What We Can All Learn From Domestic Workers’ Silent Battle Against Sexual Harassment

Angelica Alzona/GMG

Since the accusations against Harvey Weinstein came out two
months ago, women have come forward to share their stories in
droves and—perhaps even more surprising—they are being
believed. Bad men are losing their jobs at an unprecedented
clip. But as we read stories of
entrenched

workplace

cultures
that help harbor and protect abusers, it’s clear
the culture of rampant sexual harassment and abuse won’t be
fixed by bringing down a few powerful men.

We are now faced with the difficult work of shifting power and
creating lasting reform. Luckily, we don’t have to start from
scratch; many women have been doing this organizing work for a
long time. While the bravery of high-profile women who have
come forward has poured gasoline on a long-simmering fire,
low-wage workers—who rarely have the option to go to the press
and get their employer fired—have been fighting harassment out
of the spotlight for decades.

One group that we can draw lessons from in particular is
domestic workers, who have won crucial victories in their
ongoing battle against sexual harassment in several states. In
2010, for instance,
New York became the first state
to pass a domestic workers
bill of rights, which, along with labor protections like
overtime pay and paid vacation, also included protections
against sexual and racial harassment. Since the legislation
passed in New York, workers have won bills of rights in seven
other states, many of which include similar harassment and
discrimination provisions.

“There is not a supervisor
when we’re directly employed by a house, so who do we go to? We
don’t have coworkers to tell, or a boss above someone when it’s
all the same person.”

Domestic workers—the people who watch your children, clean your
homes, and carry out other household tasks in private
settings—were excluded from New Deal labor protections (along
with agricultural workers) and have long battled for the same
recognition that most other workers get.

While federal law protects employees from discrimination and
harassment, that only applies to workplaces with 15 or more
employees. Domestic workers often work alone, so they tend to
lack these protections, despite often being especially
vulnerable to abuse: According to a 2012 National Domestic
Workers Alliance
report
, 95% of domestic workers are women and 54% are
people of color. Nearly half are foreign-born and 36% of those
surveyed in the report are undocumented immigrants. Their pay
is often low; more than one-fifth of workers surveyed made less
than their state’s minimum wage.

There is still a long way to go. Laws that protect domestic
workers are only on the books in eight states and are often

difficult to enforce
. Even when domestic workers can file
complaints, they often lack the resources to do so. Yet they
have been able to make concrete gains when it comes to
harassment and discrimination, despite the enormous barriers
that they face, because of collective action. The fact that
domestic have found non-traditional ways to organize (they are

excluded from collective bargaining rights
) is in and of
itself an enormous achievement given these challenges. Their
experiences should light the way for women everywhere, and
their struggle should be taken up by all women who want to
create a world free from sexual harassment.

Although the gulf between, say, a white, wealthy Hollywood
actress and a working class person of color doing domestic work
is enormous, the last few weeks have made it clear that
workplace sexual violence affects us all. As Rocio Avila, a
state policy director at NDWA, told Splinter, “Domestic workers
face a much more complicated set of challenges, yet their
organizing has allowed them to come and build alliances with
other women in the women’s movement to collectively denounce
that kind of violence.”

“You have to take that crap
because that paycheck is coming and people are afraid to lose
their jobs.”

Because their work conditions often makes them susceptible to
abuse, the domestic workers and organizers I spoke with see
protections against sexual harassment as central to their
organizing work.

Isabel Escobar, who’s has been cleaning houses in Chicago for
two decades, told Splinter through a translator that one of her
previous employers, a college student, attempted to rape her.
Thankfully, she was able to get away and never went back to the
job. “We’re particularly vulnerable because we’re so isolated,
each alone in a private home,” Escobar said. “There is not a
supervisor when we’re directly employed by a house, so who do
we go to? We don’t have coworkers to tell, or a boss above
someone when it’s all the same person.” For Escobar,
protections against harassment were one of the most important
provisions in the
Illinois domestic workers bill of rights
that went into
effect in January.

