Report on Domestic Workers Released

Domestic workers and family members, in front of the mural wall at El Centro Humanitario. (photo credit: El Centro Humanitario)

The long awaited report on domestic labor in Colorado, entitled ON THE JOB WITH DOMESTIC WORKERS:  Workplace Abuse and Worker Exploitation in Colorado’s Invisible Workforce, by Prof. Tony Robinson, and graduate students Jessie Dryden and Heather Gomez-Duplantis, was formally released on Tuesday, November 27, 2012, at El Centro Humanitario.  A pdf of the report can be found here:

It is difficult to read, due to the page layout, but worth the effort, especially for those who have no personal knowledge of this type of work.  The report includes and is based on personal interviews with domestic workers who are and have been employed in Colorado.  Similar research projects have been recently and concurrently undertaken in other parts of the U.S., with an eye to finding ways to combat abuses faced by domestic laborers.  This is the first such study of domestic labor conducted locally, in Colorado.

This report, with its political science focus, illuminates the power relations of domestic labor.  Domestic workers are among the most exploited and abused of all workers.  The research uncovered two sets of reasons for this-- discrimination against the workers because of their sex, race, citizenship status, documentation issues, and language; and employer attitudes about domestic work itself.

Nearly all domestic workers are women.  Many are women of color, especially immigrants, some of whom are undocumented and/or lacking in English language skills.  Workers who fit several or all these categories experience greater abuses than those who fit fewer categories.  Workers also cited attitudes among employers that domestic work is unskilled, degrading, and has little value, that it is not work at all, or that the worker should perform her labor out of a sense of duty, personal attachment, or loyalty, rather than expecting compensation.  The result is that many domestic workers are paid far less than the minimum wage with no benefits, expected to work long hours without breaks, to work extra hours and take on additional tasks without pay, and subjected to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

The Report suggests several remedies for the situation faced by domestic workers.  These include legislation, pro-active practices for the workers, and workers organizing into co-ops, such as the Green Cleaning for Life, a worker-owned co-op organized by El Centro.  Some of these suggested remedies do not go far enough. 

The proposed legislation and pro-active remedies are not necessarily effective in other types on low-paid employment and probably would not provide relief for domestic workers.  A worker's security lies in visibility and the ability to walk away.  For most people who undertake domestic labor, neither factor is present, as the report itself documents in several places.

The research team found several protective labor laws that do not apply to domestic workers and suggested, rightly, that these protections should be expanded.  But employers who are already subject to such laws ignore and violate those laws all the time, with impunity.  Legislation is useless unless it has teeth.  Adding real penalties and treating labor violations as criminal offenses, subject to arrest, jail, bail, and the permanent handicap of a criminal record, would go a long way here.  Wealthy, privileged people who employ domestic workers have a sense of entitlement and are accustomed to getting away with things.  They should be brought into the real world.  And surely, stealing the time and labor of another person is at least as criminal as stealing anything else.

Work contracts do not prevent abuses by the employer; indeed, they can be written so as to enforce abuses.  People who work in other low-paid jobs are often paid less than they are owed, made to work "off the clock," deprived of the overtime pay they have earned, and assigned tasks other than those agreed upon at the time the job was accepted.  Work contracts, which are written by and for the employer, with no input from the employee, are tailored to enforce all of these abuses, rather than prevent them.  In every work contract I've have ever had, the list of duties I was to perform included the phrase, "and other duties as assigned."  This was standard, company-wide, and was sometimes used in a punitive fashion.

As for wage and hour abuses, these can also be enforced, rather than prevented, by a carefully crafted contract.  For example, some employers state the payrate as a salary, rather than an hourly wage.  Salaried employees receive the same pay for a pay period, regardless of how many hours have been worked.  Even an hourly wage, however, is no protection against underpayment.  An employer can simply assign more work than can be completed in the time given.  According to the Report, this occurs frequently, in domestic labor situations.  If the work is not completed within the alotted time, the employer can accuse the worker of insubordination.  Thus, the worker is forced to choose between working extra, unpaid hours, to finish the assigned work, or facing discipline, including possible termination.  This abuse is reinforced by stating in the contract that the worker agrees to never work overtime, off the clock, or any additional hours beyond what is instructed by the employer.  I have seen and experienced this kind of abuse by several types of employers, including banks, insurance companies, telecom companies, and retailers.  Similar abuses in other industries are detailed in a growing body of research from activists and scholars who specialize in labor and working class issues.  

The Report notes a lack of specific laws concerning sexual harassment and assault of domestic workers.  What it does not point out is that sexual harassment and assault are illegal in any situation.  Laws that address sexual attack in the workplace generally require that an employer put in place a system for dealing with sexual harassment complaints.  But sexual harassment remains an almost universal experience among working women, even where these systems exist.  And when the employer is one person, one family, or a small group of like-minded persons, having a procedure for reporting sexual harassment within the company is little more than a bad joke.  Millions of working women, in all sorts of workplaces, can attest to this.

The third suggested remedy, the formation of co-ops, seems promising.  As the Report points out, it helps the worker build an asset base for herself.  It also provides a form of leverage that does not exist for the solitary worker.    Because the co-op is a business, the householder seeking domestic labor services must do so in a normal business negotiation and is checked, at least to some extent, from abusive practices.  Most employers of domestic workers are professionals.  They are accustomed to buying and selling services in a business environment, which has rules, limits, and protective practices.  And a business can enforce its interests, which, in a co-op, are the interests of the workers.  Other kinds of co-ops, providing various other kinds of services and goods, are performing well, even in the current "bad" business climate.  It seems likely that the co-operative business model will be successful in the domestic labor market.