“If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.”
That is the phrase that Anakarina Rodríguez uses when she talks about the fight for the rights of domestic workers, such as paid vacation time, sick leave, overtime pay and health insurance. Many domestic workers across the country do not have access to sick pay or vacation time.
Statistics from the Economic Policy Institute show that 91.5% of domestic workers in the United States are women, and more than half of them are women of color, specifically Black, Hispanic, and Asian American/Pacific Islander women. Also, people in domestic work are more likely to have been born outside the United States than those in other job sectors.
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Domestic workers are people who work within the home of an employer. This includes house cleaners, hotel cleaners, childcare, and elderly care, among other essential jobs.
Rodríguez is a program manager at Care in Action, an organization that works to raise the voices of women of color in the domestic work industry. The organization provides tools and training for the community to make their voices heard regarding inclusion and labor protections. They also support women of color whose positions align with Care in Action’s mission to advocate for women domestic workers of color.
The organization was first established in 2017. Since then, they have knocked on more than 11,000 doors, called more than 1.3 million phone numbers, and sent 400,000 text messages to people across the United States informing them of the fight for the rights of domestic workers.
Most of the women in the organization are domestic workers and have a vested interest in fighting for a National Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers, Rodríguez says. Their mission is to spread awareness that their working conditions do not include unpaid time, vacation time, and sick leave unlike any other job sector in the United States and that it predominantly affects women of color and immigrants.
“This is a population of workers that is largely unprotected, and they’re spread out because they’re working in people’s homes,” said Shefali Milczarek-Desai, a law professor at the University of Arizona. “They’re not able to talk to each other or meet or organize in a lot of ways that workers in a low-key workplace can. It’s an overlooked population.”
Milczarek-Desai is a clinical associate professor of law, as well as director of the university’s Workers’ Rights Clinic and co-chair of Bacon’s Immigration Law and Policy Program. Her research focuses on domestic workers, as well as their relationship with the coronavirus pandemic in recent years.
She sees that the people who come to the clinic for free legal advice are low-wage immigrant workers who often work in the domestic work industry, such as house cleaners and caregivers for the elderly. They come to the clinic for free legal advice on issues related to low or no pay after a job and no benefits. Under Milczarek-Desai’s supervision, the law students provide direct legal representation to low-wage workers, especially immigrant workers, according to her website. (https://law.arizona.edu/workers-rights-clinic-services)
“A lot of them think that because they’re undocumented, that’s the way things are,” Milczarek-Desai said. “They think it’s normal, but in fact it’s unlike any other industry in America that has job security, paid sick time, paid vacation time, health insurance, and so many other benefits that people who work at home jobs don’t have. Also, many people are silently threatened with ICE. Many people are too scared to fight back.”
In reality, employers are the ones breaking the law when they hire undocumented immigrants to work. “Labor laws apply to everyone,” he said. Things like minimum wage, overtime, paid sick leave, and anti-discrimination, among other things.
breaking the law
Lupita Meneses has been working in the cleaning industry for five years, but has previously worked in restaurants cleaning and preparing food. Meneses works a few hours during the day and nights Monday through Friday cleaning clinical offices in Marana.
It was in the restaurant industry that Meneses was discriminated against and unfairly treated by an employer due to her immigration status. When Meneses asked for her salary, which should have been approximately 35 hours of pay, the employer refused.
“When I finished the week and asked for my pay, she told me that it had been a test and that she hadn’t passed the test,” Meneses said. “‘I won’t pay you,’ she said. ‘I don’t even know you to begin with.’ And that was it.”
Meneses never received his pay.
This is not an uncommon experience for many immigrants who are hired to work under the table, or work that is not taxed and not reported to the government.
The link between undocumented immigrants and poor working conditions is clear. Milczarek-Desai explains it like this: Despite restrictive immigration laws, people continue to come to the United States to work because there is a demand for cheap labor. Because the people who migrate here are undocumented, they are willing to do the same work as others at a fraction of the cost. People who are not happy with the price of labor for legal employment are happy to welcome cheaper labor, even though it means they are breaking the law.
“It’s encouraging [a los empleadores] to hire people without documentation because they can pay less and make more profit, that’s what they’re going to do,” Milczarek-Desai said. laws apply to everyone.
Employers must verify work authorization and comply with employment laws, such as minimum wage and overtime laws. If becoming a citizen were easier, protecting workers in all sectors would be easier to track and enforce, Milczarek-Desai says.
“When someone doesn’t have papers, cleaning houses is the only thing you can do,” says another woman who has been cleaning houses for more than 20 years. The woman chooses to remain anonymous for identification purposes.
This woman started working as a full-time house cleaner after her husband was deported to Mexico in 2014 after a traffic stop and again in 2016 when her husband was approached by an undercover police officer. She had two young daughters at the time and had started working at the clinical office where Meneses works.
He started working for a woman 20 years ago and grew from there through referrals to his clients’ friends and family. Now, she has a deep cleaning service where she works for herself and her clientele is full of lawyers, doctors and architects. She works about 25 hours a week and, with the exception of one person, she is paid daily. Unlike some domestic workers who work for companies, this woman works for herself and can set her own prices and hours.
Their experiences have generally been good, except for one case where a former customer tried to trade the set price at the end of the cleanup. She dropped the client and has continued to grow.
“It bothered me a lot, as if my work had no value,” he said. She felt very offended and humiliated because she had never been treated that way by any of her other clients. “She said that the house was already clean and I asked her: ‘If it’s already clean, why don’t you clean it?'”
Years later he is finally in the process of obtaining his citizenship. She recently obtained her residency and has been traveling to Mexico on the weekends to visit her family.
“I hadn’t thought about it before, but now that I think I need some vacation, I would like someone to pay for it, but who is going to pay for it? No one. If I don’t work there is no pay, much less vacation.”
Care in Action
“This country is not welcoming,” Rodríguez said. “That’s what this country does. It makes us feel alone.”
Rodríguez was born and raised in Nogales, Arizona and saw the fear people had of becoming politically involved because of her immigration status, but still advocates for people to use their voice politically.
“It’s very important that people know that being civically engaged means that you’re using your voice to say yes or no to something that you don’t want to happen in your community, which is very important,” he said.
Care in Action sets up tables at events where they believe domestic labor is most likely to be encountered. Big events like Cyclovia and Chicano Vibez Sunday, a recurring local event featuring Latino business owners, are the perfect opportunity to meet people on your days off. They work to inform you about elections, events, and resource fairs. During the height of the pandemic, they created an event where people could get vaccinated, which was very popular in the Latino community.
The ultimate goal of the organization is to approve a National Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers. Rodríguez said they are working toward their goal by informing people and getting them to vote for people who “are going to represent those who look like us.”
Every year is an election year, according to Rodriguez, and while Care in Action doesn’t endorse locally, they still encourage people to get out and vote.
“We’re really trying to build that power base of strong women that we can have coffee together with,” Rodríguez said. “Whatever it takes to come together, to have a space for us to continue to raise our voices in this movement.”
In a decentralized workforce, organizing a marginalized group takes a lot of work, money, and effort, and it can also be the start of a movement.
“Alone you can’t, but together we can,” Rodríguez said.