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Sexual Assault and Precarious Work: An Epidemic


Your read of the day should be this Bernice Yeung piece on the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault faced by domestic workers.

Domestic work is the crucial but unseen labor done behind the closed doors of private homes. It’s the intimate and invisible work that happens in someone else’s bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. It takes on many forms, from tending to disabled or elderly clients to cooking and cleaning and watching an employer’s kids. Some workers live in their clients’ homes, and some go home at the end of a set number of hours. But there are few fixed hours or norms in domestic work, and a caregiver can perform a multitude of tasks since the way that people run their households or realize their daily rituals is personal and particular.

Its broad range of conditions collides with a lack of industry regulations, so the risk of exploitation is real in domestic work – especially because it has been purposely excluded from various federal labor laws meant to protect workers from abuse.

Baldonado was particularly troubled by the sexual harassment she encountered on the job, a workplace hazard she had not anticipated. As it was for the farmworkers and night-shift janitors my colleagues and I have reported on for years, sexual violence was an open secret within the industry.

But domestic workers face additional challenges to speaking up about it: They effectively are excluded from federal sexual harassment laws, which apply only to companies with 15 or more workers.

A handful of states fill in that gap, but for most women who are the lone domestic worker in a household, as Baldonado was, there was no clear way to seek recourse. And yet sexual harassment was something that Baldonado and domestic workers across the country routinely face on the job. In 2012, the National Domestic Workers Alliance conducted a first-of-its-kind survey of more than 2,000 workers from all over the country and found problems related to verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

Echoing the concerns of night-shift janitors and farmworkers, few of these abused domestic workers complained because they didn’t want to lose their jobs, the survey found. Undocumented workers added that they worried that their immigration status would be used against them. #MeToo has emboldened many women to speak up about sexual harassment on the job, but for low-wage workers, practical barriers remain.

And of course all of this is intentional. The exclusion of work categories such as farmworkers and domestic workers from labor law were required compromises so southern whites would vote for the legislation. Their demand–exclude any work category frequently occupied by black people. No labor law for them! Now, you do what you have to do in 1938 to get the Fair Labor Standards Act passed, but that so many of these exclusions still exist today is an outright tragedy. There have been marginal improvements, but there are many, many workers who face the most unspeakable exploitation on the job, including sexual exploitation. A new round of labor law is necessary to fix these problems. Of course, other things can help too, but we can’t rely on the incredible bravery of victims as the only method we have to raise awareness about these horrors.

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