Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, guaranteeing overtime pay to employees—the vast majority of whom are women—who provide care in homes across the state. The organizing that led to the win was spearheaded by affiliates of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which has said this new law “will put millions of dollars in the pockets of immigrant women and women of color laboring as domestic workers.”
In her new book, Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights (Ig Publishing), journalist Sheila Bapat explores how it came to be that an entire class of workers were excluded from basic labor protections. Through vivid storytelling and thorough research, Bapat exposes the working conditions and subjective practices that make policy change necessary. She explains what made victories possible in California, New York and Hawaii and what’s underway in Massachusetts, Illinois and other states where caregivers are organizing themselves and pushing lawmakers to recognize the value of their work.
I spoke with Bapat about her book and the movement.*
Dani McClain: What made you decide to focus your writing and reporting on women’s economic rights, and why write a book on organizing among domestic workers specifically?
Sheila Bapat: It really goes back to that old phrase “the personal is political.” I observed throughout my life how hard the women in my family work—cooking, caring for everyone in the household, cleaning up after everyone—and yet all of these women remained economically vulnerable while their husbands controlled the family’s wealth. As I grew older, I learned there is a whole field of study, feminist theory, that is focused on understanding why the very hard work of the domestic sphere is deemed unworthy of economic value. Women’s labor the world over is deemed unworthy of pay, and we continue to see this in wage gaps and wage discrimination across many sectors, as well as through the exclusion of domestic workers from basic labor protections. It is deeply troubling that caregiving work—the work that we purport to value most in conversations about the importance of family—is actually not a means of economic security for those who engage in it. And yet the domestic workers’ movement is, quite impressively, fighting this legacy. It seems impossible to uproot such deeply systemic trends, but that is exactly what domestic worker advocates are accomplishing through state legislative campaigns, direct representation of domestic workers, and other strategies that shine a light on how critical caregiving labor is. It is brilliant, triumphant activism that we should all be paying close attention to.
DM: You write that the exclusion of domestic workers from the protections most other workers get is part of the legacy of Jim Crow. How so?
SB: Our nation’s original fair wage legislation—the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), passed in 1938—excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers—most of whom were African-American during that time. There is clear legislative history showing resistance from Southern lawmakers to the idea of allowing African-American workers to be on the same economic footing as white workers. FDR needed the support of Southerners to pass the FLSA. So there you have it: exclusions of domestic labor were built into our nation’s earliest fair wage laws. And we think the Affordable Care Act has problems!