By: Jo Beletic, Research & Education Assistant
The cover story of The Atlantic’s June 2017 issue, “My Family’s Slave”, has flurried around social media over the last couple of weeks. The heart wrenching story sheds light on the enslavement of Eudocia “Lola” Tomas Pulido. If you haven’t already done so, do yourself a favor and click through on the link above to read it. Most stories of this sort do not have such a warm ending. Most stories of this sort are never written. What is most disheartening of Lola’s situation is the fact that her story is more common than many Americans realize. Lolas are hidden in urban centers and tucked away within organized suburbia across the US. Domestic workers—people engaged in an employment relationship for work performed within a household—are vulnerable in their invisibility. In the US, over 2 million individuals are engaged in domestic work. Nannies, housekeepers, and healthcare workers are cooking, cleaning, ironing, caring for children, the sick, and the elderly behind closed doors. Many of these workers, generally women and girls, are immigrant women and women of color. As advocates for improved rights of these workers attest: domestic work makes all other work possible.
Most domestic workers are paid fairly and treated humanely. However, various abuses have been associated with this marginalized sector of society. As recounted in The Atlantic’s piece, occasionally domestic workers become victims of slavery. According to the Boston Globe, those who live with their employers are increasingly vulnerable to slavery as they risk homelessness and destitution if they complain. Additional marginalization prevails due to the immigrant status of much of this population. Insecure citizenship statuses create relationships of reliance on employers for access to visas. Recently, insecurity around immigration laws and additional threats of deportation have increased fear of those without citizenship. This fear enables a problematic power dynamic between the employer and the employee.
Domestic workers are victims of various forms of physical, verbal, and emotional cruelty. Gender and racial structural violence aggravate this abuse. Workers are often overworked and underpaid. Domestic workers are often expected to work more than 14 hours a day, waking prior to breakfast and working until the children are put to bed. Unlike formal work, the majority of domestic workers neither have health insurance nor retirement plans.
Domestic work is generally carried out in solitude. The nature of the work makes it difficult for an employee to have opportunities to engage in outside contact and/or contact with other individuals in similar situations. This inability to organize, and subsequent lack of awareness around one’s rights, diminishes the ability of domestic workers to engage in strategies of self- protection.
In Pursuit of Value and Protection
In 2011 the General Conference of the International Labor Organization adopted the Domestic Workers Convention. The Convention recognizes the vulnerabilities of these workers and details protections to be implemented and adhered to globally. Article 5 protects against all ‘forms of abuse, harassment, and violence’; Article 9 entitles workers ‘to keep in their possession their travel and identity documents’; Article 10 guarantees ‘normal hours of work, overtime compensation, periods of daily and weekly rest and paid annual leave.’ However, individuals continue to undergo physical, emotional, and verbal abuse. The US has yet to establish statistics to track violations to domestic workers’ rights at either the federal or state level.
Organizations across the US have taken action to ensure the protection of these workers’ human rights through sharing of stories, engaging in advocacy efforts, legal protection, and community organization. The National Domestic Work Alliance conducts ‘know your rights’ trainings, provides legal resources, and has created communities across the US in which these workers can organize themselves. Locally, El Centro Humanitario para Los Trabajadores has provided the space and resources for domestic workers to coordinate in Denver since 2004. El Centro promotes community, provides job training for skill enhancement, and engages in social campaigns to protect and advocate for improved labor rights. In addition, since 2012 El Centro has created a worker-led collective initiative to help domestic workers start their own businesses.