You Tell Us: My mother’s work deserves dignity

My mother, Nell, has been a domestic worker/caregiver for the elderly and mentally ill for nearly 30 years.

Late last month, the National Domestic Workers Alliance released the first-ever national statistical study of domestic workers, “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.” They interviewed thousands of workers, originally from 71 countries, throughout the nation’s metropolitan areas. This groundbreaking study sheds light on a labor sector that is otherwise invisible to most people, even though it is essential to maintain our economy. I’ve been inspired to do my part, and make sure my mother’s story is heard.

After my mother migrated from the Philippines with my father in 1983, she became employed as a domestic worker. She has worked in private households and in caregiving facilities. Since I was 5 years old, my mother has been the breadwinner and backbone of my family (my father retired early to help raise me). With her low wages she’s provided the basic necessities for our family while continually sending money to our relatives in the Philippines.

67 percent of live-in workers are paid below the state minimum wage, and the median hourly wage of these workers is $6.15.

My parents couldn’t afford a baby sitter, so when my father couldn’t watch me, I went to work with my mother. For most of my childhood (until I graduated from high school) I saw her work so hard to care for her clients, up to 20 at a time—assuring that they had enough to eat, that they had clean clothes, and that they were on track with their medication regimens. I spent nearly every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s helping my mother serve special meals at her carehomes. Some of her clients didn’t have family or friends to stay with for the holidays, so we made sure that they got their fill of turkey and stuffing with all the fixings—my specialty was the punch.

Although my mother works very hard, she’s had her share of negative experience with employers. She’s had some fair employers, but also some abusive ones. While these negative experiences have been few and far between, they’ve still taken a toll on her and our family.

Without the support of any kind of union, she’s mostly had to fight on her own. As a live-in employee, she’s experience long hours without overtime pay, and worked years with without vacation pay or health benefits, but she never once lowered her level of care for her clients. She always makes the happiness of her clients and the satisfaction of their social workers/families her top priority.

I know what you’re thinking, “Why didn’t she tell anyone?”or “How can these employers get away with abusing their workers like this?” The answer is a lack protection from current labor laws and fear. Below are a few more findings this new study has revealed about worker maltreatment:

  • Domestic workers have little control over their working conditions. Employment is usually arranged without the benefit of a formal contract
  • 65% do not have health insurance, and only 4% receive employer-provided insurance.
  • 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 job.
  • Among workers who are fired from a domestic work job, 23% are fired for complaining about working conditions, and 18% are fired for protesting violations of their contract or agreement

As a U.S. citizen, my mother has had more pull when it’s come to complaining about working conditions. Many of her co-workers her are undocumented and stay mostly silent, for fear that they will get fired, or worse—deported.

Along with these striking statistics, the NDWA’s study also offers recommendations that include enacting and enforcing policies that “rectify the exclusion of domestic workers from employment and labor laws.” In 2010, New York adopted a bill of rights for domestic workers, California recently rejected a similar bill. We have to keep fighting.

My mother is currently 62 years old and has filed for early retirement. She’s also in the process of resigning from her current job, due to discrepancies with her current employer. A couple of weeks ago I asked my mother if she regrets anything about her job, and she said this: “Never, I love my job. I love caring for these people, and I can’t see myself doing any other job.” I am proud of my mother, and I want to see her line of work be respected as much as any doctor, lawyer, or teacher.

Resources for caregivers/domestic workers:

National Domestic Workers United: http://www.domesticworkers.org/

Domestic Workers United: http://www.domesticworkersunited.org/

Filipinos for Justices – Worker Support Services: http://www.filipinos4justice.org/services/workers/

Mujeres Unidas y Activas http://www.mujeresunidas.net/

Mercy Albaran is a home-grown Oaklander, and works with multiple Bay Area non-profits in the struggle for social equity. In her spare time she likes to eat cake, sing, and beatbox. Follower her musings on Twitter @DJMercyMerc.

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4 Comments

  1. T

    My grandmother was a domestic. She passed in 1975, but I know she would have loved your article! ( I did.)

  2. Peggy

    I commend you for writing so well on a very important topic. There are so many people who are living with disability who rely on good persons such as your mother for quality care. In addition, all of us will need this help at some point in our lifetimes…why is it that as a community we do not value the helping professions as we should? It saddens me to hear of people doing such important work being marginalized, and in so doing, the people they are supposed to be able to help are marginalized too. Your article will give many alot to think about!! Thank you and a thanks to your mother for all she has done!

  3. Patt

    Kudo’s to your Mom for serving with Excellence…It is hard work caring for others…thank you for sharing

  4. Tiffany

    I appreciate your words. I also had a step-mother who was from the Philippines and did the exact same work although she was a live-in. Kudos to you!

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