Love & Lysol: Living in fear, as the child of a domestic worker.
With a sweat drenched shirt and chaffed thighs, I walked hurriedly home. This was a daily ritual during my middle school years. To an outsider, the sight was probably pretty comical — a fat kid, huffing, speeding to or from God knows where. My feet were an embodiment of my sense of urgency, propelling me toward safety. I rushed home for assurance; to ensure a dreaded voicemail wouldn’t be waiting. I never received the desperately unwanted voicemail, but I yearned for the peace of mind. I power-walked the two miles home for safety; for the comfort of knowing that everything would be alright.
Children often have irrational fears. They fear the dark or monsters or quicksand. While those fears are valid (well, most of those fears), I was consumed by another fear. Actually, I was consumed by two fears, revolving around one person: my mom. And, no, not fear of my mom, but fear for her. I feared two possibilities that were admittedly outside of my control, which is probably what scared me the most. The first fear I had related to her citizenship status and the other dealt with her job.
One of my fears was that, at some point, my mom would be deported. As her only child, and her as my only parent, I had no idea how I would exist without her. Would anyone come to see that I was okay? Who would I live with? Would I have to relocate? I feared her accent would expose her, leading to questions about her citizenship status. Ultimately, this questioning would lead to her eventual deportation.
My fear stemmed primarily from my ignorance. I had no knowledge about how the immigration system worked except from what I heard on the news. President George W. Bush was in office for most of my childhood and as a result, anti-immigrant sentiments were very prevalent.
My other fear is that my mom’s job would expose her to potential disrespect and abuse. As a child, I might’ve been naive about the complexities of her citizenship status and the potential consequences, but I was hyper-aware of her struggle. I couldn’t ignore it.
Divorce often dismantles the illusion that parents are somehow infallible. My parents’ divorce exposed their humanity, if nothing else. And while it changed their relationship with one another, it also severely changed my relationship with both of them. There was something humbling, and simultaneously disconcerting, about being told at the age of seven that I was now the man of the house. Understandably, my relationship with my mom experienced a paradigm-shift. Being a child of a now single parent coupled with being the child of an immigrant informed my perception of her — a perception predicated on my gratitude for her sacrifices, but heightened my responsibility to take care of her. In my eyes, still, my mom is the greatest, strongest person in the world. I adore her.
So, her vulnerability as an employee scared me. Andrea, my mom, is one of the many vulnerable domestic workers who work in the shadows, often with limited legal protection. My mom works in environments where she has little control; where her future employment rest solely on the whims of her clients. She is in someone else’s home, in their most intimate space, playing by their rules. It was frustrating to hear my mom, exhausted from the day’s work, tell me that she was asked not to come back to a client’s house after asking for a incremental raise. It was scary knowing that my mom would be in other people’s homes alone and susceptible to all sorts of harm. Before her naturalization, I feared that an irrational client might try to have her deported (the convergence of my two greatest fears). Despite my mom’s determination to work and her dedication to excel, it felt that our fate lay in the hands of her clients.
Author, Berta Hernandez-Truyol , briefly considered in her article whether the cultural expectation that Latinas work for the family, rather than for personal satisfaction or gain, leads to their pursuit of employment that replicate their socially delegated “appropriate” conduct. These expectations of Latina womxn lead to their employment in “feminine,” low-respect, low-paying, arduous, thankless occupations such as domestic workers, in all its variations (i.e., nannies, cooks, house cleaners, caretakers). Hernandez-Truyol hypothesizes that Latinas pursue domestic roles because they replicate their socially-defined role as wife, mother, housewife.
However, I think that analysis is rather simplistic. Generally, womxn are reduced to nurturer, caretaker, or domestic roles, not just Latinas. But, there is an inherent difference between being a homemaker and being a house cleaner and that difference is rooted in power. There is an inherent different between doing domestic work by choice as opposed to necessity.
Domestic work exists in a precarious and unique intersection that, as [name] points out, is gendered, but is also classed, radicalized,
That intersection of gender, race, class, and citizenship status, and the increased vulnerability it creates, is crucial to the analysis of the limited legal protections afforded to domestic workers. Oregon State Senator Sara Gelser, chief sponsor of a newly passed Oregon Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, noted that 95 percent of domestic workers are women, many are immigrants, and many are people of color. Immigration status, language, and other cultural and educational barriers work to isolate domestic workers and make them vulnerable to workplace harm.
