The Problem With Ignoring The Fight of Domestic Workers

Saudia Davis is scheduled to speak on the panel for an event called “Celebrating Business Leaders of Best For New York” at the Etsy office in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn. In addition to speaking on the panel, Davis is being honored for the work of her company, Greenhouse Eco Cleaning Company.

A campaign launched in March by the NY City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and B Corps, “Best For New York” is the business equivalent to USDA’s “organic” badge of honor on food. A press release by the NYEDC describes it as a tool to help businesses assess practices like diversity and inclusion, compensation, and benefits. After taking an assessment that compares the business to more than twenty thousand businesses, the company receives a rating. If the rating is high enough, the business receives the “Best For NYC” badge of honor. Davis’s Greenhouse Eco Cleaning Company is a cleaning service that uses all natural cleaning products. GHEC provides its cleaners with financial services, childcare, and generous vacation time.

A study conducted by The National Domestic Workers Alliance surveying nearly three thousand workers in seventeen cities found that 70% of workers make less than $13/hour and 67% of live-in cleaners earn a median income of $6.15/hour. Though they routinely work with hazardous cleaning materials, the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) does not protect them. 

If one were to think of a woman who makes strides for her own agency, who stands up for herself and defines her own work terms, it is not likely that the image of a house cleaner would come to mind. Despite the fact that the livelihood of cleaning homes is at best mildly unpleasant and at worst blatantly unfair, domestic workers –housecleaners in particular—have historically not taken this laying down.

Only three years after slavery was outlawed with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, black women in the Deep South took a powerful stance for their rights. In 1866, laundresses in Jackson, Mississippi started the first African American women’s labor union and went on strike to protest low wages. In 1934, Dora Jones founded the Domestic Workers Union in Harlem, among the first labor unions in America.

While Davis is an outlier in the way she treats her employees, the idea that a woman of color would actively work to improve the lives of domestic workers is not unprecedented. Boarding houses, mutual aid societies, and voting drives are among the many ways that African American women championed their rights post Emancipation and throughout The Great Migration.

The first domestic workers in America were former slaves who stayed on board with their former masters and mistresses after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. By 1870, 52% of African American women were employed as domestic workers. First hand accounts of this time report long hours, low pay, a lack of privacy and “forgotten” pay. A white housewife would even sometimes turn back the hands of the clock to keep from paying a domestic for all the hours she worked.

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“To work and make money.” That’s what Rosely Campos said without hesitation when I asked why she migrated from Brazil to the US. Campos is a house cleaner that migrated to the US in 1999. She stands in her kitchen in Newark, NJ with her back to me as she finishes preparing dinner for her family. I strain to hear. Her voice is quiet and her English is shaky. I am thankful that her daughter in law is there to translate, but I find myself wishing I spoke Portuguese beyond saying “Obrigada,” which invariably makes her laugh.

Shortly after her son picked us up at Penn Station in NJ, she told me that she cleaned five homes that day. When we arrive at her apartment, her daughter in law, granddaughter, and daughter in law’s cousin greet us. There are frequent bursts of laughter amid quickly spoken Portuguese.

Campos describes the world of domestic workers as a secret infrastructure that only insiders know about. 

“The Brazilian company [I used to work for] would carry many of us in an overcrowded van dropping us off to do work. They would charge the client by the hour, but only charge us for the day,” says Campos.

She describes getting into two accidents in these work vehicles, one in which she damaged two disks in her back. The company did not pay her for the day or for the medical bills. While she didn’t press charges, she chose to never work for them again. 

For the past two years, Campos has worked independently. To obtain clients she had to “buy” businesses from cleaners who were moving back to their home countries. A “business” can cost anywhere from $300 to $500. It is not uncommon for the cleaner who sold to come back and get her business back by returning and offering the client a lower price.

