Ai-jen Poo has been organising domestic workers since 1996, just after she graduated from Columbia University. Her advocacy started with a personal experience: She first became aware of the challenges caregivers face when her grandfather suffered multiple strokes and had to be moved to a nursing home with horrible conditions.
After years of listening to domestic workers and organising around their needs, Poo founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) in 2007, on the idea that housecleaners, nannies, and health aides deserve good jobs with living wages, benefits, and legal protections. Some of the most undervalued people in our economy, and primarily immigrants and women of colour, these workers historically have had no protections — and now that many have lost their jobs due to coronavirus, they need a safety net more than ever.
The NDWA, with the help of over 70 local affiliates and chapters and over 200,000 members, has helped pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights — legislation designed to give basic labor protections — in several states. The organisation also recently launched the Coronavirus Care Fund to provide emergency assistance to domestic workers, and it's already raised nearly $4 million.
But Poo has also been fighting for more large-scale change, especially now, as the coronavirus is laying bare who has protections in our society and who does not. In addition to advocating for local, state, and federal policies that protect workers, Poo has been a leading voice in the movement for women's equal rights. In 2019, she co-founded Supermajority, a new home for women's activism, along with Cecile Richards and Alicia Garza. For many, Poo became a household name when she attended the 2018 Golden Globe Awards with Meryl Streep as part of the launch of #TimesUp.
Ahead, we spoke with Poo about the roots of her activism, the history behind the disenfranchisement of domestic workers, and what domestic workers need the most right now.
How did you get started as a labor activist?
"I went to college in New York City and I was volunteering in a domestic violence shelter specifically for Asian immigrant women who were trying to leave abusive relationships. I volunteered with the hotline, and a lot of the calls were about the abuse for sure, but a lot were also about the challenges of caregiving — being a single mum on your own, trying to make it all work, how difficult it is to both parent and work as a woman surviving a situation of violence. It struck me how many of those women were working very long hours and unable to pay the rent. I was like, how come we live in an economy where people are working so hard and they can't make ends meet — literally put food on the table for their babies?
"It made me think of why so many women are trapped where they are not compensated. How little the work that women do to take care of their own families is supported and how little the professionals that care for us are valued was so striking to me. It struck me also that this is work that has primarily been associated with women of colour and immigrant women. It's as though the rules have been designed to keep the workers vulnerable and undervalued."
How did these beginnings lead to the legislation you have helped pass, and to your current work?
"Listening to workers and finding out what they need has led to the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights — it took six years to pass the first one in 2010 in New York — which is built on the idea that these jobs are treated the same as other jobs. And then, Caring Across Generations (CAG) [one of our policy campaigns] is about how much more support families need: If a family cannot afford to pay for care, how are they going to take care of the people they love? If 70% of the workforce makes less than $50,000 a year, how are they going to pay a living wage to someone to care for their loved one?
"That's why CAG and NDWA have joined forces to push for a care economy that makes care affordable and accessible to every family and puts enough money in our caregiving system so these jobs can be living-wage jobs with benefits and real economic security. For me, thinking about the challenges of workers evolved to thinking about caregiving holistically. It didn't work for people like my grandfather, it doesn't work for anybody because we have never really valued caregiving in our society and through our policies."
What types of issues have domestic workers and caregivers faced during coronavirus?
"We have 70 local affiliates and chapter organisations that work at the grassroots level with domestic workers. We've sent resources to them like supplies, masks, groceries, and gloves; we've heard that some need money to pay for childcare because their clients are counting on them. On the family-caregiver side, with all of the virus outbreaks in nursing homes, a whole bunch of family caregivers have brought their loved ones home from the nursing home, at the same time that their children may be home from school and they are working from home.
"I think people are probably having massive breakdowns. I'm hearing stories about how crazy it is and seeing people on my Zoom calls with kids crawling around, and like, 'Hold on, I have to change my grandmother’s diaper.' We’re seeing how much we’re relying on fragile and broken systems, so if there's ever a moment to rethink our safety net and how we're supporting caregivers, that moment is now."
I think people are probably having massive breakdowns. I'm hearing stories about how crazy it is and seeing people on my Zoom calls with kids crawling around, and like, 'Hold on, I have to change my grandmother’s diaper.'
Why have domestic workers been historically undervalued? What are the roots of this issue?
"I think it's both historical and legal, and it's about how our society and policies have been organised according to hierarchies of power in which the lives and contributions of men have been valued over those of women, particularly women of colour. If you look at our economy, some of the first domestic workers in the U.S. were enslaved African women. This profession has always been associated with marginalised women, and that's not an accident. And our laws and policies have both created and reinforced this over time. Our cultural norms reflect that, too. If you think about care work as a profession, it's often not referred to as 'work,' it's called 'help.' But it's a job, it's a real profession, it's a form of work that is essential.
"In the 1930s, when our framework for labor laws was established through the New Deal, we had the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act as its two pillars. And they explicitly excluded domestic and farm workers. Those workers they excluded were mostly Black, and Southern workers refused to support them. That racial exclusion shaped the dynamics and the treatment of the workforce for generations.
"A lot has changed now that a lot of women are in the workforce. In fact, we're the majority. More opportunities have opened up for us in the economy as women. But we've never actually, fundamentally changed the value associated with women. A lot of, particularly white and middle class, women entered professions and emerged in leadership roles, partially enabled by generations of women of colour who took on domestic work in the home. But that work was still undervalued and still highly vulnerable, and we're still battling that legacy."
What, in your view, will be the long-term impacts of coronavirus — and the economic downturn — on domestic workers? What about the impact of some of the states allowing businesses to reopen before it's safe to do so?
"Two-thirds of all minimum wage workers are women, and among those we disproportionately have women of colour. Places like retail and care work and gig work, these were the places where we lost jobs the quickest, and there was the least amount of resilience because there's no safety net in these parts of the economy.
"This population was hit first and hardest, and I think they will suffer the longest. They will be the last to be rehired, but the first to go back to work when it's clear that it's not safe to do so. People will be desperate to get back to work sooner and be more vulnerable to taking on jobs that are more risky. If we’re not careful, people will go back to work before it's safe."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.