When 17-year-old Shanti Gurung left her family and home in India to work for an Indian diplomat in New York City, she was promised at least $108 a month, room and board in exchange for light cleaning, light cooking and staffing the occasional house party.
But Gurung’s reality was far different. She slept on the floor, regularly went without meals and worked more than 16 hours a day. In three years, her weight dropped from 147 pounds to 84 pounds. Her case is one of many chronicled in Sheila Bapat’s “Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights” a refreshing blend of journalistic prose and scholarly research that shines an overdue light on an invisible, unprotected class of workers in the United States.
Bapat analyzes how the nearly two million domestic workers in the United States are treated as a casual, ancillary part of the workforce and neglected by labor laws, even though they take on crucial work for families and communities.
“The reason why we don't value this profession all goes back to the fact that we aren't valuing domestic labor in general,” Bapat said in an interview with JCCF. “I think patriarchy - which I define to be the economic, political, cultural and physical subordination of women -is the basic explanation as to why.”
The domestic workers’ movement has gained visibility in the last decade. In 2010, New York became the first state to adopt a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, formalizing protections for employees who cook, clean and take care of children. Hawaii followed suit, highlighting the successes of nonprofit organizations, unions and advocacy groups to deepen advocacy for domestic workers. The Fair Labor Standards Act now gives live-in domestic workers federal minimum wage and overtime protections.
“It seems impossible to uproot such deeply systemic trends, and yet that is exactly what domestic worker advocates are accomplishing through state legislative campaigns, direct representation of domestic workers, and other strategies that shine a light on how critical caregiving labor is,” Bapat said in an interview with the center.
Bapat argues the exclusion of domestic workers from basic protections is part of the legacy of Jim Crow and the country’s willingness to import cheap domestic workers since the New Deal era. Even though domestic work is part of an expanding sector of the global economy, more than 40 percent of domestic laborers do not make a minimum wage.
The absence of supportive family policies makes it difficult for domestic workers to care for their own loved ones, Bapat writes.
The book highlights the urgency to increase the value we place on domestic work. As aging baby boomers need help at home, the number of homecare jobs will increase 50 percent by 2018, suggesting that immigration reform could be a solution to the shortage of caregivers in the United States. The paucity of current immigration policy, Bapat writes, leaves immigrant workers vulnerable to abuse by employers.
Bapat concludes with a cautiously optimistic view of the domestic workers' movement. Although America’s frontline caregivers are excluded from labor laws, the legal and cultural paradigm is beginning to shift, she says.
Despite strides in states like New York and Georgia, many state legislators insist domestic workers do not qualify for overtime protection. California’s governor, for example, vetoed California’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2012.
In a June ruling in Harris v. Quinn, the U.S. Supreme Court further weakened the ability of domestic workers to collectively bargain for higher wages, a troubling step that “exploits domestic workers to create a new class of public employees,” Bapat said.
Legislators need to fund immigrant community organizations and domestic workers’ groups, increase accountability of diplomats to help domestic workers who have been abused by employers, and improve paid family leave policies, she writes.
“Given the aging population in the U.S. as well as heightened understanding of how poorly low wage workers across many sectors are being treated, I think there is much potential for continued progress both in the U.S. and globally,” Bapat said.
Bapat’s interest in domestic workers' rights grew from personal experience. “I observed throughout my life how hard the women in my life always worked - cooking, caring for everyone in the household, cleaning up after everyone - and yet all of these women remained economically vulnerable while their husbands controlled the family's wealth,” she said.
She fittingly concludes the book by writing, “There is still much work to do.”
Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers' Rights by Sheila Bapat | IG Publishing | 224 p.