Activist Ai-jen Poo was on the TIME 100 list in 2012 when her organization fought for the rights of nannies and house cleaners in California. Today they can claim victory in that state and they have their sights on the rest.
EXCLUDED FROM many of the protections provided under the Fair Labor Standards Act, an estimated 800,000 to 2 million domestic workers in the U.S. face tremendous exploitation. Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is changing the tide for this 95 percent female workforce. Having celebrated legislative victories in New York, Hawaii, and California, Poo spoke to Marie Claire about what's next.
MARIE CLAIRE: What is your personal connection to this cause?
AI-JEN POO: My grandmother, who is 87, is able to have a vibrant life because a caregiver named Mrs. Sun supports her. Her work makes so much possible for our family, and I think the more we value people like Mrs. Sun, the healthier our society will be.
NDWA Director Ai-jen Poo was recently named one of 19 Young Activists Changing America by Moyers & Company
Like farmworkers, most of America’s 2.5 million domestic workers — nannies, housekeepers and caregivers — are not covered by federal wage, overtime, organizing and other labor laws. Many toil 12 to 15 hours per day and are paid less than $200 a week. So, it was a major milestone when New York state passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. At least 200,000 domestic employees, mostly immigrants, are now entitled to a 40-hour workweek with overtime pay, one day of rest per week and three days of paid time off after a year of employment. The law protects them against sexual harassment and entitles them to temporary disability benefits and unemployment insurance.
At least 800,000 women go to work in other people’s homes each day in the United States, serving as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for our elders and loved ones with disabilities. By caring for children and offering the aging both emotional support and assistance with the basic activities of daily life, they enable the recipients of their care to lead full and dignified lives. And by taking care of others’ families and homes, these women make it possible for their employers to go to work every day. If domestic workers went on strike, they could paralyze almost every industry. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors, small business owners, civil sector employees, and media executives would all be affected. The entire economy would tremble.
Marlene Champion first showed up in the basement of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York sometime in 2000, at the first meetings of what would become Domestic Workers United.
Then, she kept showing up, often waking at 4 a.m. to cook Bajan food for the meetings: jerk chicken, oxtails, macaroni pie. She reminded everyone that being treated with respect starts with acting as though you are worthy of respect. There is something regal about Marlene that instinctively brings out the best in everyone around her — whether that’s a toddler in her care, a fellow domestic worker or me.
Despite the respect she shows everyone in her life, she describes the brutal indignity she and other domestic workers are regularly dealt: “I think that some people still think that slavery is still OK. A lot of people look down their noses at us. They don’t think of our work as real work: They think of housework and caregiving differently. Even some of your own friends and family. One time when I was at a job, someone said to me ‘you call that working?’”
Myrla Baldanado, a member of the Chicago Household Workers Coalition, cared for more than 20 seniors in her time as a caregiver. She worked 80-90 hours per week, bathing, cooking, feeding, lifting, preparing medication, checking vital signs, housekeeping and communicating with the families of her patients. For this work, she was paid an average of $4.58 per hour. “I could hardly pay my room rental of $300 per month. I have four children. I am diabetic. I was living on poverty wages.” She describes eating mostly eggs and bananas in order to stretch her budget. She also faced verbal abuse in the workplace.
On September 17, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez released regulations that will change minimum wage and overtime regulations to cover nearly two million home care and other direct care workers. This workforce is 90 percent women, and approximately half people of color. For decades these workers have been categorized as “companions,” on which basis they were excluded from protections. As a result of the changed regulations, working women like Myrla will have a path out of poverty.
The International Domestic Workers' Network (IDWN) was formed in 2006 to work for basic rights and protections for those who clean homes, care for the sick and look after the elderly and the young in homes around the globe. In 2011, this international coalition of domestic workers' groups helped pass the first-ever International Labor Organization Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C. 189) which has since been ratified by 11 countries. In recognition of this achievement the AFL-CIO presented its 2013 George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to the IDWN at the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention. It was the first time a delegation of domestic workers had ever been invited to participate in the annual convention.
Domestic worker Lourdes Balagot-Pablo and Ai-jen Poo, Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in the US, spoke with GRITtv soon after the award ceremony in Los Angeles.
NDWA Director Ai-jen Poo and Terry O'Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, were both arrested yesterday, participating with over 100 other women in an act of civil disobedience to support immigration reform that treats women fairly. They wrote this op-ed for CNN.com.
(CNN) -- On Thursday, we will link arms with more than 100 women and claim the street outside the House of Representatives. We will not move until the House recognizes that women and children are at the heart of the immigration debate, and reform must treat them fairly.
Women and children constitute three-quarters of all immigrants to the United States, but the debate about immigration reform -- which has stalled in the House -- has largely ignored the disproportionate burden they bear in a system that is failing.
Immigrant women make outsize contributions to our families, communities and country.
There are things that you will forget in a lifetime. And then there are things that you will not forget—cannot forget, regardless of whether you were there to bear witness or not. Martin Luther King’s epic march on Washington 50 years ago is one such thing. On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people gathered to hear Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which has since become an integral part of our national consciousness, and to rally for job equality and freedom for black Americans. Indeed, for all Americans.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary, we asked seven amazing New Yorkers for whom the tenets of King’s vision have especially resonated to weigh in on the impact of that day in Washington, and of King’s dedicated efforts to end racial segregation in America.
A key leader in the movement to raise labor standards for domestic workers expects a long-awaited federal rule change to soon become law. Ai-Jen Poo, who founded and directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told The Nation in an interview last week that the new regulations would be “one of the most significant victories for low-wage workers of this administration.” Citing supportive comments by Vice President Joe Biden at a June event celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the confirmation of a new secretary of labor in July, Poo said she hopes to see the process completed this month.
“The different agencies have been trying to work towards finalization,” Poo told The Nation, “and that it could be a matter of days or weeks until it gets finalized is our understanding.” She called the proposed change “an investment in a twenty-first-century workforce that is only going to grow. And it is an investment in plugging the holes in our labor laws where large numbers of people who work full-time, or more than full-time, are actually working in poverty still.”