Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Who Cares?

Empowering Asian Pacific Islander caregivers to find viable solutions for an overlooked, neglected work force.

Who Cares?
Illustration by Helen Chau
In the Excelsior neighborhood of San Francisco, a group of about 15 Filipino caregivers are seated in a bright yellow room at the Filipino Community Center, chatting animatedly in Tagalog.


This training is part of the Caregiver Research (CARE) Project, a grassroots effort that supports caregivers, who assist the elderly, adults with mental or physical disabilities and those suffering from other chronic conditions. The project aims to empower the caregivers to find viable solutions for a work force that is often ignored and highly unregulated, which leads to gross violations of these workers’ rights, safety and health.

The next item on the agenda is to share testimonials from their experiences as caregivers. At first, there is only the sound of weight being shifted in fold-up chairs. Tentatively and softly, one woman speaks up in Tagalog. “When I lived in the Philippines, we had maids, so I didn’t really know how to clean a bathroom, or how powerful bleach was. I hurt my hands. My bosses asked, ’Don’t you have to do this back at home?’ And the truth was, I didn’t. I thought America was supposed to be so good. But everything is so hard.”

People nod in agreement. One man speaks of the bodily injuries endured and the life-threatening skin disease he contracted from a patient. Another, Florentino Atangan, reports that even though he successfully sued his employer for wage theft — having worked 14- to 16-hour days, seven days a week, for several years without overtime pay — the employer still has not paid the $40,000 settlement. The group discusses rallying outside the employer’s building downtown. (The CARE Project prefers its members be anonymous in this article for the protection of their current employment, except for Atangan, whose case is public.)

Over a 4-month period, sociology professors Robyn Rodriguez and Valerie Francisco, who both have backgrounds in activism and organizing, will train the group to conduct research by interviewing other caregivers, in hopes of obtaining a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how caregivers are treated by their employers. They also hope to better understand their work conditions, hours and wages. The group will then identify common problems and issues to focus their search for solutions.

The project is a form of participatory action research, in which typically powerless groups do research for their own benefit, while serving a dual purpose of boosting personal confidence and building a sense of community in the process. “If we’re the ones experiencing this work, then we’re the experts, and we must know the best solutions,” one man in the group says. “We can’t wait for the grace of God, our employers or the professors to find them.”

The Help

The need for caregivers and domestic workers (which includes nannies and housekeepers) is on the rise, with one American turning 65 years old every eight seconds and the elderly population projected to reach 71 million in 2030. But these industries lack an infrastructure of rights and regulations, and attract many undocumented workers as a result.

Unlike other low-wage jobs, care work is excluded from federal labor laws and domestic protections. The Occupational Safety and Health Act does not cover unsafe or hazardous work conditions for domestic workers, and they are denied collective bargaining and labor rights. While some caregivers are hired by third-party staffing agencies to work in elder homes or centers, others work and sometimes live in private homes. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act that guarantees overtime pay and a minimum wage does not apply for domestic service and caregivers who work for private employers.

“The classifications of workers are understood differently at different levels,” Rodriguez says. “The workers industry is so broad, and laws do not define every type.” Caregivers who work in one-on-one situations in private homes are technically classified by the law as “companions” and remain unprotected by the law. “They’re not just sitting with them and playing cards,” Rodriguez says, objecting to the term “companion.” “In reality they are feeding, bathing and dressing them and giving them medicine. It is a real job.”

There are over 2 million domestic workers in the United States without legal protections, with the exception of New York, the only place where a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights exists. Care work can be very physically demanding, but businesses are not mandated to provide worker benefits or workers’ compensation. Just 21 states have policies guaranteeing a minimum wage for these workers, but it is widely unenforced. Caregivers are also unlikely to protest abuses, Rodriguez says, given the troubled economy or their immigrant status.

“It’s not even under-the-table payment because there’s no law against it,” CARE Project facilitator Mario de Mira says. “The way the system is set up encourages taking advantage of these workers.”

