Domestic Labor: The Most Essential Work, the Lowest Pay

About a year into the pandemic, at an emotional low, I entered the hours I spent caring for my family and our home into the online Invisible Labor Calculator to see how much my work might be worth. It was created by the journalist Amy Westervelt, who used Bureau of Labor Statistics data to assign an hourly wage to different tasks—cleaning, considering the emotional needs of family members, doing yard work, cooking, etc. I was floored when the calculator told me that my annual wage should be more than $300,000, which would make being a domestic worker the highest-paying job I’ve ever had. By far.

According to Oxfam, if women around the world made minimum wage for all the unpaid hours of care work they performed in 2019, they would have earned $10.8 trillion. In America alone, they would have earned $1.5 trillion, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

Even care work that is paid is hardly ever paid enough. For many domestic workers, providing quality care means forging intimate, familial relationships and acquiring professional knowledge that is sensual and personal.

This article was adapted from Angela Garbes’s new book Essential Labor

This expertise lives in the bodies of women of color throughout America. Ninety-two percent of domestic workers are women, and 57 percent of them are Black, Hispanic, Asian American, or Pacific Islander. We entrust the safety and cleanliness of our homes to Latin American workers, who make up 62 percent of house cleaners. Whether they maintain our house, care for our elders, or watch our children, there is a wide and long-standing gap between the wages of domestic workers and all other workers in America. Whereas the median wage for workers in this country is nearly $20 an hour, it is barely $12 for domestic workers. The gap is widest for nannies—97 percent of whom are women—who earn a median of just $11.60 an hour. And although the cost of living has steadily risen, domestic workers’ wages have remained mostly stagnant for decades.

“White class-privileged women in the United States have historically freed themselves of reproductive labor by purchasing the low-wage services of women of color,” Rhacel Salazar Parreñas writes in her study of Filipina immigration and international reproductive labor.

How did we get to this place where essential work is so devalued? We are entrusting what we say is most precious—our children, our future—to other people, yet we are not willing to pay them a living wage? This is by design. American capitalism relies on free and cheap domestic labor. Our economic systems cannot be truly equitable and just unless we compensate care work fairly.

Associations of caregiving with women and the domestic sphere and of “real work” with the money and activities outside the home run deep. But they are actually fairly recent concepts, historically speaking. “The division between ‘home’ and ‘workplace’ didn’t exist in feudal Europe [where] women worked as doctors, butchers, teachers, retailers, and smiths,” the labor journalist Sarah Jaffe writes. But the home was excluded from the idea of the “market” under capitalism.

Placing reproductive labor outside of market relations is what upholds the professional world that relies on domestic laborers. If those who do “professional” work had to commensurately pay the care workers who made their jobs possible, less profit would be made. Without care workers, the system falls apart.

The work of mothering remains out of sight and out of mind to many because it occurs in the home. The scholars Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore call this confinement of women, which began in the 17th century, the “Great Domestication.”

Domestication moved people away from a more communal way of living. Men ventured out and worked for employers, in fields and factories, and earned an individual wage. Women stayed in and oversaw the home, where they kept men fed and comfortable, and gave birth to the next generation of workers. This paved the way for the promotion of the nuclear family as the primary framework for organizing our lives: a single household unit with private property (a wife was property), where the children she raised became the means to protect and pass down wealth. This arrangement cemented the notion that domestic work is women’s work, natural and good, done with no expectation of compensation: a labor of love. That ethos—of each household going it alone—prevails today.

After the Great Depression, which left so many Americans destitute, the federal government stepped in to help families. The concept of a “family wage,” a guaranteed minimum wage that would be enough to support a working husband, a housewife, and a couple of children, became popular. While New Deal programs came closer to providing a family wage, that grand idea was doomed in predictably American ways: Lawmakers from the South didn’t believe that Black men and women should be entitled to the same wages and opportunities as white people. So the protections excluded two types of laborers: agricultural workers and domestic workers. These jobs were commonly held by Black people.

Little progress has been made toward fair pay for domestic work. The division between home and work remains paramount. Since the 1960s, women’s participation in the waged workforce has steadily risen. But as Jaffe notes, in the current age, when many women work both outside and inside the home, “we hear a lot about ‘work-life’ balance, but not enough about how, for everyone, ‘life’ (code for ‘family’) means ‘unpaid work.’”

In the 20th century, one of the most notable efforts to improve the lives of care workers and mothers was the welfare-rights movement. Established in 1966, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), led by Black women such as Johnnie Tillmon, organized for expanded access and entitlements for women eligible for welfare, which at the time was called Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The NWRO used direct action—holding sit-ins and disrupting welfare offices—as well as marches and rallies to lobby for greater benefits and the elimination of punitive policies. Eventually, the NWRO started a campaign to benefit all people in America, not just AFDC mothers and families.

