The Power of Trabajadoras and the Subversion of Capital: Notes on a Domestic Workers’ Inquiry

Yolanda Lopez, “The Nanny”

When Gloria, a long-time domestic worker from El Salvador living in the San Francisco Bay Area, complained about the depression and night sweats she had been experiencing since quitting her job, it was for a peculiar reason.1 She had worked as a personal care attendant for an elderly couple in their private home for several years, until the elderly wife became so sick she had to be taken to a nursing home for intensive care, and Gloria was left only to care for the husband. She was contracted by one of their children, a daughter. Gloria loved her job because she had grown to love her patients and on most days, she joyfully spent most of her waking hours in this family’s home doing housework and attending to their needs. One day, she left her job and never went back after her longtime client, the husband in the relationship, tried to force himself on her sexually in exchange for her weekly pay. She shuddered as she recounted the way he placed the envelope on his lap. She felt as though this man had changed from one day to the next. She jetted out of the house without picking up the check she had rightfully earned. Still, it was not the particular instance of sexual harassment that had shaken her nerves, she confessed, but the loss of someone who she cared for, which had left her feeling bereft and confused.

This scenario, where care and love are weaponized towards violent and abusive ends, is not too different from the experiences of many other domestic and household workers, both paid and unpaid. Describing the ways that black women were relegated to “the most menial and underpaid” fields of work like domestic service, Communist and black feminist Claudia Jones used the term “super-exploited” to describe their depressed salaries, about half that of white women in the same trades.2 Subsequent Marxist feminists have sharpened our analysis of the super-exploitation of women’s work, noting that beyond above-average exploitation in the workplace, women workers often go uncompensated for a host of activities that are naturalized through a gendered sphere as women’s work or women’s instincts– as if the ability to nurture, love and care for clients and family members is not an attribute of the worker’s skill-set but rather an attribute of her female biology, and therefore free of charge.3 Quite a bit of scholarly literature has emerged in the last two decades about the conditions of women in hyper-exploited circuits of transnational labor, with some even going as far as to call transnational care and sex workers modern-day slaves.4 My findings, gathered through extensive interviews in a participant observation study of a Latina immigrant domestic workers center in the San Francisco Bay Area, suggested that Latina immigrant women do quite systematically find themselves among the ranks of the lowest-waged and least protected workers in the U.S. In their roles as mothers, wives, and citizens, too, many face a unique vulnerability. Paradoxically, against a backdrop of invisibility and indignity, however, I also observed that the workers themselves feel an immense sense of pride and dignity in their work and their stories. For example, throughout their literature, domestic workers assert that “women workers make all other work possible” and, through observing their organization, we can understand why this is true.

Immigrant women workers typically embark on the treacherous journeys across borders and endure exploitative conditions of labor, even though they are the last in their families and extended networks to enjoy any of the benefits in educational and economic opportunities that such migrations are imagined to afford. Many of them see their suffering as collateral damage, a sacrifice made for the greater good. Many women knowingly bear disrespect and abuse from employers and partners to give their children the opportunity to one day achieve the so-called American Dream. The specter of this dream has served to underpin a nightmarish reality.

But while these stories paint a picture of abused and vulnerable women workers, women like Gloria would probably push back against being labeled victims. In fact, even when women like Gloria are victimized, some will petition for asylum through a U-Visa, a path to residency designed to protect victims of violent crimes, citing that their negative experiences might become the opportunity for them to help them and their children lead better lives. The women are also increasingly organized in trade associations, fighting for better working conditions; all those I speak to in these interviews are members of a network of domestic workers’ centers in California. Lupe is one particularly militant member who happens to also be an active member of a communist party. One day at the center, she passionately recounted her participation in a rowdy Oakland highway blockade against police terrorism the previous night. While she was with the crowd on the highway, she had received a call from her two young adult children who tried beckoning her home by saying she was too old (and, presumably, too vulnerable) to be at the risky action. Raising her voice to match the tone of her phone call, she told the other members at the meeting that she said to them that not only was she not too old to be on the march, but Lupe scolded her children for being so young and not being at the demonstration. She told them they should be ashamed of themselves for witnessing injustice and doing nothing about it. She asked the other women who listened, many of whom were mothers and had expressed judgement towards the militant tactic, if they wouldn’t do the same if it was their children who had been murdered in cold blood by the police. While not all members are as militant or politicized as her, all members participate in some way or another to building the power of the grassroots base, which they call la base. They do this through actions like networking with other domestic workers such as nannies in the playgrounds around the city where they gather, coordinating workshops for skills trainings and political education requested by members, marching in solidarity with community campaigns, building a national campaign for domestic workers legislation and more.

