Building Our Care Infrastructure
September 1, 2020
Caring for Careworkers
September 7, 2020

Domestic Workers: Challenges and Opportunities

By Cynthia Cranford


Domestic workers who clean houses and care for children and elderly are predominately migrants and coronavirus has enlarged the chasm between the rights and recognition of migrant workers and those born in the country where they live. Early in the pandemic, key media outlets pointed out the dilemma of continuing to hire a cleaner, given the health risk for both workers and clients juxtaposed with the peace of mind a housekeeper brings to clients and the much needed income for workers. Some called for paying your house cleaner anyway, yet there were many reports of domestic workers being fired without pay and with little notice. The U.S. based National Domestic Workers Alliance found that 70% of domestic workers surveyed lost all wages and jobs.

In countries with programs that tie temporary residency to live-in domestic work, like Canada and Saudi Arabia, migrant workers can become locked up for months by private recruitment agencies, who are responsible for getting them home, after being laid off by household employers; or they could be contained by employers who continue to employ them in the home-workplace but restrict their freedom of movement even more than before COVID, with some increasing their workload as family members are at home more of the time and others limiting their contact with children or elderly. Meanwhile, in the U.S. as school closures dragged on demand for au pairs, who provide temporary live-in service constructed as child care plus cultural exchange, surged for au pairs already in the country when the Trump administration halted the program. Au pairs are traditionally young, European women although some are from poorer countries, and the New York Times reported accounts of the former being treated better than the latter, as would be predicted by academic research.

But domestic workers are not victims; they have been organizing throughout the pandemic. Domestic worker organizations are raising money for domestic workers who have lost their jobs due to COVID given that most do not qualify for the government stimulus in the U.S or Canada. The National Domestic Workers Alliance with Hand-in-Hand – the Domestic Employers Network – has created an online return to work guide for employers. Domestic workers are also organizing cooperatives as alternatives to exploitative agencies that operate as middle (wo)men controlling migrants’ employment opportunities. Cooperatives have provided training on safety protocols to keep worker-members healthy and ensure clients they are safe, such as this platform based cooperative in Brooklyn owned by Latin American immigrant women. In Canada, migrant domestic workers have joined with other migrant workers to demand full citizenship status given the risks under COVID in the essential work they do. Supporting such organizing is essential work we should all take on during this pandemic and beyond.

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