Domestic Workers

Domestic Workers April 19, 2016

Domestic workers—nannies and eldercare assistants–are a major part of the growing personal service job sector. There are more than 200,000 domestic workers in New York State alone. What is it like?

Rachel Aviv profiles one domestic worker in The New Yorker (4/11/16). Emma is from Bukidnon Province in the Philippines. Even with some college education and a government job, Emma and husband Edmund could not support their nine children. So she comes to New York City; specifically to Woodside, Queens where more than 13,000 Filipinos live within walking distance to the 61st St. & Roosevelt Ave. number 7 subway stop.
The United States exports products: fuel, cinema, semiconductors and more. The Philippines deliberately exports its women. The government there promotes “labor exportation as a strategy for relieving poverty and alleviating the national debt,” Aviv writes. The immigrant women send a substantial part of their earnings home to family members who, in turn, boost consumption in Philippines. A few years ago the Filipino president asked the immigrants to stay abroad. “We are depending on [you],” the president said. “Send money to your relatives here… You should stay there.”

Emma’s first job in the United States was in Hillary Clinton’s Westchester County neighborhood. Other jobs followed. After meeting basic expenses, Emma “sent all her earnings home, except for $20, her weekly allowance.” Her daughters received most of the money, Aviv details. “But she also fulfilled requests from her sisters, colleagues and friends.”
A strain of emotional insecurity weaves in and around Emma’s family. The daughters back home underappreciate their mother’s sacrifice—or so Emma feels. They want money and the latest fashions from the United States. Emma spent $65 per month to ship clothes to the Philippines. Emma, for her part, has doubts about her husband. On occasion she suspects waywardness from the daughters, yet they complete their education. The back-and-forth tugs are strong. However, by the time Emma is introduced to New Yorker readers, she has been in the United States 16 years without a visit home.

Thankfully nothing horrendous happens to Emma on the job, or at least Aviv does not report any instances. Wage theft, harassment, or other workplace evils are nonetheless common for domestic workers. Labor statutes on wages, sick days, overtime and more sometimes do not apply to domestic workers. Federal laws do not cover companions; that is babysitters and those caregivers for the elderly who do not perform medical tasks or run errands, though companions who sleep overnight are covered on wages, but not on other matters. Fifteen states have domestic worker laws that at least in some provisions exceed Federal standards.
Domestic workers, let’s face it, are vulnerable because they are isolated. If a dispute arises, their testimony will likely carry less weight than the employer’s.

Some organizations strive to improve the situation for domestic workers. For example, the Diocese of Brooklyn ( has a Catholic Migrant Office in the neighborhood where Emma and many other domestic workers reside. It provides some services and engages in advocacy.
Since 2000 the National Domestic Workers Alliance (, headquartered in New York and with 43 affiliates in 26 cities, has successfully defended some mistreated workers and has lobbied for legal protections. Its thorough report on domestic workers is titled Home Economics. NDWA’s founder Ai Jen Poo is not only concerned about domestic workers but also about care for our elderly. Her book, The Age of Dignity (The New Press, 2015), is a resource for grown children who now care for their parents.
Damayan (, to mention a third group, is a New York-based advocacy center for domestic workers. It claims 8,000 dues-paying members in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, mostly Filipino.

Droel edits a free, printed newsletter about faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

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