The Super-Exploitation of Domestic Work

In 1942, the United States and Mexican governments signed a series of laws and diplomatic agreements that ushered in the Mexican Farm Labor agreement, better known as the Bracero Program. This agreement allowed millions of Mexican “braceros,” or manual laborers, to cross the border in order to work short-term contracts for American agribusiness. While the braceros were almost exclusively male, by the 1970s domestic and household work became practically synonymous with immigrant women, especially from Mexico, Central America, and various other places in Latin America. Outside of California and even in many parts of the state, domestic workers are immigrant women of many backgrounds, especially the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean. In her book Disposable Domestics, Grace Chen explains how the success of the Bracero Program led to the turn towards migrant labor in general, and feminized migrant labor in particular during the neoliberal period after the 1970’s.5 Immigrant laborers from Mexico became a valuable resource for U.S. capital precisely because it was cheaper to subsidize the cost of their social reproduction in a less expensive country. Their wages would only need to partially subsidize what in the industrial era of capitalism was called the “family wage”: the wages paid to the male head of household in a heterosexual family for the reproduction of the semi-proletarianized wife and children, whose labor was often unwaged. Immigrant workers would only work in the U.S. seasonally during the Bracero Program, spending part of the year in their home countries, and thus cost less to maintain. The cost of their schooling and upbringing would also be subsidized by the workers’ native country, since most migrants arrive as young adults.

Chen goes on to write that as the pattern shifted from seasonal migration towards more permanent settlement, neoliberal policies regulating the social reproduction of immigrants began to shape domestic policy. A nationwide disdain towards Mexican women in particular and immigrant women more generally emerged. They were accused of having “anchor babies” or said to be draining the welfare reserves, an attitude that was evident in Reagan’s 1986 IRCA Immigration Reform, which prevented immigrants from applying for naturalization if they were believed to become a “public charge.”6 In 1994, Prop 187 in California tried to bar immigrants from using public services.7 Subsequent policy proposals like HR4437 under the Bush Administration, which passed in the House but not the Senate in 2005, and the Arizona bill SB1070, executed under the Obama Administration in 2010, Chen argues, served to exploit immigrant women by capturing “their low-paid or unwaged labors as worker-machines without human needs or rights.”8

This trend is part of a much longer legacy in the United States of using super-exploited labor in the service of social reproduction: especially child and elder care and housekeeping but also coerced and unpaid sex work. In addition to the unpaid work of housewives, the work of social reproduction has historically depended on the labor of indentured servants, slaves, and poorly paid black and white women.9

On one occasion, one member brought in her woman friend, a woman who had arrived in the country no more than 24 hours earlier. Determined to find a job immediately as a domestic worker, she insisted on using every internet search tool possible to help her land a job, even though she had no documentation. This proved difficult considering that most public posts at least outwardly required a social security number which this woman did not yet possess. When asked about her experience and qualifications, she said she had some experience taking care of family members, but mainly she had been a school-teacher in Mexico, where she had a university degree. Like many migrants, she was overqualified when she reached the American job market.

