María are fight­ing back.

While in Los Ange­les, Calif., I sat down with María, whose name has been changed to pro­tect her iden­ti­ty, in light of recent immi­gra­tion attacks and the many reprisals work­ers face for speak­ing out.

Brooke Ander­son: You’re a leader in the Los Ange­les-based work­ers’ cen­ter, the Insti­tute of Pop­u­lar Edu­ca­tion of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia (IDEP­SCA). How did you first get involved in IDEPSCA?

María: I grew up in Hon­duras and lat­er moved here to the Unit­ed States, like every­one who came to work, because there is lit­tle work in our home coun­tries. We came to find a bet­ter future for our kids. Once in Los Ange­les, I came to know IDEPSCA’s work­ers’ cen­ter. I was going there for sev­er­al months but then found work in the gar­ment indus­try. They paid me 3 cents per piece, and I was exposed to a lot of tox­ic prod­ucts. Since it was a real­ly hard and exploita­tive job, lat­er I came back to the IDEP­SCA in search of clean­ing work, and I got involved as a vol­un­teer. I learned a lot about what the com­mu­ni­ty need­ed, includ­ing about tox­ic prod­ucts in our food and the environment.

Brooke: So it was here at IDEP­SCA that you found work as a domes­tic worker?

María: Yes, I found work as a house­hold work­er here in the IDEP­SCA work­er cen­ter. I real­ly don’t like the word domes­tic,” because peo­ple are not domes­ti­cat­ed. Ani­mals are domes­ti­cat­ed, but not peo­ple. So we say that we are house­hold” work­ers. [In Span­ish, domes­tic” is more com­mon­ly used to refer to domes­ti­ca­tion of animals].

Brooke: Peo­ple often think, I clean my own house and it doesn’t seem like that much work.” But, I imag­ine the work is real­ly exhaust­ing. Tell us about the work of a house­hold worker.

María: That is what the employ­ers think — that house­work is not exhaust­ing. But of course it’s exhaust­ing. A house­hold work­er is not only one who cleans, but also includes work­ers who do care­tak­ing and cook­ing in pri­vate homes. House­clean­ers dust, sweep, mop and clean the kitchen and the bath­rooms. Some­times employ­ers ask us to clean the win­dows and the walls, to do the laun­dry and iron, to take care of the pets. But this is all addi­tion­al work, not housecleaning.

Brooke: What chal­lenges or abus­es do house­hold work­ers face on the job?

María: Many house­hold work­ers suf­fer from wage theft and not being paid min­i­mum wage. We did a sur­vey, and some work­ers report­ed wage as low as $2.50 per hour. Some work­ers live in the home where they work as live in” work­ers. These work­ers are some of the most abused, because they are at the beck and call of their employ­er. They work more than eight hours but are not paid over­time. Many work­ers do not file labor claims out of fear that the employ­er will call immi­gra­tion enforcement.

Brooke: It was because of this that you fought for and won the Domes­tic Work­er Bill of Rights. What did you win, and why was that so important?

María: We fought long and hard to win the Bill of Rights. At the time I got involved in 2011, we had 10 points in Assem­bly Bill 889, but it was vetoed by Gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown. Two years lat­er, it was re-intro­duced to specif­i­cal­ly pro­tect the right to over­time pay. We won that right, and it became law, but it was set to expire in 2017. Then, with SB 1015, after much work and sac­ri­fice, we won a per­ma­nent right to over­time for house­hold work­ers. Now that we have this right, we have to enforce it. Even this is a chal­lenge. Many work­ers don’t know that we won this right, because they are not organized.

Brooke: Now, in the wake of that vic­to­ry, you’ve launched a cam­paign against tox­ic clean­ing products.

