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The Scholar & Feminist Online is a webjournal published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
BCRW: The Barnard Center for Research on Women
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Issue: 8.1: Fall 2009
Guest Edited by Gisela Fosado and Janet R. Jakobsen
Valuing Domestic Work

Domestic Workers Bill of Rights: A Feminist Approach for a New Economy

Ai-jen Poo

Several years ago, my grandfather had a stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. My grandmother, while in good health, was over 70 and unable to help him move around, bathe or meet many of his basic needs. So like thousands of other families, they hired a home attendant. The first time I met Ms. Li was a couple of years after she was hired. A second stroke had put my grandfather back in the hospital in critical condition. I remember entering the hospital room to visit him. Ms. Li sat at the side of his bed with a small plastic comb in her hand, slowly combing back his thin grey hair. His eyes were closed, and his expression peaceful and light. I turned to greet my grandmother, who said quietly, "He asks for her to comb his hair. It puts him at ease." Apparently, every morning at home for the last two years, she patiently combed his hair after bathing him. At that moment, it was clear to me that there are few greater gifts than being cared for by another person. It is rooted in the interconnectedness of humanity; we rely on one another, particularly when we face the uncertainty of life.

We live in an economic system that requires us to disconnect from each other despite the fact that we are ultimately interconnected. In fact, many forms of necessary labor are erased and devalued in our current system, particularly work that has historically been associated with women and women of color. The domestic work industry provides a clear window into this reality. Domestic worker organizing not only seeks to address the systemic problems facing the workforce, but also points to ways we can reshape the economy, toward a more sustainable system that adequately supports our basic human needs.

A World of Work in the Home

The estimated 2.5 million women who labor as domestic workers in the United States make it possible for their employers to go to work every day by caring for the most precious elements of their employers' lives: their families and homes. Essentially, domestic workers produce the labor power of the families they work for. Those families go to work knowing that they can return to a clean home, to clean clothes to wear, and to elderly parents and children who will have their basic needs met. In fact, domestic workers have to play the role of nurses, art teachers, counselors, tutors, assistants, and nutritionists. Yet, because this work has historically been associated with the unpaid work of women in the home or with the poorly paid work of Black and immigrant women, it remains undervalued and virtually invisible to public consciousness.

In New York, over 200,000 women of color leave their homes several hours before everyone else, often in the dark, in order to arrive at their employers' homes before they leave for work. Many arrive early to prepare children for school and walk them to their buses. Some even live in their employers' homes, prepare breakfast and pack lunches for the entire household. Because women's work in the home has never been factored into national labor statistics, it is difficult to quantify the economic contributions of this workforce. However, if domestic workers across the city went on strike, almost every industry would be impacted. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors, small business owners, civil sector employees and media executives would all be affected. The urban economy would be paralyzed.

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© 2009 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 8.1: Fall 2009 - Valuing Domestic Work