Woman's Work: The Home Economics of Domestic Workers


On Girls, twentysomething Jessa (Jemima Kirke) works as a part-time nanny to two children. But she's not concerned with wages or unreasonable hours. Rather, she complains to her friends, "You know what the weirdest part about having a job is? You have to be there everyday, even on the days you don't feel like it."

She does say to the fellow caregivers she meets on the playground in the episode "Hannah's Diary"—all older women of color—that they should organize for better pay. But in her own case, the job's greatest challenge is dealing with her flirtatious boss, Jeff. Regardless of Jeff's inappropriate behavior in the episode "Welcome to Bushwick," his wife Katherine continues to employ Jessa. But Katherine warns her about getting sidetracked by men in general, including her husband: "You're doing it to distract yourself from becoming the person you're meant to be."

WomansWork_Girls_Jessa2Shows like Girls and '90s hit The Nanny portray childcare as a temporary, middle-class job that comes with nonthreatening romantic entanglements. And Downton Abbey depicts domestic work as a stable career, so long as you can adhere to the house rules. But in the real world, domestic work is an unstable profession that can encompass unfair labor practices, as well as a lack of legal protections.

Here's what the domestic workforce looks like now. In the United States in 2010, this sector of nannies, caregivers, and housecleaners numbered over 650,000. The domestic workforce is almost all female and largely composed of immigrant women of color. According to the American Community Survey (ACS), "95 percent of nannies, caregivers, and housecleaners are female," "46 percent of domestic workers are foreign-born," and "54 percent...identify as Latina or Hispanic, black or African-American, Asian or Pacific Islander, or 'some other race' other than white." Domestic work is, statistically, woman's work. It overwhelmingly employs and sometimes exploits immigrant women of color.

Of course, not every household that employs a babysitter, housecleaner, or caregiver will mistreat their workers. But when that does happen, most domestic workers in the United States have little scant legal recourse.

Sandra Polaski, ILO Deputy Director-General, explains the issues that this sector faces:

Domestic workers are frequently expected to work longer hours than other workers and in many countries do not have the same rights to weekly rest that are enjoyed by other workers. Combined with the lack of rights, the extreme dependency on an employer and the isolated and unprotected nature of domestic work can render them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

What kinds of unfair labor practices are we talking about here? Well, forget reasonable hours, a living wage, or paid time off. The ACS found that one out of four live-in workers "had responsibilities that prevented them from getting at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep at night during the week prior to being interviewed." One in four domestic workers surveyed said that they are paid below the state minimum wage. Over half of live-in employees are required to work during their scheduled time off.

And here's why this matters now: A bill that would have protected domestic workers in California was vetoed just last September by Gov. Jerry Brown. The Huffington Post said the following:

Formally known as AB 889, the vetoed legislation called for protections similar to those that workers in other industries have enjoyed for years, including overtime pay and meal and rest breaks, as well as appropriate sleep accommodations for live-in workers and the ability to use employers' kitchens.

WomansWork_DowntonAbbey_Ethel2Are current domestic workers' rights in America really that far behind those of a wartime Downton Abbey? And if so, what's being done to combat this heinous treatment?

Some states including New York do guarantee labor rights for this sector, but we have a long way to go in securing basic well-being and safety for the hundreds of thousands of (mostly) women nationwide who cook, clean, and provide childcare or elderly adult care. Find out how to take action by checking out the National Domestic Workers Alliance's ongoing campaigns and seeing what you can do to help.

Like Jessa on Girls, anyone who cares for other people's children, who cleans their homes, or who cooks their meals deserves to become the person she's meant to be. But most of these women aren't as lucky as Jessa, the free spirited Brooklynite who doesn't seem to need the job. Many of these women may be disadvantaged, perhaps even undocumented—and in need of basic labor rights in the event of mistreatment.

Domestic work is truly woman's work. It's overwhelmingly performed by women and, in the legacy of household contributions by women, goes undervalued. Therefore, women need to ally ourselves across race and class lines to acknowledge these pertinent labor issues and to take a stand.



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The Nanny began airing in

The Nanny began airing in '93.

Done and done

Error corrected. Thanks!