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Low Benefits, Temporary Jobs -- Work Is Getting Worse ... But Hope for Labor Rights Is Emerging from a Surprising Place

A special Labor Day interview with domestic workers organizer Ai-Jen Poo, one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people of 2012.

Over the last 30 years, Americans have seen the very nature of work change. Working people used to expect to have a stable job with health benefits and a retirement plan, a job they'd keep for most of their lives. Now, though, workers bounce from job to job, employers have slowly clawed back most of the benefits they used to enjoy, manufacturing mostly happens overseas, and more and more jobs are low-wage service positions, without benefits and with high turnover – jobs in which the worker has little protection from an abusive boss.

A lot of Americans are coming face to face this Labor Day with the kinds of conditions domestic workers have always faced. Domestic workers -- usually women, often women of color, many of them immigrants -- have always had to deal with volatile conditions, unstable pay and almost no legal protections. Yet even in recent years, as the rest of organized labor has declined, domestic workers have managed to win some key victories, overcoming barriers to organizing and winning a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York state—and one signature away from getting one in California as well. 

Ai-Jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was chosen one of Time's 100 most influential people of 2012 for her work organizing domestic workers around the country. She sat down with AlterNet to discuss the changing 21st-century workplace, the campaign for paid sick days for workers, the ways women are leading some of the most exciting labor organizing out there, and NDWA's Caring Across Generations campaign to create good jobs while making our economy a more caring place.

Sarah Jaffe: How do you define "domestic workers" and the work they do?

Ai-Jen Poo: We call domestic work the work that makes all other work possible. It’s the work that goes into caring for homes and families across generations, and it’s traditionally been done by women. As a paid form of work, it’s often by done by immigrant women or women of color. Society has devalued that work over time, and we think that that has a lot to do with who’s done the work. The categories of workers are nannies, housekeepers, babysitters, cooks, cleaners, caregivers for the elderly. It’s really anybody who either takes care of or supports somebody else in their lives through work that’s done in the home.

SJ: You make the point that this work is devalued because of who does it. Immigrant women wind up responsible for other people's families, which creates what  Arlie Russell Hochschild called a "care drain." Can you speak to that a little bit?

AJP: The work that goes into caring for families and homes is necessary work. There’s no way around it. So it has to get done, and historically, it was women within a particular household who were responsible for that work. As the world of work has shifted and more and more women have entered the public workforce, that work still has to get done, and it’s still done predominantly by women. But now, a larger and larger share of that work is done by paid workers who are doing it for both their own families and homes and for the homes of the employers they work for.

And on top of that, women have to figure out how to survive and assert their rights and dignity. And sometimes, they get involved in organizations, which means that they're actually doing like three jobs.

It’s a lot to have to take care of your own family and home and somebody else’s family and home to have none of that work adequately accounted for or valued in society.

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