In her 1987 book Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldua wrote about the situation of the archetypal “Mexican” migrant woman:

[The Mexican woman] can not call on country or state health or economic resources because she doesn’t know English and she fears deportation. American employers are quick to take advantage of her helplessness. She can’t go home. She’s sold her house, her furniture, borrowed from friends in order to pay the coyote who charges her four or five thousand dollars to smuggle her to Chicago. She may work as a live-in maid for white, Chicano or Latino households for as little as $15 a week. Or work in the garment industry, do hotel work.10

At the domestic worker center in the San Francisco Bay Area, women described a constant back and forth movement: across territory, between their home country and the U.S.; and between work, (poorly) paid and unpaid. Some women migrated to do unpaid housework, caring for the home and for children after their husbands had found work north of the border. Others came to do unpaid care work for relatives, or others in their broad kin networks. Still others came specifically to take over paid domestic worker jobs for friends, or because they had heard of opportunities to do so. In Border as Method, Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson describe the flexible nature of care work today. In the case of immigrant women domestic workers, a flexible concept of labor helps elucidate how it defies simple categorizations like manual and emotional labor, for example. They write,

Physical tasks such as cooking, cleaning and ironing are increasingly combined with services rendered for ill, disabled, elderly, and young people. These services continue to imply bodily exertion on the part of the worker. But at stake here are also affects, emotions, and concerns that come to define the kind of competence required for the worker.11

In the care industry, a skilled worker is one who can appear invisible even while they are constantly present and attentive. So, this mystification of their labor takes place at the level of the relationship between employee and employer, and at the level of the national imagination that penalizes immigration through xenophobic policies at the same time that it relies on the ready pool of domestic labor.

To understand the cause of these circumstances, we can look at what scholars of migration and international relations have called “push and pull” theory, which is used to describe a host of factors that push immigrants from their home countries and factors that pull them to receiving countries. This theory suggests that structural adjustment programs dictated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank create the conditions that push workers out of their home countries. Feeling the squeeze, many people opt to migrate to countries where there is a “pull” factor, such as readily available jobs and certain kinds of work visas. Pressing up against the limits of push and pull theory, Grace Chen suggests a higher degree of intentionality on the part of states, writing that “immigration doesn’t just happen in response to a set of factors but is carefully orchestrated – that is, desired, planned, compelled, managed, accelerated, slowed, and periodically stopped.”12 Mezzadra and Neilson are also critical of push and pull theory to the degree that it reifies national boundaries, arguing instead for a more robust analysis capable of capturing the ways in which borders work not only across national lines but encompass the complex “production of knowledge and the harnessing of labor.”13

Another feature of the labor of immigrant women is that immigrant domestic workers are tasked with stepping in to fill the gap created by what Nancy Fraser calls the contradiction of capital and care, or the unsustainable, systematic undermining of social reproduction.14 As Fraser points out, this transfer of care labor from privileged women to poorer migrant women displaces the gap in care rather than filling it, because those women must then seek out other women to take their place in their own families. Often, this means migrant women never get to raise their own children, because they are raising the children of other more affluent women.15 Arlie Hochschild recounts the story of 34-year old Vicki Diaz, who works as a housekeeper in Beverly Hills, and is the mother of five children who she left behind in the Philippines. Diaz heartbreakingly describes the ways she transfers the love she cannot give her children onto the 2 year old she cares for. Fraser’s robust definition of capitalist crisis, one that encompasses the interplay between the crisis of social reproduction and economic, ecological, political crises, helps us frame the current moment: “on the one hand, social reproduction is a condition of possibility for sustained capital accumulation; on the other, capitalism’s orientation to unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the very processes of social reproduction on which it relies.”16

Organizing Strategies

The super-exploitation of migrant workers – feminized immigrant care workers in particular – points toward elements of a radical political platform: open borders for people, wages for the labor of social reproduction, labor protections that include the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, and protections for workers in the agricultural industry. But just as importantly, the on-the-ground organizing strategies of migrant workers also point towards new ways of building power in opposition to neoliberal and nativist hegemony.

