April 13, 2001

Role of domestic workers expands as wives, mothers enter global labor markets

`Bedrock of our culture and economy,' says Hondagneu-Sotelo;

without house cleaners, nannies, `L.A. would come to a screeching halt'

By Gilien Silsby

Look behind the doors of many suburban homes, and you're likely to find them _ Latina immigrants cooking meals, cleaning toilets, running errands and caring for children.

As American women enter the workforce in greater numbers, the traditional work of wives and mothers is gradually shifting to the global labor marketplace.

In a USC study released April 9 - further detailed in a forthcoming book by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo - the voices of Los Angeles' immigrant workers and the women who employ them are highlighted. Hondagneu-Sotelo is a professor of sociology in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Unlike the working poor who toil in factories and fields, Latina nannies and housekeepers see, touch and breathe the material and emotional world of their employers' homes.

The newest arrivals from Mexico and Central America often come to Los Angeles with little other opportunity. Without company benefits or controls, many work up to 70 hours a week and often are paid less than minimum wage. If they're lucky, they'll graduate to work as an hourly housekeeper, and a fortunate few will launch their own businesses, cleaning clients' homes on a weekly or semi-monthly basis.

"The work of house cleaners and nannies is a bedrock of our culture and economy," Hon-dagneu-Sotelo said. "Without them, L.A. would come to a screeching halt. Yet the work and the women who do it remain invisible and disregarded."

The topic of domestic work enjoyed a flurry of media attention with the transgressions of former Cabinet nominees Zoë Baird, Kimba Wood and most recently Linda Chavez _ President Bush's pick for labor secretary, who withdrew her nomination amid questions of whether she had employed an illegal Guatemalan immigrant. However, in these cases the attention was focused on the employers, not the women who perform the work, Hondagneu-Sotelo said.

Hondagneu-Sotelo's study includes in-depth interviews with 68 individuals, including domestic workers and employers from all parts of Los Angeles, as well as advocacy attorneys and domestic employment agency owners. She also conducted a broader survey of 153 domestic workers interviewed at bus stops, English as a Second Language evening classes and parks where nannies congregate.

She found that the relationship between worker and employer is complex and intense. In many cases, shame, guilt and awkwardness are felt on both sides.

"Americans are not comfortable with the idea of employing servants," Hondagneu-Sotelo said. "With no history of aristocracy, and given our history of master-servant relationships during slavery, some employers feel embarrassed, uncomfortable and even guilty for bringing workers into the house. Most Americans refuse to see it as employment."

As a result, workers are, at times, referred to as "my cleaning gal" or "baby-sitter" to make the employment arrangement appear more casual. Employers are equally reluctant to identify themselves as bosses.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, whose mother was a live-in nanny and housekeeper, now employs her own semimonthly house-cleaner. "I grew up hearing all kinds of stories about `la Senora Elsa' and 'la Mrs. Lowe.' Now I employ my own housecleaner. While I remain deeply ambivalent about the glaring inequalities exposed by this arrangement, I believe it's an occupation that merits recognition and basic improvements."

Here are some other findings of Hondagneu-Sotelo:

o Many domestic workers are ashamed of their jobs and well aware of the low status and stigma attached to paid domestic work. Few aspire to the job or want their daughters to follow in their footsteps, but they remain proud of what their wages enable them to provide for their families.

o Most domestic workers had no training in watching children and keeping house when they left their countries, where they were students or secretaries or factory workers. Many would prefer that employers give them explicit directions.

o Due to busy schedules or discomfort, some employers avoid forming personal bonds that workers often crave. Although some employers use personal relations as a mask for low salaries and long hours, most workers get little contact or interest from their bosses. They perceive this disregard through the prism of racism and anti-immigrant campaigns, which have beseiged California in recent years.

o Forty percent of domestic workers surveyed who are mothers report at least one of their children remains in their countries of origin. Job structure, wages and immigration policies force these women to be separated from their families while they care for other people's families.

o Live-in workers are keenly aware of how meals and food underline the boundaries between them and the families they work for. Sitting down for a meal symbolizes membership in a family, and Latina employees know they are not included. Although refrigerators in many homes are stocked with gourmet food, fresh fruit and designer water, workers are often instructed to eat only hot dogs with the children.

o In some households, live-ins work in the background while families go about their daily lives. Drug use, family fights, extramarital affairs and other indiscretions often take place in front of the worker. Because the domestic does not speak fluent English, the families may assume she is oblivious to what transpires around her.

o Many assume rich people pay higher wages, but in some of Los Angeles' most affluent areas, including Malibu, Pacific Palisades and Bel-Air, some live-in jobs pay less than those in middle-class suburbs.

o Live-in workers are the most in demand but these jobs are considered the least desirable and only those recent arrivals to America take them. In these positions, many report that they experience loneliness, lack of food, disrespect, dawn-to-midnight work schedules, six-day work-weeks and sexual harassment.

Hondagneu-Sotelo said an upgrading, rather than abolition, of the domestic services occupation is needed. In addition to better wages and working conditions, she suggests educating employers. The first step may be formalizing the employment arrangement: Sick days, paid vacation, medical benefits and Social Security benefits are key. Workers' requests include respect for their rights and dignity as human beings; adequate breaks and work schedules; an end to sexual harassment; better quality food; and recognition as professionals by society.

"Domestic workers deserve dignity, a living wage and respect," said Hondagneu-Sotelo. "The long-term interests of our society depend, in part, on the quality of cleaning and caring jobs."

Hondagneu-Sotelo's book, "Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence," will be published by the University of California Press in October.

Return to the Frontpage