In a 1972 article for Ms. magazine titled “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue,” Tillmon laid out the organization’s vision for a guaranteed adequate income:

There would be no “categories”—men, women, children, single, married, kids, no kids— just poor people who need aid. You’d get paid according to need and family size only and that would be upped as the cost of living goes up …

In other words, I’d start paying women a living wage for doing the work we are already doing—child-raising and house-keeping. And the welfare crisis would be over, just like that.

The NWRO came very close to winning a guaranteed income. President Richard Nixon put forth a Family Assistance Plan that, as Jaffe writes, “would have given a basic income to more than ten million people.” Ultimately, Nixon’s plan did not pass, and instead America got Ronald Reagan and the racist narrative of the “welfare queen.” But that the NWRO came as close as it did to enacting a guaranteed income for caregivers suggests that this is possible. Though they did not succeed in everything they fought for, the NWRO and its allies did improve conditions for thousands of families, helping them access all the benefits they were legally entitled to. As Tillmon wrote, “Maybe we poor welfare women will really liberate women in this country.”

When most of us imagine economies, domestic or international, we picture workers toiling in factories or offices, money being wire transferred, stocks and bonds traded: all activities that play out in public, highly visible. But the global economy is also driven by domestic labor—happening in laundry rooms and nurseries, performed on hands and knees, sponge or toilet brush in hand.

I’m Pinay, my husband is white, and we have relied on my mother’s unpaid labor, as well as the paid labor of immigrants and Latina, Black, and Chinese women, to care for our children. I continue to navigate my place as an American woman of color who is financially privileged. I’ve been mistaken by strangers for my light-skinned daughters’ caretaker, which has angered me and also forced me to question why it makes me angry. This tension has made me bold, willing to speak out in solidarity with caregivers in some instances. At other times, it’s made me quiet and embarrassed. I can claim otherness, I know it intimately, but I have always understood that, if things fell apart, I could ask for help, that I would never be left destitute or totally alone.

Women who can easily work outside the home are still not free or unburdened from other people. We are dependent on our nannies, cleaners, personal Instacart shoppers, DoorDash delivery drivers, parents, co-parents, and in-laws. The domestic load is as heavy as ever, but those who have means often spread it out among multiple people. This is not real progress.

Care is expected to be cheap the world over, in part because the global economy doesn’t have the ability to properly value care work; conventional economic measures—concepts such as supply, demand, and markets—fall woefully short. But the failures of imagination that have led to this moment don’t have to dictate that care work not be assigned monetary value going forward, or that we shouldn’t try.

We have gotten glimpses of what is possible when women insist on being fully visible and valued.  On October 24, 1975, when women in Iceland staged the Women’s Strike. An estimated 90 percent of women did not show up for work that day—in and outside the home—and it brought Iceland’s economy to its knees. Factories, schools, and nurseries were closed, and men either called in to stay home from work or took their children with them. In the decades that have followed, some of the strike’s agenda has taken hold. In 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to require employers with more than 25 employees to give women and men equal pay for equal work. Part of the strike’s legacy is showing that organizing on a mass scale is possible, and that such a demonstration of solidarity made lasting impressions.

If we reframe domestic work as essential labor and insist upon its centrality in a global labor movement, we create opportunities for solidarity among caregivers, mothers, and all workers. Unity can exist across gender identities, international borders, and disparate industries, rooted in any work that exploits an invisible labor force. Because caregivers are no different from ride-share drivers, sanitation workers, welders, teachers, physicians, and nurses. Those of us who outsource care work are no different from our nannies and child-care workers and the people cleaning our homes. Our issues are the same as those of the women we have paid to take care of our children—for me, that means I stand with Maria, Josephine, Huang Ping, Belen, Ceci, Mari, Marta, Sandra, and Titi.

We have been trained to view our houses and apartments as private refuges, but they must also be seen for what they are: sites of work and monetary exchange that are part of the global economy. Redefining the workplace, as so many of us have during the COVID-19 pandemic, is a step toward this vision. Work, we now all know, has never been confined to the office or the field or the factory. It was always happening in the kitchen, garage, and backyard.

The pandemic has been an unprecedented opportunity to see the reality of modern American life: We are all workers, and all of our work is valuable. But it’s not enough to see that; the next step is to actually value it, with fair pay.

This article was adapted from Angela Garbes’s new book Essential Labor.

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