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From Invisibility to Action: Domestic Workers Fight Back

The Coalition for Domestic Workers Rights
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    It’s any given weekday and the multi-billion dollar Bay Area economy is churning to the song of super-profits. From Montgomery Street in downtown San Francisco, to the Sharon Center of Silicon Valley, to Broadway in the city of Oakland—markets are buzzing with wheeling, dealing, and speculation, all in hopes of discovering the next “big thing.” While local and state governments continue to slash social spending due to a recession, the numbers indicate it is business as usual for the Bay Area elite. In fact, the business world dubbed 2004 as “The Year in Black,” which boasts that for the last two years, the top 200 Bay Area-based corporations have more than doubled their profits. Corporations like Chevron, Hewlett-Packard, the GAP, Wells Fargo Bank, and others raked in more than 60 billion dollars in profits.

Forgotten in the hustle and bustle are the stories of the people who form the underpinnings of this economic machine. Overworked and underpaid, it is the janitors, dishwashers, gardeners, waiters, day laborers, and other service sector workers without whom the Bay Area economy would run out of gas before you can say US OUT OF IRAQ.

Each day, as white collared professionals head downtown to work as real estate agents, attorneys, and executives, armies of Asian, Latin American, Caribbean and African American women quietly make their way from working-class neighborhoods all over the Bay Area toward upscale neighborhoods. They are domestic workers—maintaining the households and raising the children of the elites. While their employers wine and dine, they are cleaning, doing laundry, running errands, and caring for the children.

Undocumented and without viable job alternatives, many immigrant and working-class people of color turn to “informal” work such as housekeeping and childcare. Yet like most “informal” jobs, domestic work provides little security. Many women do not receive minimum wage, sick time or vacation, and are subject irregular work schedules. Language barriers, lack of information, and isolation create disempowering conditions for domestic workers, who are forced to negotiate pay and other terms of work alone. Some employers are blatantly racist and sexist, or the household environment is verbally or physically abusive. Additionally, an overall lack of knowledge of and respect for domestic work in the US often renders these workers invisible.

Yet these circumstances create conditions for resistance. All across the globe women are joining hands for change. In the Bay Area, community-based workers’ organizations have formed a coalition to raise their voices and expose an industry that has largely been ignored. Below follows some of our story.

Worker realities

Maria Luna, a domestic worker, community leader, and member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas for over 10 years, shares one of her work experiences.

One job that sticks in my mind was taking care of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. While I would work, her husband (who was not sick) would say many things about women’s bodies. I would also hear him calling the woman to bed, saying all these things right in front of me. He said those things to his wife, but he also said them to me. She didn’t understand. She was like a child. When I found the woman bruised—on her lips, in between her legs—I felt so impotent, unable to do anything. I could not leave that job because I needed it.

I swept, mopped, washed dishes, cleaned the bathrooms and the kitchen. I also bathed the woman, changed her diaper, brushed her teeth, combed her hair, and put on makeup for her. I even dyed her hair a couple of times. I cared for her and she was a good person. I felt that she was afraid of her husband. I would work there four days a week and would also cook for both of them. They paid me $13 per hour. On the bus, every time I would go to that job, my whole body would tremble.

Many times we are exploited because we do not have documents. We are intimidated. Since we work in private homes we are harassed. Many of us are single mothers and we want our children to have better lives. That is why we don’t quit. We don’t know our rights; we are scared. But all of that is changing.

Transforming consciousness

A conversation on personal transformation and community action with members of the San Francisco Day Labor Program Women’s Collective, Guillermina Castellanos, Elsa Lopez, and Monica Lozano.

Elsa: For years I didn’t do anything to move my life forward. Because of fear I took no action. Circumstances have pushed me to action—seeing the injustice in the world, being surrounded by domestic violence, and having no space to deal with these things. Now I see new horizons—a new life. I have new ideas and I know my rights.

Monica: The Women’s Collective has given me a space with other women to express myself and we get out a lot of issues that have been hurting us all of our lives. Silence is toxic and asphyxiates us. Here we’ve created a group of women where, between all of us, we can find solutions to the problems of a particular compaÒera. Often this means supporting her to have the security and desire to say she doesn’t want to stay in the same situation anymore. In the Women’s Collective we each help teach and encourage participation of everyone, creating empowerment and raising consciousness. We also learn to share the responsibility to respect the feelings of each member.

Elsa: Part of what empowerment has meant to me here is having women’s space. We are each like a big can of worms—everything is packed inside and hidden: illusions, dreams, frustrations, fears, and joys. We are afraid of our elders, families, parents, and society, and think that “If I open this can of worms society will judge me, incriminate me, and punish me.”

