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New report: Domestic workers endure shocking conditions

Since the election, the new Below the Line series on Melissa Harris-Perry has focused on poverty.

Since the election, the new Below the Line series on Melissa Harris-Perry has focused on poverty. This week's edition spotlighted the domestic workers who are the fuel in our household engines. They include nannies, house-cleaners and caregivers, who are all essential to the survival of many families, but continue to endure substandard working conditions.

In two of the nation's most populous states, they've received mixed results from their elected officials. In October, a bill that would have guaranteed domestic workers eight hours of sleep and overtime pay was vetoed by California governor Jerry Brown. But that California bill  was modeled after similar law which passed in 2010 in New York State.

The MHP panel spoke about a collaborative new report by Nik Theodore and Laura Burnham which sought to explain how big the problem remains: “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work." (Download the full report here.) In a Sunday editorial, the New York Times said that the report, the first of its kind, revealed "that domestic workers, a vital but invisible sector of the economy, are suffering the predictable consequences of toiling behind closed doors in an unregulated industry."

The head of one of the organizations responsible for the survey, National Domestic Workers Alliance director Ai-Jen Poo, said:

I think the startling story that this report tells is that the people, the workforce that we count on to take care of our families every day cannot take care of their own families on their wages and the conditions that they’re facing in the workplace.

And just what are some of those conditions facing domestic workers? Here are some of the report's key findings:

  • 23% of workers surveyed are paid below the state minimum wage—including 67% of live-in workers, whose median hourly wage is $6.15.
  • 60% spend more than half of their rent or mortgage late during the year prior to being interviewed.
  • 35% of domestic workers report that they worked long hours without breaks in the prior 12 months.
  • 38% of workers suffered from work-related wrist, shoulder, elbow, or hip pain in the past 12 months.
  • 91% of workers who encountered problems with their working conditions in the prior 12 months did not complain because they were afraid they would lose their jobs.

Before guest Natalicia Tracy became executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center of Boston, she worked as a nanny. She said the findings of the new report are just like what she experienced:

I was brought her to be their nanny. And I was supposed to be part of the family, learn about the culture, go to school, and very soon I found myself taking care of the entire household, taking care of the children, working 80 to 90 hours a week and I was being paid $25 per week. And I was living on a three-season porch, with no hopes, and no one to help me.

Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project, offered some explanation for why workplace treatment like this perpetuates itself, even in our own homes:

This industry we often say is structurally wired for exploitation and there’s two pieces to it.One is that if you look at the legal framework for these workers they have very few protections on the job. And then we’re asking them to go into this very private, closed-off space, bargain one-on-one with an employer in a context where there is this whole emotional relationship as well.I mean, we are basically leaving them on their own and we don’t have their backs in terms of coverage, in terms of minimum wage protections, right to organize protections, etc.

The dynamic that domestic workers face has kept them from fully being a part of labor laws and policies. This new report may serve as a national call to action that will take them out of the shadows, and give them momentum to have a more prominent voice. As the Times wrote in its editorial, "achieving basic rights shouldn’t have to depend, haphazardly, on the kindness of their employers."

See the second half of our Sunday discussion below.