Activities such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for children and the elderly all fall under the category of domestic work. As we have seen thus far in our study of gender, women typically do the domestic work. In the United States it is mostly women of color and migrant women who do this type of work. Prior to slavery it was mostly white female servants who did domestic work, then during slavery the work was handed over to black female servants. Now after slavery (over a century!) this work still remains to be done by women of color and immigrant women most often. So why is this work important anyway? Work is work right? Well no, since this type of work is traditionally deemed “women’s work,” it has consistently been devalued; however, without the work of domestic workers, society would not be able to function. If it were not for domestic workers, who would raise the children of parents who have time consuming careers? Western society would not be as productive as it is and opportunities would be limited if not for the services of domestic workers.
These workers, mostly women, are denied many of the fundamental protections that the Fair Labor Standards Act provides for most American workers. These protections include minimum wage, health care, sick days, vacation time, and overtime compensation. Other forms of exploitation that take place and are rarely documented within this field of work is that of emotional and sexual harassment. Unfortunately due to the private nature of the work, the poor conditions of domestic workers remains out of public view and dialogue. Additionally, since there are a large number of women who work undocumented as immigrants, many workers live in fear of being punished or deported if they speak up about unfair working conditions or abuse and can therefore be taken advantage of.
Now, how does hiring domestic workers affect the family? The domestic worker frequently must work abroad in order to provide a better quality of life for their children, meaning that their family members must raise their own children. So while a Western family’s children are benefitting from the services of a domestic worker, the worker’s own family is drained of her presence and love. This is a big toss up for a domestic worker with a family.
So, what is being done about this issue that is so much a woman’s problem? There are several organizations that fight for the rights of domestic workers and attempt to pass legislation in their favor. The National Domestic Workers Alliance was founded not long ago in 2007 and is the most prominent organization for domestic workers. In New York a bill titled the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was passed in 2010 and this provides basic work standards and pay for workers. There is some work being done on this issue, but the issue remains highly invisible to the public none-the-less.
Here are the stories of a few domestic workers from the film Maid in America:
Domestic workers are an important backbone to Western society, and these women deserve for their stories to become public, and not invisible any longer.
If you find this issue to be of particular interest to you, check out this website and see what you can do to help. http://www.domesticworkers.org/