Monica: I really felt like that in Mexico. All women, no matter how educated, have a can of worms locked inside them. The Women’s Collective has been a space where we can express ourselves and unpack some of the things that have been inculcated in us since childhood. We can open up and examine the racism, sexism, homophobia, judgments of religion and nationality, and constructs of men and women’s roles that exist in the world around us and inside each of us—inside our can of worms.

Elsa: Oftentimes we ourselves create and perpetuate machismo.

Guillermina: We’re putting a lot of energy into making changes in the way we raise our children.

Monica: For example, in our families the father would always receive the best piece of chicken and the girls would be left with gristle.

Guillermina:So now our children see things differently—we share the chicken equally. In the last few years more women have been discovering that like men, women can be strong, powerful, and intelligent. We’ve learned that we can do things as equals with men. We’ve woken up. We want freedom, better jobs, and better wages. We are much stronger—involving ourselves as much in community work as in educating our compaÒeras, men in our lives, and children. We’re creating a better world even within the difficult situation for immigrants today.

Monica: As we discover our own capacity we go right to work in the struggle for justice. As we grow in our own understanding and security, we teach other women.

Guillermina: We say, “You’re worth something and you can fight for your rights. You changed countries, customs, dress—you went through a 180-degree change when you immigrated from a third world to a first world country. You’re valuable and you can do it.”

Becoming active

In addition to creating safe spaces to share experiences and develop consciousness, domestic workers are taking community action. Responding to the abuses in the home and workplace that most domestic workers experience regularly—and in an effort to flip the script and put working class immigrant women in the driver’s seat of their relationships at work, at home, and in the community—a new collaborative organizing project has been formed. The Coalition for Domestic Workers’ Rights—an alliance between the Women’s Collective at the Day Labor Program of La Raza Centro Legal, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, and People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) in San Francisco—is launching a city-wide campaign for domestic workers’ rights, benefits, and better work conditions.

In 2004, this coalition joined forces with the Data Center and legal advisors to devise a survey to assess the working conditions and the central problems domestic workers face. We trained a group of 30 domestic workers on interview techniques, and within two months, the survey team completed nearly 300 interviews with women in the community. With the results of these surveys in hand, the coalition has begun trying to combine the perspective of the community with an analysis of the global and local causes of these working conditions.

Toward this, the coalition has begun a series of political education trainings between the three groups, addressing issues such as patriarchy, capitalism, the history of domestic work, and women in the global economy. The workshops are structured to give women from the different groups a chance to dialogue and build collective analysis on how the abuses seen in the Bay Area are connected to corporate globalization, the feminization of poverty, and the growth of informal work globally. The second part of the series develops an understanding of the mechanics of campaign work and how we can build a campaign that changes our local situation while simultaneously taking on the root causes of the problem.

As of now, the Coalition for Domestic Workers’ Rights is wrapping up this workshop series and will begin a process of political discussion and campaign planning. Although the demands and directions of the campaign are yet to be decided, it is clear that the lack of legal protections for domestic workers based on immigration status or the informal structure of the work is a major issue. Ultimately, tackling the lack of labor protections is a first step toward ensuring workers are paid minimum wage, have regular work schedules, receive sick days and vacation, and are treated with dignity and respect.

All activists—whether involved in global justice or immigrant solidarity work—can be allies to domestic workers organizing for their rights. Recognizing the root causes of global displacement, the multiple oppressions immigrant women face, and concretely supporting domestic workers’ organizing efforts by providing things like childcare so the women can meet, go a long way in building this movement.

Where are we going? Pa’lante siempre—always moving forward. Domestic workers are on the move in the Bay Area reclaiming respect for the work that they do. Keeping the city going and raising the next generation is some of the most important work, and we refuse to have it go unrecognized and uncompensated. We’re on the move and charting a new path.


Marisa Franco and Jason Negón-Gonzáles are members of POWER, People Organized to Win Employment Rights. POWER organizes workfare workers to win fair and equal treatment for people doing workfare in San Francisco. [email protected].

Interviews facilitated, translated, and compiled by Andrea Cristina Mercado of Mujeres Unidas y Activas and Jill Shenker of the San Francisco Day Labor Program, La Raza Centro Legal, Women’s Collective.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas is a grassroots organization with offices in San Francisco and Oakland California, and is composed of a membership of more than three hundred Latina immigrants.

Contact Andrea C. Mercado, (415) 621-8140 x301, [email protected],

The San Francisco Day Labor Program of La Raza Centro Legal provides direct legal services, education, leadership development, and opportunities to organize around community issues. We seek to create a more just and inclusive society in the interest of the Latino, indigenous, immigrant and low-income communities of San Francisco and the greater Bay Area.

Contact Jill Shenker, (415) 553-3406, [email protected].