First, their organizing has influenced and been influenced by new forms of collectivity, in the workplace and what Patrick Cuninghame has described as “the terrain of social reproduction,” or struggles beyond the point of production.17 Since the work of social reproduction often takes the form of both formal waged work and informal unwaged work,18 domestic workers are uniquely situated with one foot in each world. Thus, organized networks of domestic workers, when mobilized, are capable of triggering a chain of events both in the firm, as workers, and “in the community,” as mothers, wives, etc.19 For example, when organizers in the domestic worker centers want to do outreach about the victories of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, they first target already existing networks of waged and unwaged workers. One evening, a member of the organization invited her relatives and neighbors to a know your rights workshop in her living room, called a cafecito because they served coffee and traditional Mexican pastries. Organizers gave an educational workshop about the labor rights of domestic workers, and roleplayed how one might go about asking their employer to respect their labor rights. Those attending included a woman who worked for the unionized In Home Health Care program, another woman who was interested in working for IHHC, unpaid domestic workers, and an immigrant man who had sustained an injury that had rendered him disabled and was interested in knowing more about the rights of domestic workers.

Domestic worker centers continue the work of traditional domestic workers’ unions, as Esther Cooper Jackson described in the 1940s. They provide education and skills training, professional development, and job placement; they standardize the parameters of domestic work; and they lobby around wages, conditions, and hours. Today’s struggle for the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights also finds striking parallels with the experience of domestic workers’ unionization some 70 years ago:

Today only one state, Washington, has a law which regulates hours of work in a household employment. This law was passed in 1937 and establishes a 60 hour work week for all employees in private households but permits longer working hours in emergencies. The original draft of the bill included a six-day week, double pay for overtime, and provisions of $50 fine for violation. In order to get the bill through legislature, its proponents were forced to drop these provisions. The results of the passage of the bill have not been what its proponents had hoped for: employers have been non-cooperative in many instances and employees are hesitant to report violations of the act for fear of losing their jobs.20

While women in these trades have succeeded in winning more protections and shorter working days, the enforcement of these provisions remains a problem. At the domestic worker centers in the Bay Area, organizers have held gatherings to educate employers of domestic workers – affluent women who are in the position to hire nannies and housekeepers – about the rights of their employees. In these meetings, attendees are asked questions like “if you were sick, wouldn’t you want your employer to pay you sick leave?” These questions are designed to provoke employers to think about their nannies and housekeepers as workers, deserving of labor protections. Organizers reported that many of the women in these workshops react with shock. They are not accustomed to thinking about the work of social reproduction as “real” work, and the super-exploitation of Latina immigrant women is normalized, even in “progressive” San Francisco.

This tension speaks to the ways in which domestic workers’ centers move between struggles at the point of production and also on the terrain of social reproduction. Much of their work consists of making visible the labor of social reproduction that capital obscures. Esther Cooper Jackson regarded this as a kind of “stigma” about domestic work:

Household employment generally is viewed as unskilled work and persons so engaged are looked down upon socially. This belief holds despite the fact that household tasks are varied and when they are done efficiently demand intelligence and a considerable variety of skills… the domestic worker may be given a room off the laundry, or even in the garage; she has no security of any kind, and is treated in such a way by members of the family that a social stigma is attached to her.21

The labor of social reproduction, even when it is waged, often appears as unskilled and socially unnecessary, even though this is not the case. Stigmatization often relies on stereotypes about a worker’s race, gender, and social status. Long-time domestic worker Esperanza described how in Mexico, when she had worked as a housekeeper in the homes of affluent employers, she resented being called a chacha, a stigmatized word used to deride women workers of lower class status. The American equivalent is the servile black “mammy,” the stereotype that undergirded the real exploitation and abuse of black women nannies.22

