In 1919, a general strike carried out by Winnipeg’s largely immigrant working class paralyzed the city. The town’s wealthiest men swiftly assembled into a shadowy ad-hoc formation called the Committee of One Thousand, which plotted to break the strike by any means necessary. Their wives, meanwhile, were busy attempting to remedy the crisis caused by the absence of their domestic workers.
“‘Milady’ was touring the alien district in limousine and taxi,” read a local labor newspaper at the time, “begging, pleading, imploring and bribing the ‘female of the alien species’ to come to her aid and replace the female workers who were on strike.” The newspaper reported that the immigrant women “declined the tempting offers made them and they stuck tight as a postage stamp.” That is, they refused to cross the picket line to clean a rich woman’s home.
But a general strike was an exceptional occasion. At most other times and places in the modern history of North America, poor women have been plentiful and unorganized, and therefore easy to hire for domestic work. No matter how low the pay or how dangerous the conditions, there have nearly always been women willing to perform it, including now, during the coronavirus pandemic.
As a general rule, economic crises worsen conditions for household workers. During the Great Depression, New York City was home to the “Bronx Slave Market,” whole city blocks where impoverished black women would line up in hopes of being hired as domestic day laborers — often by middle-class white housewives who’d never been able to afford a maid before, now attracted by the astonishingly low prices black women’s hourly labor fetched due to their desperation.
Radical journalists Marvel Cooke and Ella Baker described the scene at the time:
Rain or shine, cold or hot, you will find them there — Negro women, old and young— sometimes bedraggled, sometimes neatly dressed — but with the invariable paper bundle [to sit on], waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours, or even for a day at the munificent rate of fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, or, if luck be with them, thirty cents an hour . . .
Under a rigid watch, she is permitted to scrub floors on her bended knees, to hang precariously from window sills, cleaning window after window, or to strain and sweat over steaming tubs of heavy blankets, spreads, and furniture covers.
Fortunate, indeed, is she who gets the full hourly rate promised. Often, her day’s slavery is rewarded with a single dollar bill or whatever her unscrupulous employer pleases to pay. More often, the clock is set back for an hour or more. Too often she is sent away without any pay at all.
The women in Edith Barksdale Sloan’s family were domestic workers. Sloan wrote in an article in Essence magazine in 1974 that the open-air domestic labor market of the 1930s “resembled a slave auction with the prospective buyers looking over the workers like so many head of cattle; looking for the strongest and sturdiest.”
Sloan’s aunt, a domestic worker who had frequented the Bronx Slave Market, looked forward her whole life to retiring at age sixty-five, when she would be eligible for benefits and her deceased husband’s social security. “She did retire at 65,” wrote Sloan, “and died the next year with every ounce of strength worked out of her.”
Rights Won and Withheld
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, organizations like the long-standing but (under Sloan’s leadership) newly politicized nonprofit National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE) and the more worker-focused Household Technicians of America (HTA) fought to incorporate domestic work into existing labor laws, from which it had been exempt ever since the passage of those laws as part of the New Deal.
In 1974, thanks to their efforts, along with advocacy by the broader labor movement, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was amended to include domestic workers. They were now entitled to minimum wage.
But while the 1974 amendment was a milestone, it wasn’t a panacea. Domestic workers remained and still remain excluded from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Many domestic workers are also exempt from antidiscrimination laws. Meanwhile, the structure of the industry itself has made it nearly impervious to unionization: How to bargain with so many individual employers, or to enforce standards in so many private households?
While there are organizations seeking to remedy the situation, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance — which has affiliate organizations, chapters, and members, and which advocates a raft of legal reforms packaged as a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights — many of the nation’s 2.2 million domestic workers remain unorganized and unprotected by law.
The Economic Policy Institute’s newly published domestic workers chartbook provides a comprehensive look at who those workers are. In 2019, roughly 350,000 of them were house cleaners. About 225,000 of them were nannies, while 275,000 provided childcare in their own homes, whether to their own children or others’. The majority of domestic workers are home health aides, over a million of whom work through agencies, while an additional 150,000 work independently. Of these, the most likely to have any workplace protections are home health aides contracted through an agency, and that’s far from a guarantee.
Over 90 percent of these workers are women, including over 95 percent of house cleaners, nannies, and childcare workers. They are roughly 40 percent white, 30 percent Latina, and 20 percent black, but this changes by job: whereas black women were once heavily employed in house cleaning, now house cleaners are over 60 percent Latina. More than 50 percent of house cleaners are immigrant noncitizens, adding an additional layer of legal exclusion.
Domestic workers earn, on average, about $16,000 a year, less than half of the median annual earnings of other workers. Overall, they’re three times as likely as other workers to be living in poverty. More than half of house cleaners report a family income twice below the official poverty line. Only 25 percent of home health aides receive employer-provided health insurance, while only 7 percent of house cleaners do.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, nearly three-quarters of US domestic workers have lost their jobs, meaning that one-quarter are unable to properly social distance and are therefore endangering their lives.
The country’s 1.6 million newly unemployed domestic workers are, due to labor law exclusions, ineligible for unemployment insurance. The National Domestic Workers Alliance reported that more than half of those it surveyed were unable to pay their rent. More than half were uncertain about whether they could afford groceries. Three-quarters were afraid of being evicted from their homes.
Massive domestic worker job loss is likely primarily due to the fact that their employers don’t want workers entering their homes out of fear of contagion. Another factor may be that some employers are belt-tightening on account of the economic shutdown. It may be temporary, but there’s no telling what kind of tragedies will unfold in the time between now and when employers resume hiring domestic workers.
Additionally, the protracted post-pandemic economic crisis promises to create more poor women, and therefore more prospective household laborers hirable for cheaper rates in more informal scenarios. As the number of women who lack other economic options grows, industry labor standards will sink. Women who did not previously perform domestic labor will seek to perform it, and women who performed it for higher pay under better conditions will perform it for lower pay under worse conditions. The unjust exclusion of millions of women from labor law will permit much of this to occur unobstructed.
That’s precisely what happened during the Great Depression, resulting in the so-called Bronx Slave Market. As Cooke and Baker wrote then:
In the boom days before the onslaught of the Depression in 1929, many of these women who are now forced to bargain for a day’s work on street corners, were employed in grand homes in the rich Eighties, or in wealthier homes in Long Island and Westchester, at more than adequate wages. Some are former marginal industrial workers, forced by the slack in industry to seek other means of sustenance. In many instances there had been no necessity for work at all. But whatever their standing prior to the Depression, none sought employment where they now seek it. They come to the Bronx, not because of what it promises, but largely in desperation.