Building Power by Building Connections: Domestic Worker Organizing for Collective Freedom

This is the first post in our series on Care Work. Click here to read all posts in the series. 

Irene Jor—

Domestic workers are essential to our economy and society. They are the nannies that take care of children, the house cleaners that maintain homes, and the care workers that allow aging loved ones to live independently and with dignity. They constitute a workforce that frees up their employers to pursue their careers and improve their quality of life. Domestic employers are doctors, lawyers, professors, business owners, CEOs, media executives, celebrity performers, professional athletes, politicians, and diplomats. Their economic participation shapes mainstream culture and social policy. Thus, we all benefit from the labor of domestic workers, even when we do not directly receive their care.

Nevertheless, because domestic work has been devalued in the formal economy, the sector is fraught with exploitation and abuse. Domestic workers have suffered a long history of exclusion from basic labor standards that is rooted in America’s legacy of slavery. Domestic workers were specifically excluded from federal labor protections like minimum wage and the right to unionize. The contemporary U.S. domestic worker movement, led by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), has sought to extend such labor protections to the sector by winning passage of Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in nine states and two municipalities. More recently it has also been experimenting with policy innovations like a sectoral standards board and portable benefits fund. Still, policy advocacy alone will not fully ensure justice for domestic workers.

I began organizing alongside domestic workers as a college student in 2011. I went on to work full-time for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) from 2013 to 2019. As the New York director of the NDWA, I organized to enforce the state’s Bill of Rights, the first of its kind. I came to understand that forming, maintaining, and nurturing relationships is as essential to grassroots domestic workers’ organizing as it is to domestic work itself. By doing so, we were able to approach the enforcement of domestic workers’ rights creatively and to foster domestic workers’ leadership in shifting the broader political landscape.

Domestic workers face many barriers in enforcing their rights. Many have not had access to learning those rights or how to take legal action if necessary. Public enforcement is driven by worker complaints. That is, a worker must initiate the process to pursue a claim, which most often requires sacrificing anonymity given the small size of a workplace—i.e., an employer’s home. A domestic worker identified as a complainant risks termination; losing an employer reference in applying for other jobs; facing illegal, retaliatory threats related to the worker’s immigration status; and giving up relationships with those to whom they provide care.

Further, domestic workers commonly find it difficult and disempowering to navigate the bureaucracies of public enforcement agencies. In New York, the burden of proof falls on the worker, who is expected to corroborate the details of their case, such as reconstructing the full history of pay and hours worked for a job that may have lasted many years (even though it is the employer’s legal responsibility to maintain such records). Moreover, because it can be hard to tell a detailed story over and over again in the same exact way, employers can question the validity of a worker’s testimony with relative ease. For workers who have experienced trauma in the workplace, repeatedly retelling their stories can take emotional and psychological tolls.

It is also not uncommon for government investigators, and even attorneys, to mishandle complaints because they lack understanding of the industry, which involves unique workplaces and relationships between workers and their employers. For example, NDWA has assisted many workers who were advised they did not have valid wage claims when they did. It has also dealt with investigators who have lost case documents vital to a worker’s case, as well as one investigator who harbored deep personal biases against domestic work. Investigators may lack familiarity with the industry because the New York Department of Labor, which adjudicates employment disputes between domestic workers and employers, trains its investigators as generalists. And in the larger picture, the agency is under-resourced and understaffed for the scope of its work, which harms its ability to consistently conduct thorough, timely investigations.

At the end of the day, employers often have greater influence on whether domestic workers’ rights are upheld. The annual Park Slope Parents Survey, an influential standard-setting device for New York’s nanny industry, reflects this. Some of the survey results in past years indicate that employers adopt market standards (what their peers are doing) rather than legal ones, which could explain the prevalence of self-reported overtime violations. The continued de facto exclusion of domestic workers from New York City’s Human Rights Law—which currently protects New Yorkers from employment discrimination only in workplaces with at least four employees—signals to employers that domestic workers do not need to be treated like other workers. Employers’ lack of compliance is further exacerbated by widespread discrimination against women, communities of color, the working-class poor, and immigrants.

Dedicated relationship-building has been critical in addressing these many challenges. In 2015 NDWA’s New York Chapter began experimenting with a worker-affirmative, community-led enforcement model. This model included partnering with TakeRoot Justice attorneys to run a domestic workers’ rights clinic; establishing “Groundbreakers,” an organizer apprentice program for domestic worker leaders that centers systematic outreach, enforcement, and peer-to-peer coaching; and educating government officials who enforce domestic work standards.

These components were designed to build out an ecosystem of relationships and reimagined leadership roles. Groundbreakers facilitated a robust “outreach to enforcement” pipeline, which at every stage sought to empower domestic workers to recognize the pivotal roles they play in their workplaces and the economy, and to assert themselves within their employment relationships. Still, educating and empowering workers on an individual basis is not enough to guarantee effective enforcement. Ultimately, we must alter systems to account for the continuing power imbalance between workers and employers even after pro-worker policies are won. This is why it is also essential to build relationships with and educate attorneys and government enforcement officials.

NDWA has also made efforts to improve domestic workers’ relationship to the political economy on a broader scale. NDWA has been an important vehicle for centering domestic workers’ experiences in recent national movements like #MeToo and “Families Belong Together.” It has also formed organizing relationships with policy makers, unions, journalists, Hollywood actors and directors, private sector leaders, and electoral candidates who depend on domestic workers and have highlighted their importance to the global economy.

Leveraging such relationships, domestic workers are organizing to ensure they get the care they need and deserve as caregivers. Even more, they fight for all people’s freedom to make important choices for their lives and their loved ones—to be able to leave abusive workplaces, to win back stolen wages, to end sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere, and to protect themselves from immigration-related threats. By cultivating strategic and authentic relationships both among themselves and with employers and other stakeholders, the U.S. domestic worker movement, led by working-class women of color, is making important strides toward its comprehensive, intersectional vision of social change.

Irene Jor organized with the National Domestic Workers Alliance from 2013 to 2019. As its New York Director, she oversaw its statewide campaign and field growth strategy in New York.