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Domestic Workers : The Other Invisible Food Worker

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 21 million people worldwide who are forced into labor of some sort, many of whom are also victims of human trafficking. In the United States, the majority of trafficked labor is composed of domestic workers. [1] A report recently published by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), Beyond Survival : Organizing to End Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers, sheds light on some of this sordid and largely invisible problem. The report also gives recommendations to various state agencies as to how to better respond to victims of human trafficking. With this report, NDWA seeks to give trafficking survivors a voice, encourage community organizing, and connect the issues of workers’ rights and human trafficking.

Domestic workers are generally responsible for tasks that contribute to the reproduction of the household : cleaning ; caring for children and elders ; and procuring and preparing food for the family. Despite their central role in the food system and the economy as a whole, however, they are rarely included in discussions of food workers. Yet they also experience high levels of vulnerability and food insecurity ; according to a 2012 survey conducted by NDWA, 20 percent of workers had no food to eat in their own homes at some time in the previous month. [2]

Domestic workers, a large majority of whom are women, often arrive in the United States or other foreign country often under false pretenses—lured by the promise of a different job, decent pay, benefits, or a chance at an education—and then experience harsh working environments including wage theft, restriction of movement, little to no time off, isolation, starvation, and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. These abuses seem to be more extreme, or common, in cases of trafficked domestic labor, but non-trafficked domestic workers are often subject to exploitation or abuse. Domestic workers face many of the same challenges as agricultural workers – they are marginalized and isolated members of society whose vulnerabilities are preyed upon and exploited. Like agricultural workers, domestic workers are often overlooked by the public—their workplace in private homes arguable renders them even more invisible than farmworkers in the fields. And their isolation that much more extreme. Domestic often workers work alone, leaving them only with the company of their employer. Workplace paternalism (or maternalism) is enhanced in domestic work, especially when the worker lives in the home of the employer. Legal status also plays a role in the vulnerability of the worker—work visas tied to a specific employer gives the employer a method of controlling their employee, and lack of any papers keeps employees from speaking up or seeking work elsewhere. Regardless of legal standing, the law is generally not on the side of domestic workers. Domestic workers are often excluded from labor laws—the same labor laws that exclude agricultural workers.

In the US, these labor laws are entrenched in historic structural racism. When the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Act were created in the 1930s most agricultural and domestic work was done by African Americans. These were two sectors that were excluded from the acts. Later, legislation to bar discrimination against employees applied only to those who employed a certain number of employees, implicitly excluding many domestic workers again. The creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which includes agricultural work, excludes domestic work. [3] Institutionalized racism has bolstered the undervaluing of agricultural and domestic work. The lack of legislation only reinforces the more personal factors that make domestic workers exploitable – a majority of domestic workers are of ethnic or racial minority and/or are migrant workers. Moreover, an overwhelming percentage (approximately 95 percent) of domestic workers are women—one in every thirteen female wage earners worldwide is a domestic worker. [4] The workers are mostly women, and the work itself is highly gendered as “woman’s work.” The labor of taking care of home and family is done in the reproductive sphere—the private sphere—and does not have a value placed on it because there is no visible product. Similarly to agricultural work, domestic work is classified as “unskilled” labor, contributing to its undervaluation.

According to the Beyond Survival report, vulnerabilities related to legal standing are often the biggest hurdle to responding to conditions of workplace exploitation. [5] Those vulnerabilities are not specific to trafficked domestic workers—they are similar for migrant workers across various sectors. Victims of abuse are often afraid to report crimes due to the collusion between immigration enforcement and local law enforcement. Among its many recommendations Beyond Survival suggests that the partnerships between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement must end, not only so that victims can feel comfortable reporting abuse, but also so that the abusers will be held accountable. [6] Providing a safe space for victims will can stop abuses when they are happening, but also prevent the factors that lead to exploitation. “Extreme exploitation is a structural problem, not a problem of human nature,” the report notes. [7]

Marginalized groups and their allies can begin to bridge an inequality gap that is made up of more than income by organizing together and increasing bargaining power. “History, and our own experience, teaches us that those who hold power do not give it up easily. Once we understand that, we also come to understand that the struggle for human rights, equality and justice is not a one-off battle. It is, rather, a slow chipping away at structures, attitudes and behaviors that have defined the human condition and human relationships, for a very long time.” [8]

Several campaigns spearheaded by NDWA at the state, national and international levels have been successful in gaining the recognition of domestic work as work and to ensure that those workers have access to their basic rights. Recent advances in the fight for farmworker justice—such as the efforts of Families United for Justice (Familias Unidas por la Justicia, FUJ) along with Community to Community in Washington State—also show that it is possible to chip away at unjust structures. Working together, we can raise the voices of “invisible” workers in our food system and shift the power.


[1Tiffany Williams, Beyond Survival : Organizing to End Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers, New York, NY : National Domestic Workers Alliance, 2015, http://www.domesticworkers.org/sites/default/files/beyond_survival_campaign_report_full-_final.pdf?sid=4782.

[2Linda Burnham and Nik Theodore, “Home Economics : The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work” New York, NY : National Domestic Workers Alliance, 2012. Accessed July 13, 2015. http://www.domesticworkers.org/sites/default/files/HomeEconomicsEnglish.pdf.

[3Maggie Caldwell, “Invisible Women : The Real History of Domestic Workers in America,” February 7, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/timeline-domestic-workers-invisible-history-america.

[4“The Global Domestic Workforce Is Enormous—and Very Vulnerable,” The Nation, accessed February 18, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/blog/172099/global-domestic-workforce-enormous-and-very-vulnerable.

[5Williams, Beyond Survival : Organizing to End Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers, Op Cit.

[6Williams, Beyond Survival : Organizing to End Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers, Op Cit.

[7Williams, Beyond Survival : Organizing to End Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers, Op Cit.

[8Anne Gallagher, “Human Trafficking : From Outrage to Action,” openDemocracy, October 9, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/anne-gallagher/human-trafficking-from-outrage-to-action

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.