Like probably many of you, I recently watched the Netflix limited series “Maid,” which tells the story of a Washington woman who becomes a house cleaner after escaping domestic abuse.
The show put a bright spotlight on the corners of our society we don’t center often enough and the women who labor in poverty-wage jobs without recognition or reward.
I was so glad to see this story told, and so grateful to see the labyrinthine and inaccessible maze of wholly inadequate safety-net programs and their mystifying acronyms shown with such unflinching honesty.
The Catch-22 of the main character, Alex, trying to qualify for housing assistance without a job but not being able to secure a job because she had no income to pay for child care while she worked, reflected a familiar trap so many women face. A trap that too often sends women back to their abusers and many into homelessness.
But it made me wonder if there would ever be a time when the immigrant women, Black women and women of color who make up a majority of domestic workers in the U.S. would ever see a series made about them? Or would that not be seen as “relatable” to the Netflix execs who greenlit this show?
Land herself wrestled with the question and is trying to use her platform to draw attention to these broader issues. In an interview with Vox, she said, “We don’t listen to people of color. We especially don’t listen to people who are in systemic poverty or systemic racism, which go hand in hand. And we especially don’t listen to people who are still in that situation and who are angry.”
As an article in Ms. Magazine pointed out, you can’t separate race and domestic work: “The history of domestic workers in the United States begins with slavery and the forced reproductive labor of Black women. Later, immigrants — the majority of whom were AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] and Latina women — joined the ranks of domestic workers, where abuse was normalized, as well as the devaluation of labor and oppression of the workforce.”
Silvia González is a domestic worker doing house cleaning and the co-chair of Seattle’s Domestic Workers Standards Board. She is also a staff member at Seattle nonprofit Casa Latina and served for four years on the board of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Through a Spanish interpreter last week, she said when she saw “Maid” for the first time, she cried. She said she and other domestic workers she works with related to the experiences she saw on screen — and the Northwest setting as well.
“That series made for us a connection between how we are abused by our partners and how the society we live in still wants to repress and abuse us,” González said. She said for domestic workers, lack of paid time off, health care and sick leave pose not just financial hardships but create health and safety risks as well.
“I remember a time I was working at a house a while back,” González said. “I fell in one of the bathrooms. My leg slipped and I tried to hold myself with my hand, but as a result my hand bent backwards, hurting it badly. I was alone in the house and the first thing that came to my head was fear. Should I tell the owner of the house that I fell? Would she believe me? Would she tell me never to come back? Would she pay me? So many things came to my head, I completely forgot about my pain for the rest of the day.”
In 2018, Seattle was the first city in the country to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and establish minimum pay and break requirements for domestic workers. But despite that huge step forward for one of the most vulnerable sectors of workers, much more work remains to be done.
In a 2018 survey from the Seattle Domestic Workers Alliance, 96% of workers were low income and 81% very low income. In a follow-up survey in early 2021, 46% said they struggle to pay rent or bills and 58% reported not receiving any type of paid leave.
Struggling to pay bills is not surprising given that Seattle has the sixth highest cost of living in the country and infant child care in Washington clocks in at a whopping $1,213 a month according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In order for Seattle’s domestic worker protections to be effective, workers and employers need to know the rules exist and how they apply to them. The Domestic Workers Standards board outlined a series of recommendations in April it believes will help fill some of the gaps.
And as Democrats in Congress look to get President Biden’s Build Back Better plan through the Senate, keeping child care in the final agreement should be a nonnegotiable. We need to put an end to the notion that child care just happens magically, a myth that is taking millions of women out of the workforce.
If we are to be more honest about who is doing our invisible labor, cultural touchstones like “Maid” can spark a higher level of understanding.
“I would like for people to know that domestic work is dignified work, that it deserves respect like any other job, like a dentist or any other work. Usually people just think of us like ‘the one who cleans our house’ or ‘the one who takes care of my children.’ No. Our work is important and dignified,” González said.
“We [women domestic workers] need to keep raising our voices,” she said, “to keep fighting to come out of the shadows and have labor rights, to have people take care of our own children, the way we take care of other people’s children.”