- Domestic workers play an increasingly significant role in the U.S. economy.
- Yet the labor of domestic workers is invisible and unregulated.
- These factors combine to make domestic workers especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse on the job.
Domestic workers are critical to the US economy. They help families meet many of the most basic physical, emotional, and social needs of the young and the old. They help to raise those who are learning to be fully contributing members of our society. They provide care and company for those whose working days are done, and who deserve ease and comfort in their older years. While their contributions may go unnoticed and uncalculated by measures of productivity, domestic workers free the time and attention of millions of other workers, allowing them to engage in the widest range of socially productive pursuits with undistracted focus and commitment. The lives of these workers would be infinitely more complex and burdened absent the labor of the domestic workers who enter their homes each day. Household labor, paid and unpaid, is indeed the work that makes all other work possible.
Despite their central role in the economy, domestic workers are often employed in substandard jobs. Working behind closed doors, beyond the reach of personnel policies, and often without employment contracts, they are subject to the whims of their employers. Some employers are terrific, generous, and understanding. Others, unfortunately, are demanding, exploitative, and abusive. Domestic workers often face issues in their work environment alone, without the benefit of co-workers who could lend a sympathetic ear.
The social isolation of domestic work is compounded by limited federal and state labor protections for this workforce. Many of the laws and policies that govern pay and conditions in the workplace simply do not apply to domestic workers. And even when domestic workers are protected by law, they have little power to assert their rights.
Domestic workers’ vulnerability to exploitation and abuse is deeply rooted in historical, social, and economic trends. Domestic work is largely women’s work. It carries the long legacy of the devaluation of women’s labor in the household. Domestic work in the US also carries the legacy of slavery with its divisions of labor along lines of both race and gender. The women who perform domestic work today are, in substantial measure, immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, and women of racial and ethnic minorities. These workers enter the labor force bearing multiple disadvantages.
Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work presents the results of the first national survey of domestic workers in the US. It breaks new ground by providing an empirically based and representative picture of domestic employment in 21st century America. We asked a sample of domestic workers a standardized set of questions focusing in four aspects of the industry:
- pay rates, benefits, and their impact on the lives of workers and their families;
- employment arrangements and employers’ compliance with employment agreements;
- workplace conditions, on-the-job injuries, and access to health care;
- abuse at work and the ability to remedy substandard conditions.
We surveyed 2,086 nannies, caregivers, and housecleaners in 14 metropolitan areas. The survey was conducted in nine languages. Domestic workers from 71 countries were interviewed. The study employed a participatory methodology in which 190 domestic workers and organizers from 34 community organizations collaborated in survey design, the fielding of the survey, and the preliminary analysis of the data.