The Fight for Domestic Workers Rights Is Actually About the Future of Work

The Fight for Domestic Workers Rights Is Actually About the Future of Work

This week, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Pramila Jayapal are planning to introduce the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act. If it passes into law, the bill could codify the workplace protections and standards that women of color in the industry have spent years organizing around; Harris’s camp says the bill’s impact would reach 2.5 million domestic workers, including nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers.

Domestic workers have historically been excluded from federal labor laws—although that is changing in some states and cities, like Philadelphia, where lawmakers are fighting to secure benefits like minimum wage and paid time off for domestic workers. Still, a national bill of rights would be an unprecedented win for domestic workers and their families. It would extend basic labor protections to domestic workers and send a message that the people who engage in this kind of labor deserving equal rights and dignity. That’s a powerful argument that could extend equally to freelance, temp, contract, and other workers in industries that are currently considered outside the bounds of traditional labor laws—which is important, because that’s increasingly what work in this country looks like.

As Ai-jen Poo, the head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, explains in an op-ed for the New York Times, “No one understands the future of work better than domestic workers. As the gig economy has grown over the last 30 years, more and more professions look like theirs.” It’s true; a study from researched as Harvard and Princeton University shows that almost 16 percent of U.S. workers in 2015 took part in “alternative work arrangements,” like temp jobs or work that classifies them as independent contractors or freelancers.

This shift is not new, and it’s bigger than the gig economy; companies like Uber and TaskRabbit “actually make up a small share of the contingent workforce,” Politico reported in 2018. Increasingly, a lot of jobs in the U.S. will be subject to conditions that domestic workers have long been familiar with: irregular hours, low pay, lack of benefits, and no protections from effectively being fired without very much notice at all. This is not going away, but rather becoming the norm, per NBC News:

After millions of full-time positions were shed when the Great Recession began a decade ago, the U.S. economy is rebounding, in part, on the backs of temp workers who have helped to fill in the gaps.
And it’s at a rate suggesting they are not only increasing — but are increasingly permanent.

So to see the fight for domestic workers’ rights reach Congress should be inspiring to workers across the country, who may be seeing their own industries tightening. As Politico writes, “The scale of the change, for many economists, clearly suggests that it’s time for Congress to rethink the social contract around work, updating it for the new relationship between employers and workers in the 21st century.” This bill is a good first step towards that.

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