Unlike other work, domestic work is distinguished by its inherent intimacy. Most workers are employed directly by families to take care of their young and elderly or simply to help minimize the burdens of everyday life. Although their work is immeasurable and often unnoticed, domestic workers allow millions of people to engage in a variety of activities with undivided focus by freeing their time and attention. While not an obvious contributor to the global economy, domestic workers allow for people to dedicate their time to work
In July of 2016, a case highlighted the abuse that some domestic workers face. In a Minnesota suburb, police found a womxn in her late-50s. Her body and face were badly bruised, the result of a beating she received from her boss for whom she worked as a nanny. She told police that in addition to being beaten, she was starved, threatened with death, forced to walk on all fours, and forced to eat her own hair. At the time she was found, she only weighed 88 pounds. The nanny began working for the family in China, where she reported being treated well. After moving to Minneapolis in March of 2016, the relationship changed. The nanny was working about 18 hours a day and receiving approximately $1.80 per hour. She received beatings from the employer earlier and when she threatened to leave, the employer hid her passport. Without a passport or money, she was at the mercy of her boss.
This is the possibility that domestic workers face. To make matters worse, some types of domestic workers have been broadly excluded from the complex and overlapping web of state and federal employment laws. This complexity leads to misinformation and confusion about rights and responsibilities, making exploitation all too common. Working behind closed doors, beyond the reach of personnel policies and often without employment contracts or access to information about their rights, domestic workers are subject to the whims of their employers.
While that Minnesota case is appalling, the nanny was able to pursue criminal prosecution for assault. But what remedies do other domestic workers have? What remedies do they have when their employer doesn’t brutalize them, but fails to pay them the promised wage or fails to pay on time or fails to pay at all? What remedies can a domestic worker pursue when they get injured on the job? Should they risk asking the family, who they are intimately connected with, to cover medical expenses and risk losing a client altogether? What happens when there is a death in the family, but the funeral services fall on a weekly client time-slot, should they risk taking the time off and not get paid?
A national survey done in 2012 in collaboration with the National Domestic Worker Alliance found that formal contracts are rare in the domestic work industry, and when they do exist, employers frequently violate them. The survey found that 67 percent of live-in workers were paid below the state minimum wage. Additionally, 38 percent of domestic workers suffered from work-related pain. 29 percent of house cleaners suffered from skin irritation in the same period, pointing to the danger of constant exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Currently, only seven states have a domestic worker-specific Bill of Rights (Illinois, Connecticut, California, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, and Massachusetts) . Undoubtedly, these pieces of legislations are steps in the right direction, but they have also created a lot of questions. Most importantly, it is unclear how these rights are to be enforced or invoked. A law without implementation is meaningless. These Bill of Rights are often passed by the Oregon Legislature with very little engagement or input from actual domestic workers. Workers might not even know these rights exist.
While there are a number of organizations that provide separate services to womxn and workers, there is no organization that provides the unique services that domestic workers need to navigate their employment rights. Many employment-focused legal providers do not have the resources or capability to do the outreach necessary to educate these isolated workers about their new rights.
Therefore, a new legal service provider needs to be created to provide holistic legal services to support domestic workers. The work must be rooted in a commitment to an empathetic understanding of the different dynamics within an individual case, but targeted toward ultimately achieving the necessary systemic changes to guarantee that domestic workers are treated with dignity and are able to work safely. By creating the means to enforce the new law, this network has the potential of building worker power in a vulnerable and isolated group of workers. As workers are educated and connections between workers are formed, the network can train worker leaders to advocate for additional protections in state laws and regulations. This holistic approach will help amplify the voice of domestic workers in workers’ rights organizations. The project would be a unique and important step in assuring that domestic workers can access their rights and have a voice in legislative changes
The irony of my existence does not go unnoticed; the fact that I have been shuffled to the metaphorical “front,” while my mom lingers in the distant shadows. I am made to seem like an exception; an example of what could be. While my mom, on the other hand, is portrayed as a stepping-stone — a pedestal upon which the weight of my successes rest. I am postured to be forward facing, as if my future is divorced from my past (including my parents past). I am supposed to ignore the unglamorous parts because they were ancillary, but wholly unimportant. With my success, I have been granted access to privilege, which often places me in situations where I am on the receiving end of the services provided by a domestic worker. This access to privilege does not obscure my roots as the son of a domestic worker, but it enhances my obligation to ensure that they are treated with dignity so that children of domestic workers no longer have to fear for their moms.