Posted on January 31st, 2013 | Filed under Featured, Leadership, News, Social Issues, Topic of the Week
Tagged with Community Organizing, Domestic Work, Immigration, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, labor, Mishnah, Proverbs, Psalms, Women's rights
"Happy is the person who heeds me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at my doorposts." --Proverbs 8:34
Who are those that watch our gates?
Who are those that wait at our doorposts?
And where do they find happiness?
For most of my life, my parents have employed people to clean our house once a week. Raising four children, working full-time, and attending graduate school, my parents were able to do a lot, but found their lives immeasurably easier with a little help. Today, they have employed the same woman, a Moroccan immigrant, for almost twenty years. Every Tuesday, she shows up at my parents' house, cleans, and leaves. Meriem, a Moroccan, Muslim woman, has been in my family's life for a long time. My youngest brother went to the prom with her daughter. My older brother and his wife visited her and her family when they took a vacation to Morocco during Meriem's yearly trip home. She saw me cry after a fight with one of my brothers and she taught my mom how to cook with saffron. In many ways, she feels like part of the family.
And yet, no other member of the family gets paid to clean the living room, do the dishes, or scrub the toilet. While the intimacy may be similar in some ways to a family relationship, the power dynamics are different. She depends on my family (and her other employers she sees the rest of the week) for her weekly income. While I know my parents have committed to fair employment practices, the industry of domestic work is unregulated and often left to the whim of the employer. In a national survey of 2,086 domestic workers in seven major U.S. cities, researchers found that 23% of workers receive below the minimum wage and only 4% of workers receive insurance through their employers.1 Sick days, vacation days, over-time, weekends—all of these things that many of us (myself included) have often taken for granted when we work--are not guaranteed for these workers. It is dignified work that deserves respect.
Who are these workers? They are mostly female, overwhelmingly immigrants of color, and a significant number are undocumented immigrants.2
While organizations like Domestic Workers United (DWU) and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) have organized in New York State and passed the nation's first state bill of rights for domestic workers, it is still an uphill battle. This work has gone national with organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers' Association, who are following a model developed by DWU and JFREJ of organizing both workers and employers who share a mutual interest in supporting “the work that makes all other work possible.”3 When workers benefit, so do the elders, the disabled individuals, the homes, and children they care for. This national campaign is seeking to create standards, training, and pathways to citizenship for this invisible and unregulated industry.
From the perspective of employers, most people do not even see themselves as employers. We do not generally think of our homes as places of business. We are uncomfortable hiring and negotiating. We do not have guidelines. We are embarrassed that we even employ. It is in part because of the unusual kind of intimacy that emerges out of this industry that we find it hard to talk business at our kitchen table. We see something of this confusing relationship in Mishnah Brachot embedded in a discussion of when one is exempt from reciting the Sh'ma.
"And when [Rabban Gamliel's] servant Tavi died, he received words of comfort for him. His students said to him: Didn't you teach us, our teacher, that one does not receive words of comfort for servants? He said to them: My servant Tavi was not like other servants, he was kasher (fit)." --Mishnah Brachot 2:6
Rabban Gamliel contradicts his own teaching because of his deep relationship with Tavi, his servant. We know that according to his own teaching, one does not have an intimate relationship with someone who works for you, but intimacy defies legislation.
Domestic workers work with love and when fortunate, are met with love by those who employ them. We cannot depend on every employer having the heart of Rabban Gamliel. Even many well-intentioned employers do not provide the necessary benefits to their workers because we do not have enough guidelines. At the individual, state, and national levels, we need mandated benefits and protections for domestic workers that provide pathways to citizenship. Only then will those who watch our gates and wait at our doorposts find happiness.
“Open for me the gates of justice, I will enter them and give thanks to Yah.” --Psalm 118:19
1Data from “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work” http://www.domesticworkers.org/homeeconomics/
3This is part of the slogan used by Domestic Workers United.
Alex Weissman is a community organizer, performer, and rabbinical student. In addition to his rabbinical studies, he works as a hospice chaplain and a mentor to teenagers involved in multifaith dialogue. He has worked with Jewish and queer communities over the last ten years around issues of HIV/AIDS, domestic workers' rights, substance use, partner abuse, and queer youth homelessness. He believes deeply in sacred listening as a practice for healing, building relationships, and pursuing justice. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Alex has returned after ten years away to attend the Reconstrucionist Rabbinical College.