The sector of domestic work has faced unique barriers to organizations, which Cooper Jackson listed: “isolation, independence of each worker, the lack of strong bargaining power since each employer contends with each employee, the overcrowded labor market which makes competition keen, mobility of the worker associated with frequent changes in employment, the lack of class feeling and unity, and hence, the inability of workers to get together for meetings.”23 Yet despite its reputation as an “unorganizable” sector, many examples – in London, Scandinavia, Russia and the U.S. – illustrate that it is not only possible to organize domestic work but to elevate “the social standing of domestic workers [such that it] is equal to other workers” and free of stigma.24

The domestic worker centers thus incorporate the know-your-rights training cafecitos, professional development and skills training activities, and various other cultural programs as part of a larger strategy of eliminating the stigma and elevating the dignity of domestic work.

Beyond this struggle of destigmatization, however, the domestic worker centers also build up the power of the class within the terrain of social reproduction. The Apoyo (Support) groups of the domestic worker centers are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the domestic worker center, providing case management by peer leaders, developing workshops and groups, and generally building up the social fabric of the community of mujeres, Latina immigrant women. Staff-members were steadfast in their reminders to be kind to one another because “you never know what a woman has been through.” Here again, traditional customs like offering coffee and botanas, or snacks, to guests were used as a way to create a sense of belonging for members, and this was explicitly encouraged. Daily workshops for members took place twice a day: once in the morning for the stay-at-home women, and one in the evening for those that worked outside of their homes during the day. Workshop topics run the gamut from dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace and parental acceptance of queer children. Interspersed are support groups where the stories divulged are kept confidential. They liaise between emergency housing facilities and women, with and without children, who often do not speak English. And they escort women to court who would otherwise be taken advantage of or be unable to represent themselves adequately, not only because of language barriers but also because of the inaccessibility of legal jargon. Some women would be advised about what to stock in their refrigerators if child protective services was coming to visit – officials would be looking for American cereal, milk, cheese, and bread, not frijoles and tortillas.

A significant amount of energy in these centers also involves supporting women in manipulative or violent situations with current and former husbands, many of whom were manipulating or abusive. Many women whose husbands were the sole breadwinners reported experiencing various kinds of financial manipulation. Physical and sexual violence, too, were ongoing. Many women faced institutional as well as interpersonal violence when seeking divorces or in custody battles over children. In several extreme instances, the domestic worker center had to be put on alert to protect members from stalking by violent former lovers.

The Marxist-feminist tradition has maintained that the violent behaviors of men are not simply chauvinism or “oppression,” but additionally a key mechanism through which capital systematically maintains the division of labor. Gloria Anzaldua showed this connection in her writing about machismo in the Chicano community:

Today’s macho has doubts about his ability to feed and protect his family. His “machismo” is an adaptation to oppression and poverty and low self-esteem… The loss of a sense of dignity and respect in the macho breeds a false machismo which leads him to put down women and even to brutalize them.25

On the other hand, it has been shown that the brutalization of women and their compulsory labor breeds in many women workers the same kinds of psychological and physical illnesses described in the “macho” by Anzaldua: depression, anxiety, and hypertension to name a few. Capital maintains a frightened and sick workforce among the most hyper-exploitable workers.

The Coming Resistance

The struggles of domestic workers are not merely a sectoral struggle. As Silvia Federici has written, capitalism not only requires “an immense quantity of unpaid domestic activity for the reproduction of the workforce,” but also engages in “the devaluation of these reproductive activities with the aim of reducing the cost of the labor force” in general.26 This analysis makes it possible to see feminist movements against the gendered division of labor and for bodily autonomy as part of a broader struggle to undermine capital’s capacity for exploitation. Women’s resistance is central to struggles both at work and in neighborhoods. As Patrick Cuninghame recounts, this recognition in 1970s Italy opened up the possibility of a broad range of struggles on the terrain of social reproduction, including auto-reduction campaigns, rent strikes, student movements, and movements of the unemployed.27 The mantra of the domestic worker’s bill of rights, that “women workers make all other work possible” is a nod to those movements, gesturing to the sorts of paid and unpaid work of women that undergird capitalist society and whose refusal has the potential to shut down capitalism if the moment called for it. For some people like the organizers of the upcoming women’s strike, it is apparent that moment to resist and refuse is now.

