Ai-jen Poo

A Capstone in a Career Spent Fighting for the Rights of Domestic Workers

Ai-jen Poo jumped into a taxi after her flight from Chicago touched down at La Guardia Airport last week, hurtling straight into Manhattan for four days of back-to-back meetings devoted to improving the lives of domestic workers.

Soon, she was hammering out strategies to help expand access to health care for undocumented immigrants. She was planning a state-by-state legislative push to provide tax credits to people who pay living wages to home health care aides. She was discussing potential pathways to legal status for millions of foreign-born nannies, babysitters and housekeepers.

All the while, Ms. Poo managed to keep her secret. No one knew. Not her staff, not her donors and not her partners at other nonprofit organizations.

“I felt like a pipe that was going to burst,” recalled Ms. Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the advocacy group based in New York that represents 43 affiliates in 26 cities across the country.

Activists to Watch: Ai-jen Poo

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.

Ai-jen Poo, MacArthur Fellow and Author of 'The Age of Dignity' on Caring for Our Elders

Named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012, activist Ai-jen Poo is hoping to change the way we care for elders in our country. Ai-jen Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, co-director of Caring Across Generations, a MacArthur Fellow and author of The Age of Dignity, a recently-release book on elder care in America.

Someone in the U.S. turns 65 every eight seconds, resulting in 10,000 individuals a day and four million a year in greater need of elder care, she points out in the book. Yet there’s a lack of homecare workers who can provide the needed support for families.

America's most invisible workforce is the one we need the most

I started organizing domestic workers 16 years ago. I signed up nannies, housekeepers and home health aides at parks and train stations as they quietly took care of our children, our households and our elders. Many of them had no clue about labor laws or their rights as workers – they struggled to make ends meet with extremely low pay and no benefits – but they performed their jobs with dedication and took care of our loved ones with pride, dignity and grace.

I found all those years ago that building a bright future for these workers depended on how America valued the care they provided us. In my work, care has emerged as the connective tissue to encompass all identities and enable us to transcend to the level of values and ethics. We must become a nation that values care, a caring America. Because each one of us is connected to care. Because we still largely ignore the needs of those nannies, housekeepers and aides who care for us.

An Invisible Workforce: Home Care Workers Are Highly Valued but Overworked and Underpaid

Baby boomers are retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day, and because of advances in medicine, the elderly population is booming. Often these groups need help from home care workers -- an unregulated workforce that is often poorly paid and works inconsistent hours. 

A two-day summit in St. Louis starting Oct. 6 -- Caring Across Generations -- will for the first time bring domestic and home care workers together to find ways to professionalize their workforce with better pay and conditions, as their work becomes increasingly called on over the next decade.

Latin Post recently spoke to Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and lead organizer and founder of Domestic Workers United, an organization of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers and elderly caregivers in New York. And Ai-jen Poo is also the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur "Genius" Award and organizer of the Caring Across Generations summit.

Brought to the US to teach; Working as a Domestic to pay off debts: Why California Needs to Pass AB 241

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.

Building a Caring Economy

Anna, a Filipino live-in nanny in Manhattan, begins her workday at 6 a.m. when the children wake up, and ends around 10 p.m. when she puts the children to bed and finishes cleaning the kitchen. Like many domestic workers, Anna's pay is low; she was promised $1,500 a month but receives only $620, meaning that -- on average -- she is paid just $1.27 per hour.