The Heart of the Work

Professionals Navigating a Personal World

Advocates say the labor-as-a-favor guise is common here, and so some women, especially immigrants without legal status or English skills, work for next to nothing. A Brooklyn Haitian organization reports getting calls from people offering to board a woman if she would work for free. Says Romero, "It's a throwback to feudalism and slavery."

Such patronizing attitudes toward caretakers have more troubling ramifications still when the employee belongs to an ethnic group already subject to prejudice. It is no wonder that domestic work carries such stigma. Erline Brown, a nanny, says, "I have been out with the kids, and I have had people call me names for the work that I do." A Barbadian Brit with braids, she says she's been told, "You're an Aunt Jemima." Employer Levine says balancing her employee's status relative to the family, "because Annie was white . . . was easier." But in many cases, relations with household workers are, for better or worse, children's first encounters with American racial dynamics.

Bonding, part of a caregiver's job, can complicate the business side.
photo: Michael Kamber
Bonding, part of a caregiver's job, can complicate the business side.

The association of inferiority with race is not just metaphor. Housework was for many decades the only field where most African American women could get hired. As other areas opened to them and to the European immigrants who also did the work, women from the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America replaced them. There were involuntary migrants, too: A State Department analyst reported in 1999 that over 45,000 women and children, nearly all from the third world, were trafficked into the U.S. each year, most for sex work but many for domestic labor in top destinations like New York. In less overt forms of coercion, employers might confiscate passports or threaten to call the INS on an undocumented worker.

Moreover, racism in hiring leaves the most back-breaking, low-paid work to minorities, says Julia Wrigley, a City University of New York sociologist, drawing from over 150 interviews with families and employees. "Women of color are often assigned very stigmatized tasks, like cleaning up after dogs or providing table service to their employers," she says, while white women are more likely to be hired strictly for child care.

But domestics can't sue based on discrimination. Most relevant laws exempt household and other small employers. Law professor Smith says these exemptions were created when employers argued that in intimate settings, conflicts could be more personal than professional.

The emotional testimonies of workers at the April 6 town hall showed that intimacy has a considerable dark side. The personal interaction that might make a good job more enjoyable could make a bad one humiliating. The women could have made no better case for legislating labor rights. As Councilmember Christine Quinn, a leading sponsor of the workers' rights bill, said, "A domestic worker quite literally could never see anybody but the employer for days on end. There are probably many more good employers than bad, but the job of government is to make sure everybody is protected."

A formal structure is better even for the best employers, says Jean Kunhardt, co-director of the Soho Parenting Center. "I tend to see [parents] who are so guilt-ridden, they overcompensate by cooking meals for their nannies, paying for college courses. I often say, 'This is an employer-employee relationship. You're not adopting somebody in the family.' "

And perhaps worst for both sides, in the absence of decent standards there is frequent turnover. The D.C. child care organization found annual rates among caregivers nationwide hovering at between 30 and 40 percent. Not surprisingly, its research showed that fair wages based on merit helped retain experienced workers.

"This is a valuable service we're providing," says nanny Brown, "and it's a pleasurable job." One housekeeper, who says others see her job as pure drudgery, finds "satisfaction in creating beauty out of chaos." But, wonders Brown, "why should we stay in a job with no benefits, where our employers sometimes don't even acknowledge us when we say good morning? The industry is losing the crème de la crème of professionals. When we're seen as doing a real job, we'll stay."

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