The women who refuse have much to learn from the political subjectivities that have emerged out of the domestic workers’ movements and it will be crucial to connect these struggles against interpersonal violence, for an end to exploitation, against U.S. imperialism, and for a radical reorganization of society that will make the hopes and aspirations of immigrant women a reality. Organized domestic workers have been active in recent years including but not limited to participating in the 2006 Day Without an Immigrant strike, demonstrations against Donald Trump’s inauguration, local labor struggles, actions against police violence, and border struggles of various kinds. Mainstream as well as left media have given credence to the efforts of institutions like Catholic churches and Latinx radio stations in mobilizing large demonstrations (and they certainly have played a large role), but largely ignored the complex grassroots networks whose core is Latinx immigrant women. With a program that privileges grassroots women’s organization, the upcoming Women’s Strike is bringing these from the margins to the leading edge of the political resistance.

  1. Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees. 

  2. Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women,” Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, (The New Press, 1995), 110. 

  3. Endnotes, “The Logic of Gender,” Endnotes no 3, (2013). 

  4. For example, see Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, (Holt Paperbacks, 2002). 

  5. Grace Chen, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy (Haymarket, 2016). 

  6. Ibid, xiii. 

  7. Ibid, xvi. 

  8. Ibid. Chen calls the Bracero program one of the most important examples of “systematic, government-sanctioned exploitation of migrant laborers” and reminds us that the 1991 North American Free Trade Agreement was designed to manage the export of goods and people across the continent. 

  9. Esther Cooper Jackson, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism,” Viewpoint Magazine, (2015). 

  10. Gloria Anzaldua, “The Homeland, Aztlan,” Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 12-13. 

  11. Brett Neilson and Sandro Mezzadra, Border as a Method, Or, The Multiplication of Labor. (Duke University Press, 2013), 106. For a shorter primer on their work, see an interview conducted in the Workers’ Inquiry issue of Viewpoint

  12. Chen, Disposable Domestics, 3. 

  13. Neilson and Mezzadra, Border as a Method, 38. Their concept of border as a method is part of a longer tradition of Marxist thought about the relationship between difference and labor. For example, Maria Mies wrote that women were “the optimal force for capitalist accumulation on the world scale” because “their work, whether in commodity production or use value, is obscured, does not appear as ‘free wage labour,’ is defined as an ‘income generating activity’ and hence can be bought at a much cheaper price than male labour.” Likewise, Immanuel Wallerstein has written that “as racism is meant to keep people inside the work system, so sexism does the same.” 

  14. Nancy Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” New Left Review no. 100, July-August, (2016). 

  15. Arlie Hochschild, “The Nanny Chain,” The American Prospect, (2001). 

  16. Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care.” 

  17. Patrick Cuninghame, “Mapping the Terrain of Struggle: Autonomous Movements in 1970’s Italy,” Viewpoint Magazine, (2015). 

  18. See Endnotes’ “Logic of Gender” on the Marxist distinction between “directly market mediated” and “indirectly market mediated” work of social reproduction. 

  19. See Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community.” 

  20. Cooper Jackson, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism (1940).” 

  21. Ibid. 

  22. Unknown, “We Are Literally Slaves: An Early Twentieth-Century Black Nanny Sets the Record Straight,” (Independent, 25 Jan 1912), 196–200. 

  23. Cooper Jackson, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism (1940)”. 

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Anzaldua, Borderlands, 38. 

  26. Cuninghame, “Mapping the Terrain of Struggle”. 

  27. Ibid. 

Author of the article

was born and raised in East Los Angeles/Boyle Heights but currently resides in Brooklyn, where she teaches and organizes. She has been a community activist in various capacities since the age of 13 when she was a student leader in the "Day Without a Mexican" General Strike.