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

Source: In These Times

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 processed177 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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