June Barrett, an elder care worker who moved from Jamaica to
Miami in 2001, spoke about the sexual assault and harassment
she has faced over her career. One of her first jobs was for a
man who groped her and made inappropriate sexual comments, she
told Splinter.

“At the time, I had just got this job through an agency and I
couldn’t leave when I wanted to,” she said. “You have to take
that crap because that paycheck is coming and people are afraid
to lose their jobs.”

Since then, Barrett has gotten involved organizing for domestic
workers with the Miami Workers Center, a strategy and action
center for low-wage workers, and the NDWA. As a part of this
broader movement, Barrett told me, “We have the courage to come
forward and say, ‘Yes, I’m experiencing things like wage theft
and sexual harassment.’ We have that safety net that we did not
have before.”

When I asked her how her life had changed after she organized
other domestic workers, she said, “You feel so much power. I
walk around feeling so powerful now.”

Escobar also emphasized the importance of community support
when it comes to being able to speak up: “The first part of the
struggle, in order to win something, is knowing we’re not alone
and that other people are out there experiencing the same
thing.”

While the specific needs of domestic workers might look
different than those of women in other industries, the
mechanism is the same: All women, in every workplace, need to
organize to take collective action to demand abusers be held
accountable. That could mean unionizing, reforming
existing unions
, or
signing a letter
urging your bosses to change sexual
harassment policies. But the underlying solution is collective,
direct action.

The experience of domestic
workers also shows that we must support all women—across
industries and racial and class divisions—who are
vulnerable.

There will also have to be new ideas for
organizing creatively
around the issue. As Barrett
explained, you have to reach people where they are. “Not
everyone is on Twitter and not everyone is on social media,”
she said. Organizations like the NDWA and Hand in Hand, a
network of domestic workers, are even trying to reach employers
of domestic workers
who understand the importance of their movement
to talk to
other employers about
how to support their workers
.

Barrett also stressed organizing through an intersectional
lens. She referenced the
“We Dream in Black”
Miami chapter of the NDWA that created
a space specifically for black domestic workers and how they
are working on a campaign to reach women who are even more
isolated from the community, like those who recently immigrated
and don’t know about resources available to them. Mujeres
Unidas y Activas, a grassroots organization of Latina immigrant
women, also has a sexual assault line for domestic workers,
brings in speakers to talk about the effects of sexual trauma,
and runs a bi-weekly local support group for workers to connect
with each other.

The experience of domestic workers also shows that we must
support all women—across industries and racial and class
divisions—who are vulnerable. As Sarah Leonard recently wrote
in
The New York Times
about those in more privileged
positions, “The women who are newly speaking out in the
limelight should now rally alongside those who have been
fighting sexual harassment in the shadows.”

“I hope that people pay
attention not just to what we’re hearing from Washington and
Hollywood and know this is happening in all work places
everywhere.”

This includes not just domestic workers, but those who work
jobs in retail and restaurants, or as hotel cleaners and
farmworkers. Low-wage workers are leading the way in creating
this alliance. Recently, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an
organization of female farmworkers, wrote an
open letter
standing in solidarity with women in Hollywood.
The letter reads: “In these moments of despair, and as you cope
with scrutiny and criticism because you have bravely chosen to
speak out against the harrowing acts that were committed
against you, please know that you’re not alone. We believe and
stand with you.”

The rough contours of the post-Weinstein movement we’ve seen so
far are powerful but insufficient; after all, as many have
noted, not all men who abuse are famous and most won’t be
brought down by a critical news story. And even the Weinsteins
who are removed from their workplaces will still employ
domestic workers and stay in hotels. While all women are
vulnerable to sexual harassment, their means and ability to
find recourse vary wildly—and a true reckoning with this
systemic issue can only be realized when women center these
realities in their organizing work.

As Escobar told me, “I hope that people pay attention not just
to what we’re hearing from Washington and Hollywood and know
this is happening in all workplaces everywhere.”

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