This year’s meeting of the nation’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, was hailed as historic for many reasons. There were more women and people of color participating than ever before, lots of first-of-a-kind resolutions on things like incarceration and immigration, and lots of welcoming of non-union workers like domestic workers to the big, old labor family. But what does being part of the family mean?
Domestic workers know a thing or two about familial relations. Described as “dears” and “saints” and “angels” by their employers, the “help” have worked for poverty wages in miserable conditions in Americans’ homes since the nation’s birth. In the widely eulogized New Deal era, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which labor unions praised, excluded people who worked in homes, in fields and in most kinds of retail and service work. It wasn’t called “special rights” for white men, but that’s what it amounted to. Even when FLSA was updated in the ’70s, domestic workers were still excluded. They’re not workers, the lawmakers said, they’re “companions”, members of the family.
It wasn’t until this month that change finally came to the FLSA law when the Obama administration announced it would finally extend minimum wage and overtime protections to domestic workers who have been cut out. It’s a change labor and community groups have pushed for. The question is what comes next.
In Los Angeles, Lourdes Balagot Pablo, a 61-year-old Filipina, told GRITtv about what it’s like to “companion” sick elderly clients in their homes as a live-in aide, twenty-four hours a day, in four-day shifts. If she gets two hours of uninterrupted sleep the whole time, she’s lucky, she said. It’s not what she was expecting when she was brought to the United States on a teaching visa. She taught math and physics at the university back home, but here she was forced to teach something entirely different, and when that didn’t work out, she found herself—like many so-called “guest workers”—jobless, paperless and thousands of dollars in debt to the immigration sharks who had arranged her H2B visa.
Her real family, let’s be clear, is in the Philippines, and after five years apart, she longs to see her 15 year old son on something closer than a Skype call. When they talked recently, he cried that he misses her, she told us.