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Race, Gender and Immigration

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"Carmen, a barely-five-foot-tall Indian, is not illiterate, but was paid $80 a week to clean the house of her employers, much less than what they had promised her when she agreed to leave India with them and go to the United States, to live, she thought, the American dream. What she got was the American nightmare."
-Aleksandra Todorova, Nanny Nightmares


Race, Gender, and Immigration
From the founding of the country until the mid-twentieth century, domestic work was the largest female occupation in the United States. The1870 census reported that 52 percent of employed women worked in "domestic and personal service," probably the normal level from the time of the Revolution until the end of the nineteenth century (when 1.5 million women listed the job). The proportion declined to 28 percent of employed women in 1920 and 18 percent in 1940, the last time the job led the list of women's occupations. After World War II, the percentage declined rapidly to 5.1 percent in 1970 and 2.5 percent in 1980. Women stopped being domestics because new jobs, especially clerical work, appeared. (Dudden)
Domestic work remained a low-status job and became increasingly identified with women of color, as African-American, Mexican-American, and American Indian women migrated from rural to urban centers and white women moved into other occupations. In 1920, 46 percent of African-American women workers were domestic workers; in 1930, 53 percent; and in 1940, 60 percent. (Even when industrial and clerical jobs opened up further during World War II, it was mostly white women who increasingly escaped domestic work, so that by 1944, black women made up over 60 percent of all domestic workers.) The percentage of Black women in domestic service increased in northern households, from 9 percent in 1910 to 19 percent in 1920. By 1930 Black women dominated the occupation in northern cities. (Katzman)
Racial discrimination against Mexicans and Mexican Americans throughout the West and Southwest, and Asians in California and the Pacific Northwest, forced people of color into similar positions because they had no other options. Domestic service continues to attract women with few other employment options; since the 1980s Latina immigrant women have constituted the largest category of women entering the occupation. The demand for household workers continues to increase in response to middle- and upper-class women working outside the home. Ironically their entry into the work force as a result of the second wave of feminism has been made possible by the exploitation of poor women of color. (Romero)

Legal Issues
Each year, thousands of domestic workers enter the United States. Most of these domestic workers—who are overwhelmingly female—come from underdeveloped countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Although all workers, both documented and undocumented, are protected by U.S. labor laws, it is not uncommon to hear reports of domestic workers being paid 50 cents or a dollar an hour or, in some cases, not at all. (Maid to Order)
In 2001, Human Rights Watch published a report on the abuse that domestic workers face in the U.S. In the cases Human Rights Watch reviewed, the average hourly wage was $2.14, and the average workday was fourteen hours. Most of the workers were not allowed to leave their employers' homes without permission, and most were only allowed to leave on their one day off per week. "Often these employers come from a powerful, elite class, and they are abusing the rights of some of the most powerless," said Carol Pier, researcher for the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "This is a serious human rights abuse in the United States, but it has remained largely hidden from public view. This has to stop." (Human Rights Watch)
The report, "Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers with Special Visas in the United States," criticizes the structure of the special visa programs that allow these workers to enter the U.S. No government department or agency monitors the migrant domestic worker visa programs. No laws establish specific employment conditions that must be provided these workers. Unless these workers publicly complain about employer abuse, they are ignored by the U.S. government. (Human Rights Watch) Typically, if the domestic worker complains about her work conditions, her employer threatens to send her home or call the police or INS. Ironically, because the domestic worker is in the U.S. on an employment-based visa, the moment she runs away from her employer, she is immediately considered “out of status,” ineligible for other employment and liable for deportation. (Maid to Order)

Domestic workers' legal powerlessness comes from their exclusion from New Deal laws, such as the Wagner Act (1935), the Social Security Act (1935), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1937). Domestic workers were denied protections for union organizing, retirement and unemployment insurance, and maximum hour and minimum wage regulation. They did not gain Social Security retirement coverage until 1951, and they came under Fair Labor Standards protection only in 1974. (Palmer)
Current legal issues arise despite the attempts to commercialize the occupation through agencies acting as intermediaries, domestic service operates increasingly in the underground economy, ignoring minimum-wage and social security legislation. In 1993 "Nannygate" represented the first national scandal over household labor. Zoe Baird was nominated by President Clinton for U.S. attorney general. She was forced to withdraw from consideration because of the controversy that emerged over the fact that she had hired an undocumented housekeeper and failed to pay the woman's social security tax or unemployment insurance. Since then, federal nominees are questioned about their employment of household workers. Nannygate involved two issues: 1) the hiring of an undocumented worker during a period when it was illegal for an employer to do so, and 2) the failure to pay social security and taxes. These issues remain in the political arena. The scandal served to expose routine practices of the middle classes who hire undocumented household workers at the lowest possible wage scale. (Maid to Order)

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