Eric Paul Zamora / The Fresno Bee / Zumapress

The real value of domestic labor

Cooking, cleaning and caring are work and should be treated as such

September 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

To many of us, typical Labor Day activities — firing up the barbecue, cleaning the house, entertaining the children or checking in on elderly or disabled friends or relatives — don’t immediately register as work. But cooking, cleaning and caring are indeed work and should be treated as such.

Household labor is an essential part of day-to-day life that women have performed without pay for centuries. And it’s true that many of us make sandwiches, sweep floors and change diapers because we genuinely care about our homes and families. But this association of household labor with women’s unpaid labor and the labor of care, with its location in the domestic sphere, makes it hard to recognize it as work at all.

The unrecognized and undervalued character of household labor is built into our legal system. In the 1930s, many workers gained the right to a minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment compensation and the right to organize and bargain collectively — but not household workers, who were overwhelmingly African-American women. In the 1960s and 1970s African-American household workers organized a nationwide movement to eliminate the vestiges of slavery associated with the occupation and push for federal minimum wage guarantees, which they won in 1974. Despite these victories, even today, household workers, who are largely immigrant workers, are not covered by civil rights laws and do not have federal protection to form a union. Moreover, even when they have rights, those rights are usually not enforced.

Household workers are often expected to work overtime without pay, come in on holidays and weekends and run the risk of being treated more like indentured servants than paid employees. Most live on the margins of poverty, struggling to support their own families even as they spend their days caring for someone else’s. English may not be their first language; they might not know their rights. Their outsider status renders them and their work devalued and even less visible.

Many employers believe they are doing these workers a favor simply by hiring them and that without these jobs, many working women would have no alternatives. They forget that it goes both ways: Without the labor of domestic workers, many of those employers would not be able to go to work, juggle multiple responsibilities or have some time to themselves. As one domestic workers’ rights organization put it, theirs is “the work that makes all other work possible.”

Household workers have led the way in helping us rethink the meaning of labor.

Because household labor is essential, we must value it through adequate pay, respect and labor protections.

Some argue that raising the status and pay of household workers would make the occupation unaffordable, that low pay is better than no pay and that workers would wind up out of jobs. Even if that may be the case, it’s still unfair to expect workers to depend on food stamps to feed their families. Employers shouldn’t deny their employees the right to parent their own children or create a system of modern-day slavery either. Employers should treat their employees the way they expect to be treated: with dignity, respect and fairness. After all, office workers certainly wouldn’t tolerate getting paid less than minimum wage or having to work additional hours without pay simply because their bosses were short on cash.

Fortunately, the movement to bring recognition and value to household labor is gaining ground. Domestic workers have organized in cities and states across the country. Five states (New York, California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Hawaii) recently passed a domestic workers’ bill of rights to protect household workers, and domestic workers have formed national coalitions and international federations. Three years ago the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, passed the first-ever convention on domestic work to establish for this occupation global standards, including ones for basic pay, vacations, sick leave and living conditions. The burden is now on countries, including the U.S., to ratify the convention. So far, 22 countries have done so. Although this convention is nonbinding, the convention and ratification process is an indication of growing awareness of respect and recognition for domestic work.

Household workers have led the way in helping us rethink the meaning of labor. Many of the problems household workers encounter reflect growing trends in the American working class. As manufacturing has declined in the U.S., service work — including health care, fast food and private household labor — has expanded.

We’ve seen an increase in the number of contingent workers — temporary, self-employed or contract workers who get no benefits, paid time off or assured work. According to the Government Accountability Office, more than one-third of American workers are contingent workers. The assumption that a person would work for the same employer for nearly a lifetime and then retire with a comfortable pension is no longer a reality.

As domestic workers have organized for state-based protections, brought together workers of different employers and declared that care and service work are essential components of the economy, they are offering a new model of labor organizing that other workers can look to, one in which all work is equally valued.

This Labor Day, as you prepare for the final beach trip of the year or take care of those household responsibilities for the new workweek and new school year, pause and consider the invisible labor that takes place daily in nearly every household across the country. And ask yourself, How much is it worth to me?

Premilla Nadasen, an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author of the award-winning “Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States” and the forthcoming “Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement.” A longtime scholar-activist, she works closely with domestic workers’ rights organizations, for which she has written policy briefs and served as an expert witness. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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