María: Yes. The employ­ers have tox­ic prod­ucts and many work­ers have got­ten sick. When I first start­ed work­ing as a house­clean­er, I used a lot of these tox­ic prod­ucts. They’d make my eyes real­ly red. I’d get headaches, aller­gies and be sneez­ing and every­thing. I was scratch­ing at myself all the time. I’d cov­er up with a turtle­neck, because, if not, peo­ple would stare at me. It made me ashamed that peo­ple would think I was sick­ly. I’m a per­son who is gen­er­al­ly real­ly healthy. The doc­tor told me that I was sick from the tox­ins I was absorb­ing from the prod­ucts that I used in cleaning.

The com­pa­nies that make these tox­ic prod­ucts are not oblig­at­ed to say what the ingre­di­ents are or what prob­lems they can cause. If a per­son keeps using these tox­ic chem­i­cals over the long term, they can cause can­cer and hurt your repro­duc­tive sys­tem. Anoth­er con­cern are the younger work­ers who have chil­dren. For exam­ple, if a young moth­er is breast­feed­ing her baby, she could pass par­tic­u­lar tox­i­cs to her child indi­rect­ly as a result of what she has absorbed on the job.

For these rea­sons, IDEP­SCA and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions have been fight­ing for Cal­i­for­nia Sen­ate Bill 258: the Clean­ing Prod­uct Right to Know Act of 2017, which was intro­duced by Sen­a­tor Ricar­do Lara. SB 258 would require com­pa­nies to dis­close on their web­site the tox­ic ingre­di­ents in their clean­ing prod­ucts. Even though this pro­pos­al doesn’t get us all of what we real­ly want in the long term — that they no longer pro­duce tox­ic prod­ucts and that organ­ic prod­ucts are acces­si­ble to the com­mu­ni­ty — we see SB 258 as progress and we are going to keep fight­ing for this law until we win.

Brooke: While you all are fight­ing to pass SB 258 at a statewide lev­el, you are also edu­cat­ing and orga­niz­ing your own com­mu­ni­ty to make the switch to non-tox­ic prod­ucts right now.

María: Yes, we are edu­cat­ing the com­mu­ni­ty. We meet every Wednes­day at IDEP­SCA. We have an Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Com­mit­tee where work­ers learn more about tox­ic prod­ucts, and we talk about envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice for Lati­na com­mu­ni­ties in Los Ange­les. We are all women. We also go to health fairs where we demon­strate how to make health­i­er prod­ucts that the work­ers can take home with them. The Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Com­mit­tee also orga­nizes the com­mu­ni­ty to speak with their rep­re­sen­ta­tives about the impor­tance of SB 258.

Brooke: How do you make low-cost, non-tox­ic clean­ing prod­ucts? Could you share with us one of the recipes that you teach in the workshops?

María: Of course. Peo­ple say that the tox­ic prod­ucts clean bet­ter than nat­ur­al ones, but it is not true. You can make your own prod­ucts like we do here in the Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Com­mit­tee. The ingre­di­ents to make a mul­ti-use paste are: 1 cup of bak­ing soda, 14 cup of liq­uid Castille soap, 2 table­spoons of veg­etable glyc­eri, and 5 or more drops of essen­tial oil (for exam­ple tea tree oil, rose­mary or laven­der). Mix the ingre­di­ents, store them in a sealed glass jar and use the mix­ture with­in two years. For excep­tion­al­ly dif­fi­cult jobs, spray vine­gar first. Let it sit and then con­tin­ue scrubbing.

Brooke: Here at the IDEP­SCA office, you have a Tree of Jus­tice” in which you’ve writ­ten all the things you’re fight­ing for beyond just health­i­er clean­ing prod­ucts. What are some of those things?

María: We want clean water, clean air to breathe, healthy chil­dren, acces­si­ble edu­ca­tion, phys­i­cal and men­tal health for all and respect for all liv­ing things. With healthy and unit­ed fam­i­lies, we can do some­thing dif­fer­ent for the environment.

Leer en español

Brooke Ander­son is an Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia-based orga­niz­er and pho­to­jour­nal­ist. She has spent 20 years build­ing move­ments for social, eco­nom­ic, racial and eco­log­i­cal jus­tice. She is a proud union mem­ber of the Pacif­ic Media Work­ers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.
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