While cutting chicken to make Brazilian stroganoff, Campos spoke of two cleaners who got into a fight over a business that was “stolen.” She spoke about two experiences of homeowners who asked for extra work that required more time but did not want to pay for the extra labor. She hates when one client leaves a week’s worth of dishes, not understanding that if she spends time doing so many dishes she won’t have time for more important cleaning. She is careful not to complain, always brushing offenses aside as “a part of the job.”

Tera W. Hunter’s “To ‘Joy My Freedom,” an account of former slave women turned domestic workers in Reconstruction era Atlanta, GA, she relates the story of Eliza Jane Ellison, a domestic worker who was shot to death after asking if she would be paid for the extra clothes she washed that were beyond the bounds of her contract.

During The Great Migration, a period between 1910 and 1970 when six million African Americans left the south for other parts of the country, domestic work was the only option for most black women. Isabel Wilkerson’s sweeping cross genre on The Great Migration, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” describes it this way:

“Throughout the North and West, black women migrants were having the hardest time finding work of all the people pouring into the big cities, harder than Polish and Serbian immigrants to Chicago, harder than Italian and Jewish immigrants to NY, harder than Mexican and Chinese immigrants of either gender in California. They were literally at the bottom of the economic hierarchy in the urban North…”

She describes the “slave markets” in the Bronx and Brooklyn in NYC and Hyde Park or Pill Hill in Chicago, in which black women would gather on street corners beginning as early as 6am waiting for white housewives to ‘bid on them for as little as fifteen cents an hour.’

Wilkerson states that by 1940 twenty-five such markets were active in NYC alone. In the 1930s a domestic worker in the country’s wealthiest cities could make around $5 a week working full time.

After The Civil Rights Movement, African American women gradually discontinued seeking work as domestics. Dorothy Zimmerman, a 78 year old resident of central Bronx, moved to NYC from a small town in SC in 1960, one of the millions who left the south during this period. “All we wanted was to not clean house.” She and 3 of her sisters managed to attend New York’s city colleges and find work as secretaries and nurses.

Saudia Davis started Greenhouse Eco Cleaning Company partly in reaction to her grandmother’s death. Davis’s grandmother was a domestic worker who immigrated to the states from Jamaica in the 1990s. However, after decades of working with toxic cleaning materials, she was diagnosed with cancer and died.

Rosely Campos’ first months in the US were made considerably easier by the help of a friend.  “She was the one who taught me everything: how to take the bus, because as immigrants we can’t drive; how to go to the houses; how to clean; the products to use; where to go; how to behave. She taught me everything.” She relates, unfortunately, that her friend became ill from working long hours and returned to Brazil.

After fourteen years of working through agencies, Campos decided to strike out on her own as an independent cleaner. She bought three businesses from other cleaners to start.  Her daughter in law helped her respond to ads for housecleaners on Care.com, an avenue she was hesitant to take. She felt insecure about her ability to interact with clients online. She was also afraid of scams. After writing dozens of letters of introductions and enduring the false hope of interactions that never materialized, she found her first client. As an independent worker, Campos is able to set her own schedule. She prefers to have the same families weekly, each on a respective day of the week.

To ignore the historic agency of domestic workers in America is a dangerous oversight. Workers who do not know the legacy that precedes them are vulnerable to mistreatment, and are likely to be unaware of employers like Greenhouse Eco-Cleaners.

In 2007, a Long Island couple was charged in a case of modern day slavery for holding two Indonesian domestic workers captive for five years. The workers, Samirah and Enung, were regularly beaten, tortured, and were paid $100 a month, which they never saw.

Samirah and Enung’s case is undoubtedly extreme. Offenses run the gamut of being kept as a slave to a counter full of dirty dishes; long hours, unfair pay, and disagreements among co-workers fall somewhere in the middle. But remaining ignorant of the historic agency of domestic workers is the offense that hurts workers most.

The significance of a legacy of demanding fair work terms and championing the rights of other women can’t be overstated.  When I asked Saudia Davis why she agreed to my interview request, her tone was matter of fact: “Because if I can help, I will.”