The Forgotten Population: Domestic Workers in Our Homes


Ever stop to ask the salary of the woman washing dishes on Shabbat in your neighbor’s home, or the gentleman mowing your friend’s lawn about his vacation, or the nanny raising the children down the block whether she had time to sit down for lunch today? If you did, you most likely discovered an unpleasant situation of inadequate pay, few or no breaks, no paid sick or vacation days and perhaps even bullying or verbal abuse. But how can it be? Those employers (neighbors) seem so nice, and their domestic workers always seem to be smiling and content.

In her 2004 article in The Atlantic, "How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement," Caitlin Flanagan poignantly explained the dynamic between a mother and a nanny: "Standing bravely in the crossfire are nannies, who tend to be the first choice of professional-class mothers who work… and the guilty luxury of a good number of at-home mothers. And, as many of us have learned, the mother-nanny relationship has the potential for being the most morally, legally, and emotionally charged one that a middle-class woman will ever have."

Domestic workers include housekeepers, nannies, care providers for the elderly, and others who are hired to maintain their employers’ homes and family needs. The nature of the job and the market stands in the way of organizing, and for too long, these workers have gone without the basic legal rights afforded those in other industries by the Wagner Act of 1935, such as decent wages, a safe and healthy workplace, and workers’ compensation. Since this unique work is done in backyards and kitchens, out of the public eye, those who carry it out remain among the most isolated and vulnerable workforce in our society, and they must be protected from abuse and mistreatment.

One common problem in the Jewish community is delayed payment. On this issue, the Ramban explains, "the Torah states, ‘Do not have your worker’s wages remain with you overnight till morning’ – the intent is that you should pay him that day. For if you do not pay him immediately when he leaves work, he will starve and die that night." The Ramban’s concern for the life of the worker and his or her family is very alive today, as most domestic workers live in poverty at serious risk. We know from a 2007 report, "Behind Closed Doors," that most domestic workers earn wages – averaging an annual income of $22,000 to $24,000 – that trap them in a life of poverty, unable to afford basic living necessities and certainly unable to support a family. Only five percent receive health insurance coverage. Additionally, the wage theft results in 31 percent more work than necessary. Four out of five don’t receive even 10-minute breaks, and 78 percent don’t receive basic meal breaks. It gets worse: One in four reports feeling insulted or threatened at work, and 10 percent experience acts of violence and/or sexual harassment on the job. This is not only a worker’s rights issue, but also an immigrant and gender issue – 94 percent of these workers are women, and 99 percent are foreign-born. Having a good personal relationship with a home worker and giving a holiday gift do not justify poor work conditions.

Last year, New York was the first state to pass a Domestic Bill of Rights; last week, the California Assembly approved the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which would expand set industry-wide labor protection standards for household workers and improve the quality of care for children, families and seniors, and it is headed to the State Senate for approval. We must express our Jewish values to the California Senate and follow the momentum generated by these efforts to promote similar legislation elsewhere, and to go further, enacting industry-specific protections for domestic workers (e.g., regarding the use of kitchen facilities to cook their own food and standards for sleep).

How can we give the keys to our homes – and entrust the welfare of our aging parents and young children! – to our domestic workers, and yet not respect them enough to secure their basic rights and dignity? Our homes serve as a pillar of our Jewish lives. They are what we welcome guests into for festive meals and hold witness to our holy conduct with children and loved ones. Herein lies a tremendous opportunity to engage in one of the defining problems of our time.

The Jewish community can help turn the tide and become public exemplars as just employers in the workplace and in the home. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is a good start, but in order to prove effective, its mandate must be carried out. Freedom is not won in mere letters on a piece of paper, but in fulfillment of the meaning of those letters. Our obligation to fiscally and emotionally sustain the individuals we hire to help run our households extends beyond law and into the realm of moral imperative. Learning to honor human dignity must start in each of our homes. There need to be Jewish community wide meetings discussing the work standards we must all commit to for the employees in our homes that aren’t secured.

The British Commonwealth’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his Haggadah, "Collective freedom – a society that honors the equal dignity of all – depends on constant vigilance… if we forget where we came from, the battles our ancestors fought and the long journey they had to take, then in the end we lose it (freedom) again"

This summer, let us use our loving embrace of our tradition and narrative as a springboard into the issues of domestic workers’ rights. Let us welcome freedom into our homes by looking domestic workers in the eyes and expressing our gratitude. Let us exemplify the proper treatment of domestic workers for our children. Consider acting on the courage to see the reality of most domestic workers situations. Consider utilizing the ability to see the possibility for change for the most poor right here in our homes. And let us collectively enact a vision that moves the reality of domestic workers to the possibility of better treatment.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. To read more Street Torah, click here.