Maid In The Usa
Maid in the USA
Reporting from California, Doreen Mattingly paints a disturbing picture
of a society split over the rights of migrant women.
For the three years since she illegally migrated to the US, Lourdes has been cleaning houses in San Diego. She earns $40 a day for her work, far more than what she earned as a primary school teacher in Mexico. She pools her wages with the higher, but more sporadic, pay that her husband makes by painting houses. Some months she is able to add to the savings account she hopes will pay for college for her daughter. She says: ‘The advantage of cleaning is that no matter how bad times are, I have my job.’
Rachel, a physician, has been paying for housekeeping for as long as she can remember. Even with a weekly cleaner, meeting the needs of her two children, her husband, and her demanding career stretches her to the limit. She readily admits that without paid help, her household would be a complete disaster: ‘I think that women who work and then have to do 100 per cent of the cooking and cleaning and laundry and shopping, I think that’s terrible... Men don’t feel it at all. They don’t even think about it.’
In San Diego and other cities in the south-western US, the mostly off-the-books business of migrant domestic workers is booming. In a recent survey 14 per cent of San Diego households report employing someone to clean their house or to care for young children or elderly family members.
Most employ Mexican women. Some are undocumented, not legally able to work in the US. Others are ‘resident aliens’ who discover domestic work pays more money and offers more flexibility than other kinds of jobs they can get.
Despite its advantages, it is the ideal job for very few people – low status, long hours, physically gruelling, unreliable pay and without any employment benefits. Workers are constantly subject to the whims, and in some cases harassment, of their employers. As one domestic worker explains: ‘I wouldn’t like my daughter to be a domestic because I wouldn’t know how other people would be treating her. I want her to go to school and have a profession.’
Like many of the domestic workers I spoke with, Lourdes feels that Americans benefit from the cheap labour of migrant women: ‘Most Americans like it that we immigrants do housework. I have met Americans with this job and they demand their rights... In a certain sense our bosses exploit us, because they know that for very little money they can demand a lot because people need the job.’
While she is appreciative of how hard her housekeeper works, Rachel is critical of migrant women who use government services in the US: ‘Certainly the Mexicans that come over are doing work that probably no one else wants to do... But I remember as a medical intern we would have Mexicans come over to deliver their babies in the US. You know I feel a lot of personal empathy for them, but it’s something that our government can’t afford.’
Cheap domestic labour in San Diego is provided by workers who live either in or away from their employer’s homes. Live-in work is a common first job for young undocumented migrant women like Teresa. She came to the US in 1990 with $50 in her pocket, hoping to earn money to send back to her mother and younger siblings in Mexico. She took a job as a nanny and housekeeper. She explains: ‘For the people that don’t have papers, like me, it’s the only job that they can find that will accept them.’ Wages for live-in work tend to be low: the average weekly pay is $135 for an average of 45 hours of work – $3.00 per hour, far below the Californian minimum wage of $5.75.
Live-out housekeeping, or ‘job work’, tends to pay better and can be done by women with their own children. Most workers earn on average $40 to $50 for the five to six hours they spend cleaning each house – above the minimum hourly wage, but the annual incomes of even the busiest domestic workers are below $10,000 (the US poverty level for a family of four is about $15,000).
Mexican labour used to be even cheaper prior to the 1980s, because the US Government did not have to bear the cost of supporting workers’ families. Most Mexican migrants to the US were men from a handful of poor rural states in the south-west of the country, who spent time each year labouring in California. Educating children and caring for the sick and elderly still took place in Mexico and was the unpaid responsibility of women.
Some, like Lourdes, came to the US to follow husbands, brothers and fathers who migrated earlier. Her father came as a farm worker in 1965; she came to California to visit him, met her future husband and decided to stay. Others, especially young, single women like Teresa, have come because they are unable to find any work in Mexico or hope to earn higher wages abroad. Teresa was 15 when her stepfather died and she quit school to earn money to support her mother and younger brothers and sisters. She first worked in a maquiladora (export factory) in Tijuana, and then came across the border to San Diego looking for higher wages.
