Commentary Law and Policy

In the Face of Tough Life Circumstances, Domestic Workers Organize, Seek to Influence Immigration Reform

Sheila Bapat

This week nearly 100 domestic workers traveled to Washington, DC to meet with legislators about why immigration reform matters for their lives, and why they ought to be part of the immigration reform agenda.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) reports that 46 percent of all U.S. domestic workers—people who labor in private homes as nannies, housekeepers and caregivers—are born outside the United States and 35 percent are non-citizens. Yet this demographic and the role they play in the economy is currently ignored by major immigration proposals. Bryce Covert at The Nation pointed out a couple of weeks ago that while agricultural workers were mentioned in an immigration reform proposal put forward by eight Senators, domestic workers were excluded.

But this group of workers—long ignored by federal labor regulations and invisible in the economy and society generally—refuses to be ignored now. Last week dozens of domestic workers representing 15 different organizations traveled to Washington, DC to meet with legislators about why immigration reform matters for their lives, and why they ought to be part of the conversation.

One of the domestic workers who lobbied this week is Silvia Lopez, 46. Lopez lives in Fruitvale, a suburb of Oakland, California. She has been a domestic worker for 20 years.

“I was really emotional from this experience traveling to Washington DC,” she told me. “I wanted to communicate to [the lawmakers] that deportations lead to family separation, and I wanted domestic workers to be recognized by Obama. We can’t just recognize immigrants with higher education. Domestic workers are critical for the economy, too.”

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Being part of an invisible, low-respect, and—until recently—largely unorganized sector like domestic work is rife with challenges, of which Lopez is all too familiar. At 26, she started working as a nanny for a Los Angeles family. “It was the best job I ever had,” she told me. “My only job was to care for those kids, just focus on the kids.”

Lopez takes pride in her work: she enables those in her care to go out into the world and be productive members of the public sphere economy. But when that wonderful employer moved away, Lopez began a new position working for a bigger family with more expansive needs. She began to encounter the problem of “job creep” where workers are eventually required to fulfill roles and responsibilities that they were not originally hired to take on.

“First I was asked to care for the kids, but slowly, slowly, I became responsible for a great deal of other work,” she said. “I would wash clothes, clean bathrooms, cook for the family. It became an abusive situation.” She was paid so poorly that she worked in a clothing washing company on the side, earning one cent per item of clothing washed.

Lopez eventually left both of these positions, and now works in a house cleaning company where she has been able to negotiate her own wages and help her colleagues do the same. The work is hard: she cleans clumps of excrement off of the homes of elderly people, she navigates how to get rid of zillions of rats that the client had not informed her of when they booked her gig. She is the sole breadwinner for herself and her two children.

Fear of deportation only adds to these life challenges. One of NDWA’s campaigns, We Belong Together, raises attention to the ways immigration laws impact women, children and families. In particular, women in abusive situations may be less inclined to report the abuse, for fear of deportation and being torn from her family. Lopez originally turned to the domestic workers movement—specifically by reaching out to Mujeres Unidas y Activas (Mujeres)—because she needed help escaping an abusive relationship. She met the father of her two children just three months after arriving in the United States. Like many domestic violence situations, Lopez says her relationship “was ok at first” but soon became abusive. “He was verbally abusive, to the point where I didn’t see any value in myself, I had low self esteem,” she said. “But I stayed with him 17 years, until finally my daughter said to me, Mom, what will happen to your life if you don’t get out of this?”

Lopez’s life changed dramatically after being connected with Mujeres and the domestic workers’ movement. Mujeres has been active in the movement for recognition of domestic workers’ rights for several years, having mobilized for the 2006 and 2012 California Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights—both of which were vetoed. Mujeres inspires domestic workers to get involved in the work: Lopez is now a committed activist and plans to continue organizing her colleagues in the domestic worker sector both for expanded labor protections and immigration reform. “I want to establish a strong organizing culture in our community, and a good life for my family,” she said.

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