“There’s a deep lack of respect for this work force,” says Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), based in New York City. “It’s embedded in our culture. It’s associated with women, and women of color, all the way back to African American slave women.” Poo believes it is important to shed this severely outdated view of domestic work and care, and to “bring the work force into the 21st century. This work makes it possible for everyone else to go to work.”

Though many perceive domestic work and caregiving to consist mostly of Latina and black women, increasing numbers of Asian American and Pacific Islander women are entering this service sector. Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, the number of Asians and Asian Americans in care work is probably undercounted, according to the NDWA.

Workers come in large numbers from the Philippines (where many were trained as nurses but find limited opportunities here), Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tibet and other South Asian countries. More Chinese workers are also becoming caregivers, due in part to the widespread decline of the domestic garment industry that employed many of them previously. Many Filipinos in California shifted into caregiving after mass layoffs followed the federalization of airport screening jobs.

With movies like The Help bringing attention to domestic work, organizations like the NDWA and the Filipino Community Center are hoping to get the public thinking about how we treat “the help” today in order to increase awareness and heighten the value of domestic work and caregiving.

“We want to make this work visible,” Poo says. “Despite being one of the fastest-growing work forces, the work is undervalued, and it is one of the most vulnerable to poor conditions.”

The Never-Ending Workday

Caregivers and domestic workers face a wide variety of on-the-job abuses, ranging from daily indignities like verbal insults, intimidation and wage theft to extreme cases of domestic slavery, where workers are trafficked, have their mobility and freedoms restricted and passports confiscated. Other examples of more subtle abuses include talking down, late payments and working longer than eight-hour shifts with no breaks.

“There is a lack of respect and understanding that this is a ’real job,’ ” Poo says. “Often, the workers must choose between taking the abuses in a disrespectable job or not being able to support themselves and families.”

Especially for those who work in home-based settings, employers can often fail to delineate what is and is not work; the workday potentially never ends for live-in caregivers. “They may be asked to do work beyond care like housecleaning or home maintenance, which should be done by other kinds of workers,” Rodriguez says.

Sexual abuse is also an issue. Up to 90 percent of the domestic work force is female, according to Poo, and they are vulnerable to violence by aggressive and abusive bosses.

Work with Dignity

Advocates are currently fighting for the passage of a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in California, similar to the one in New York, which sets out basic standards including the right to a minimum wage and support for injuries on the job for domestic workers and in-home caregivers. The hope is to build a framework for federal legislation in home care and for 2 million new, regulated jobs to be created, “dignified and quality jobs people can support their families on, with a path to citizenship,” Poo says.

It is a multipronged approach — working toward both state and national policy change in hopes that each will influence the other. “The elderly, those with disabilities, no one is getting a fair deal,” Poo says. “We are trying to bring people together to create a country that cares and recognizes all work with dignity.” Poo’s work with the Caring Across Generations campaign is convening local dialogues across the country on these issues, bridging conversations between those in need of care and those who give it.

At a meeting of the CARE Project two months later, the caregiver group is generating potential interview questions by examining topics that came up in their own stories, and figuring out the most fluid order of questions to coax their subjects to share personal stories.

“This is so different from my PhD students,” Rodriguez says. “This is truly anchored in experience, so they know what questions to ask. And it’s peer research.” The meeting involves performing skits of common miscommunications between bosses and workers, and improvising resolutions. Already the workers carry more confidence and are eager to share their experiences. The hope is to develop a plan of action once the training is over, perhaps bring in a new cohort, and even start their own organization.

At the end of the meeting, a caregiver is surprised with a birthday cake from the group, and a karaoke machine is set up. With many of these caregivers isolated from their families back in the Philippines and living alone, the scene changes from training to family party. Filipino songs play through the speakers, and the caregivers, after working long hours, now have a space to sing.

Nicole Wong is a contributing editor for Hyphen. She last wrote about the Hollaback movement against street harassment.

What are the "push factors" for Filipinos to leave their homes to work abroad in unregulated industries such as caregiving and domestic work? Professor Robyn Rodriguez explains.

About The Author

Nicole Wong

Nicole Wong is a senior editor for Hyphen living in San Francisco. By day, she's a media engagement strategist at Active Voice, tackling social issues through the creative use of film.

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