What We Can All Learn From Domestic Workers’ Silent Battle Against Sexual Harassment
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 culturesthat 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 letterstanding 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.”