I landed in Phoenix, Arizona, just four days before the election. The last time I had been in Arizona was six years ago, after the passage of SB 1070, the anti-immigrant state legislation that legalized racial profiling. I had organized a group of women from all over the country to hear and document the stories of the women impacted by the new legislation. We quickly learned that there was a leading villain in the story, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who apparently spent his days and nights imagining new ways to make life unbearable for immigrants. His deputies drove military tanks through residential neighborhoods, raided the homes of immigrant families in the middle of the night, and arrested parents in front of their children. His terror tactics laid the groundwork for the hate legislation that would haunt a generation.
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Chicago — For eight years, I worked as a housecleaner for a millionaire who lived in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago. I took the bus across town three times a week, often to work in an empty house because my employer was frequently away, traveling for business.
That also meant I got paid only when I saw him — in lump sums, often months apart. At first, I didn’t mind this setup, but soon, months would pass. By the end of 2008, my employer owed me $10,000 — and had stopped returning my calls.
I was frantic. It wasn’t just that these were wages for weeks and weeks of work I’d already done, but I had bills to pay and my son’s tuition at a special high school.
I went over to my employer’s place one day, hoping to confront him, and finally found him home. I asked when I’d get paid what I was owed. He didn’t answer, but instead offered a one-off payment of $1,000 to settle the debt. When I refused that, he told me to leave and, obviously assuming I was undocumented, threatened to have me deported. (In fact, I had legal status as a permanent resident on grounds of political asylum.)
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By some estimates, as many as 53 million people living in the United States are now self-employed. Many work as independent contractors or freelancers, hired and fired at the click of an app.
With flexibility comes a measure of freedom but also of insecurity; a measure of independence but also of isolation. Digital sector workers may not stand on a speeding production line or operate deadly machines, but they still can still face danger on the job. Subjective feedback or "ratings" systems are open to abuse.
Online businesses love to talk up their new technologies and innovative business models, but non-office, non-factory workplaces are still sites of profound power struggle. Just as in the old economy, workers, creators and consumers are finding they have to organize and fight for their rights.
In recent weeks, I have been speaking publicly about my life as a U.S. citizen who used to live with the constant fear that my family would be deported. I was 14-years-old when those fears were realized. Growing up without my parents by my side is a weight I still carry today.
Many years later, the immigrant community awaits a Supreme Court decision that could transform the lives of millions, providing relief from deportation to families across the nation, so that other children don’t have to go through what I did. Community organizations have been working tirelessly to make sure that those eligible for this relief, granted through President Obama’s executive actions, have all the information they need to get ready.
Evan Bochner is part of what’s often dubbed the “on-demand economy” or the “gig economy,” the growing collection of app-based startups providing services to clients at the click of a button. The 27-year-old handyman works 30 to 40 hours a week for the New York City-based office cleaning and maintenance company. He does everything from assembling desks, shelves and chairs to unclogging toilets, painting and electrical work.
“It’s fun and exciting because I’m always doing something different, going to different offices, different people,” Bochner said. “It’s never the same thing two days in a row.”
The pay isn’t bad either. Unlike most workers in the on-demand economy, Bochner is pretty well-compensated, earning around $40 an hour, according to Managed by Q. And as an employee rather than an independent contractor, Bochner’s company offers benefits like medical, dental and vision insurance in addition to a 401(k) plan.
It’s in sharp contrast to his previous job situation. In the two years before he started at Q, Bochner said he worked as an independent contractor, relying on referrals, friends, family and the on-demand app. It was deeply unpredictable.
What do you love the most about the work you do?
Every day, I hear the stories of women who spend their days caring for others. I hear about the challenges of the work, along with the joys. Their courage and leadership in addressing the challenges has made history time and time again — whether it's passing the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, or gaining inclusion in minimum wage and overtime laws, or establishing the first mindfulness training for domestic workers. It gives me hope that we can collectively create the future that we need — with good jobs, access to affordable, quality care and a democracy that's fully inclusive of even the least visible among us.
What is feminism to you?
To me, feminism is action that is grounded in the belief that every person is equally and fully human and valuable. It also includes creating a world where all work — like the work of caring for families — is truly recognized, accounted for, valued, and protected. The feminist vision of the world is one where people bring the best of who they are to the table and try to nurture that in each other.
Emergency rooms, social security offices, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement outposts consigned into strip malls: places that manage to be dreary and fluorescent at the same time. A decade ago, on any given day of the week, I’d be bringing an abused domestic worker through some new round of administrative hoop-jumping in one of these places so she could be classified and serviced as a ‘victim of human trafficking’. But was any of this really making a difference? It took me a few years on the job to figure it out.
Last September, Dallas-area drivers for UberBlack, the company’s high-end car service, received an email informing them that they would be expected to start picking up passengers on UberX, its low-cost option.
The next day, when the policy was scheduled to go into effect, dozens of drivers caravaned to Uber’s office in downtown Dallas and planted themselves outside until company officials met with them. Many had taken out loans to buy luxury vehicles that cost upward of $35,000, and worried that the modest per-mile rate for UberX passengers would barely cover gas and wear and tear, to say nothing of their car payments.
The standoff stretched across nearly three more tense days until Uber allowed them to opt out of the policy. “They thought we were just going to give up, walk away,” said Kirubel Kebede, a leader of the group. “But we said, ‘No, this is our livelihood.’”
When Uber, Lyft, Handy, and a handful of other companies funded by venture capital began earning huge amounts of money after investing in the informal economy, it was because they understood a simple equation. In exchange for providing the name, job site, and payment for a given task—automated through a proprietary algorithm—an independent contractor would agree, in turn, to provide a service and hand over a sometimes-sizeable commission for the privilege of working. On quick inspection, the math works out: At-will workers earn extra money through a simple system that rewards flexibility, and the VC-funded concerns keep costs low by technically not employing laborers. Broadly speaking, then, the sharing economy is just a technologically sophisticated update of the barter economy.
Much has been written about how our economy is changing, particularly in light of the digital revolution. This economy is defined by entirely new ways of organizing and working together, by an energizing sense of possibility, and by a seemingly insatiable thirst for problem solving.
But a central question remains: problem-solving for and with whom? How will the new economy engage and support the least visible among us? Now that we're living in the era of tech-enabled scale and efficiency, it's time to elevate empathy and equity if we hope to shape a more caring economy that works for all of us.
These questions remind me of many of the people I meet in my work to bring recognition and basic labor protections to domestic workers around the United States. People like Erlinda, who cares for the elderly in Chicago. Erlinda became a caregiver when she arrived to this country, remembering the fulfillment of caring for the elders in her community in the Philippines. At our first meeting, she shared a story about a client she referred to as "my lady."