Some American women view employing a domestic worker as an issue of gender equality. Studies show that husbands of working women have increased their share of housework, but women still do more. Paying another woman to do housework is a convenient solution for men, since it does not challenge the idea this is a woman’s responsibility nor require that men do more around the house. Laurie, a 45-year-old woman who has been successful in the male-dominated field of architectural drafting, recounted how she decided to hire help: ‘Both of us worked full-time and I was still cleaning the house, by myself. I felt that since we’d had the gardeners doing the gardening work, which was my husband’s job, I could have someone in the house.’
If domestic service provides poor migrant women with jobs, and helps ease the workload of professional women, why do I worry that it has negative consequences for women? Because it divides working women on an issue that could potentially unite them – the care of their homes and children. Rather than demanding that men and the Government lighten the burden on working women, paid household work is a market solution that is available only to richer households. In San Diego the cost of migrant labour is low enough that professional women like Rachel and Laurie can ensure that their homes and families are cared for by hiring someone like Lourdes to clean the house, or someone like Teresa to mind the children. But what resources are available to help Lourdes and Teresa care for their homes and families?
Not only must working-class migrant women manage without paid help, they also face a political climate that is challenging their rights to government services for their families. This has supporters nationwide. But it is most evident in states like California, Florida, and Texas which have large migrant populations and therefore bear the economic costs of providing services.
In 1994 California captured national attention when it passed a voter referendum, Proposition 187, which would prohibit state and local governments from providing public education and emergency health care to illegal migrants. Two years later President Clinton’s welfare-reform bill cut many forms of aid to legal migrants. Both Proposition 187 and cuts in federal aid to legal immigrants have since been overturned following long legal battles.
In June 1998, California voters again expressed their concerns about government services aimed at migrant families. This time the issue was bilingual education; 62 per cent of Californian voters approved Proposition 227, which will effectively eliminate bilingual instruction in California public schools. Most women who employ housekeepers believe that migrant workers should be allowed into the US, since there is a demand for their services. Yet many also think that migrants should not have rights to social services.
Paid household work will continue growing in cities like San Diego, but it is a solution that does little to change the status quo. It diffuses feminist calls for men and the Government to increase their responsibilities for caring for homes, children, and the elderly. Instead, it boosts the demand for the labour of migrant women, who have no options except low-wage household work. Because wealthier women such as Rachel and Laurie directly benefit from the poverty of migrant women like Lourdes and Teresa, they are unlikely to join forces with their housekeepers and advocate more government support for migrant families. Rather, the employment of domestic workers further divides local women.
Many steps can and should be taken to improve this situation. As domestic workers gain experience, they can begin to unite to professionalize and upgrade their working conditions. Employers should offer their domestic workers the same benefits they enjoy themselves, including paid sick leave, vacations, and payment of social security taxes.
Increased expenditure on public transportation and childcare would improve the lives of all poor working women, including domestic workers. Most of all, working women in San Diego and elsewhere need to communicate with each other about their daily lives.
When domestic workers and their female employers begin to discuss their common challenges balancing home and work, they will be able to change the terms of the debate and together improve the lives of all working women.
Doreen Mattingly is an Assistant Professor of Geography and Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation.
Hear Our Voices, a resource directory of migrant women’s projects, is available from the Nationwide Women’s Program of the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC, Nationwide Women’s Program, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102.
Know Your Rights brochures are available in English and Spanish on domestic workers’ rights, pregnancy discrimination, sex discrimination, and race and gender discrimination. Equal Rights Advocates, 1663 Mission St, Suite 550, San Francisco, CA 94103. Tel: +1 415 621 0672.
The National Network for Migrant and Refugee Rights is a core information and organization centre for immigration issues.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.