Ai-jen Poo
1,876,769 views • 16:01

I want to talk to you tonight about the work that makes all other work possible, about the millions of women who go to work in our homes every single day, caring for children as nannies, caring for our loved ones with disabilities and our elders, as home care workers, maintaining sanity in our homes as cleaners. It's the work that makes all other work possible. And it's mostly done by women, more than 90 percent women, disproportionately women of color. And the work itself is associated with work that women have historically done, work that's been made incredibly invisible and taken for granted in our culture. But it's so fundamental to everything else in our world. It makes it possible for all of us to go out and do what we do in the world every single day, knowing that the most precious aspects of our lives are in good hands.

But we don't think about it that way. It's almost defined by its invisibility. You could go into any neighborhood and not know which homes are also workplaces. There's no sign. There's no list or registry. It's just invisible. And it's this work that is not even referred to as real work. It's referred to as "help." It's often seen as unskilled, not seen as professional. And race has played a profound role in how we value this work in our culture. Some of the first domestic workers in the United States were black women who were enslaved, and racial exclusion has shaped their conditions for generations. In the 1930s, when Congress was discussing the labor laws that would be a part of the New Deal, that would protect all workers, Southern members of Congress refused to support those labor laws if they included protections for domestic workers and farmworkers. That history of racial exclusion and our cultural devaluing of work that's associated with women now means that millions of women go to work every single day, work incredibly hard and still can't make ends meet. They earn poverty wages without a safety net, so that the women that we're counting on to take care of us and our families can't take care of their own, doing this work.

But my work over the last 20 years has been about changing precisely that. It's about making these jobs good jobs that you can take pride in and support your family on. At the National Domestic Workers Alliance, we've been working hard in states to pass new laws that will protect domestic workers from discrimination and sexual harassment, that will create days of rest, paid time off, even. So far, eight states have passed domestic workers bills of rights. Yes.


And during the Obama administration, we were successful in bringing two million home care workers under minimum wage and overtime protections for the first time since 1937.


Most recently, we've been really excited to launch a new portable benefits platform for domestic workers, called "Alia," which allows for domestic workers with multiple clients to give them access to benefits for the very first time.

So really important progress is being made. But I would argue tonight that one of the most important things that domestic workers can provide is actually what they can teach us about humanity itself and about what it will take to create a more humane world for our children. In the face of extreme immorality, domestic workers can be our moral compass. And it makes sense, because what they do is so fundamental to the very basics of human need and humanity. They are there when we are born into this world; they shape who we become in this world; and they are with us as we prepare to leave this world.

And their experiences with families are so varied. They have some relationships with the families that they work for that are incredibly positive and mutually supportive and last for years and years. And then the opposite also happens. And we've seen cases of sexual violence and assault, of extreme forms of abuse and exploitation. We've seen cases of human trafficking.

Domestic workers live in poor neighborhoods, and then they go to work in very wealthy ones. They cross cultures and generations and borders and boundaries, and their job, no matter what, is to show up and care — to nurture, to feed, to clothe, to bathe, to listen, to encourage, to ensure safety, to support dignity ... to care no matter what.

I want to tell you a story of a woman I met early on in this work. Her name is Lily. Lily and her family lived in Jamaica, and when she was 15 years old, she was approached by an American couple who were looking for a live-in nanny to come live with them in the United States and help them care for their children. They offered Lily's family that if she came to work as their nanny, she would be able to have access to a US education, and she would have a weekly salary sent home to help her family financially. They decided it was a good idea and decided to take the opportunity. Lily held up her end of the bargain and helped to raise three children. But all communication with her family was severed: no letters, no phone calls. She was never allowed to go to school, and she was never paid — for 15 years.

One day, she saw an article in a newspaper about another domestic worker with a really similar story to hers, another case that I was working on at the time, and she found a way to reach me. She also found a way to reach her brother, who was living in the United States at the time as well. Between the two of us, we were able to help her escape. And she had the help of one of the children. One of the children was old enough to realize that the way his nanny was being treated was wrong, and he gave her the money that he had been saving through his childhood to help her escape.

But here's the thing about this story. She was essentially enslaved for 15 years. Human trafficking and slavery is a criminal offense. And so her lawyers and I asked Lily, did she want to press criminal charges for what had happened to her. And after thinking about what it would mean, she said no, because she didn't want the children to be separated from their parents. Instead, we filed a civil lawsuit, and we eventually won the case, and her case became a rallying cry for domestic workers everywhere. She was reunited with her family and went on to have a family of her own.

But the thing that's so profound to me about this story is, despite having 15 years stolen from her life, it did not affect the care and compassion that she felt for the children. And I see this from domestic workers all the time. In the face of indignities and our failure to respect and value this work in our culture, they still show up, and they care. They're simply too proximate to our shared humanity. They know how your toddler likes to be held as they take their bottle before a nap. They know how your mother likes her tea, how to make her smile and tell stories despite her dementia. They are so proximate to our humanity. They know that at the end of the day, these are people who are part of families — someone's mother, someone's grandmother, someone's best friend and someone's baby; undeniably human, and therefore, not disposable.

Domestic workers know that any time a single person becomes disposable, it's a slippery slope. You see, the cultural devaluing of domestic work is a reflection of a hierarchy of human value that defines everything in our world, a hierarchy that values the lives and contributions of some groups of people over others, based on race, gender, class, immigration status — any number of categories. And that hierarchy of human value requires stories about those groups of people in order to sustain itself. So these stories have seeped deep into our culture about how some people are less intelligent, some people are less intuitive, weaker, by extension, less trustworthy, less valuable and ultimately, less human. And domestic workers know it's a slippery slope when we start to see a worker as less than a real worker, to a woman as less than a woman, to a mother as less than a mother, to a child as less than a child.

In the spring of 2018, the Trump administration announced a new policy at the US-Mexico border, a zero-tolerance policy, to forcibly separate all children from their parents, who were arriving at the border seeking asylum; children as young as 18 months, separated from their parents after a long and arduous journey to reach the US-Mexico border in search of safety and a new beginning. Thousands of children separated. And because they were migrants, they were treated as less than children.

In response, I helped to organize the Families Belong Together Vigil at the Ursula Border Patrol Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, on Father's Day. Inside that processing center, there were hundreds of children who were being held, processed and then prepared to be shipped all over country to be jailed in facilities hundreds of miles away from their parents. I saw with my own eyes children not [old] enough for kindergarten in unmarked buses, being shipped off to jails hundreds of miles away. And as they passed us by, they reached for us through the windows, as we stood vigil to let them know that they are not alone, and we are fighting for them.

Domestic workers came from all over Texas to be a part of the vigil. They saw in those families their own family stories. They had also come here in search of safety and a new beginning, a better life for their families, and they saw in the eyes of those children their own children. And through our tears, we looked at each other and we asked each other, "How did we get here, to putting children in cages and separating them from the people who love them the most in the world?" How? And what I thought to myself was: if domestic workers were in charge, this never would have happened. Our humanity would never have been so disposable that we would be treating children in this way.

The Dalai Lama once said that love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. In other words, they are fundamental to human existence.

Domestic workers are in charge of the fundamentals. They love and they care, and they show compassion no matter what. We live in a time of moral choices everywhere we turn: at the border, at the ballot box, in our workplaces, right in our homes, full of moral choices.

As you go about your day and you encounter these moral choices, think of Lily. Think like Lily. Think like a domestic worker who shows up and cares no matter what. Love and compassion, no matter what. Show up like a domestic worker, because our children are counting on us.

Thank you.