Black Domestic Workers Are Fearing For Their Lives. Organizing Has Changed Mine.

Ai-jen Poo

Care workers are the invisible workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis. They are cleaners, nannies, and caregivers. Their work is critical and yet they are unseen, underpaid, and undervalued. Through Caring Through Coronavirus — our partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the nation’s leading organization for the respect and dignity of domestic workers — we are looking at life in the coronavirus pandemic for real domestic workers and caregivers today. Ai-jen Poo, the director of the Alliance, will be interviewing the workers.

Anastancia Cuna is an organizer for the domestic-worker movement, a Black immigrant from Mozambique, and has worked as a nanny in the Boston area for the past 20 years. 

How are you feeling, as a Black woman, domestic worker, organizer, and immigrant in this unprecedented moment of public health crisis, economic crisis, and protests against racial injustice?

“The death of George Floyd was so painful, but it’s not new for the Black community. People are more aware now because it’s being filmed, and then viewed widely, but for many years we have been trying to say that this is happening. 

“I have experienced racism as a nanny: One potential employer asked me to take an HIV test before I began working with her baby, because she said I was more likely to have the virus as someone of African descent. I even called my doctor’s office to get the test, but when the nurse asked me why I was getting tested she was shocked and told me that it was illegal for an employer to demand that I not only get tested, but show her the results. I was desperate for a job, but I didn’t end up working for her. 

“Black domestic workers are in a crisis within a crisis. I was struggling before the pandemic, but coronavirus made the struggle 10 times worse. We are losing our jobs without any notice. When we go to work in people’s homes, we are risking our lives and our families’ lives. Black people are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates. And the heightened racial tension has added additional fear for Black domestic workers who are afraid of losing their jobs.”

How did you get involved in organizing with the domestic-worker movement? 

“When I first encountered the domestic-worker movement, I wasn’t looking for support — I was looking for a job for my sister! I had heard that Matahari Women Workers’ Center, an affiliate of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), was a place where domestic workers met with one another, so in late 2016 I attended my first meeting.

“Instead of job listings, they had a guest speaker who shared her story about how Matahari had helped save her husband from deportation. He had been detained by ICE for three months. Someone told her that Matahari helps immigrants fight deportations, so she contacted them and they were able to get him out of detention. 

“This was the first time I had heard of an organization that helped immigrants, and I was so moved by her story that I wanted to learn more, so I stayed and talked to other domestic workers at the meeting. I had been a nanny for so many years, but had never been paid overtime, but they told me the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was passed in Massachusetts in 2015, gave me the right to overtime and a minimum wage. This was the first time I had ever heard that I had any rights as a nanny!

“Turns out, I didn’t get a job for my sister at the meeting that day, but I got so much more. I ended up not only becoming a member, but a leader.”

So often I think we don’t think of organizing as “work.” Tell us about the work of organizing, and what is most difficult.

“This is critical work, because nothing will change without organizing. Think about my story — I had rights under the Massachusetts Domestic Workers Bill of Rights but I had no idea, so it wasn’t impacting my life directly. It wasn’t until I came in contact with organizers to educate me on my rights and inspire me with stories of women like me that I was able to actually benefit from the legislative action that had already taken place. Organizing is critical work that is often unseen, like domestic work.

“One of the biggest challenges when organizing domestic workers is their fear. Workers are afraid of losing their jobs. Most of my outreach today is connecting with other nannies online or by phone, and talking to them about their rights, but it can be challenging because as soon as you tell a domestic worker that she has the right to be treated better, or compensated more, she instantly becomes afraid of losing her job if she says anything to her employer, especially if she is undocumented. So a lot of my work is telling domestic workers stories of other women who have been in the same situation, and how these workers overcame their fear and got the respect and dignity they deserve. 

“If we don’t stand up for ourselves, nothing will change. Domestic workers have rights, but we have to be brave and take the first step, and demand that our employers respect them. I also try to celebrate the resilience and joy of Black women with them. We have never had anything given to us, we have had to fight for everything — even our right to live and breathe.”

We have never had anything given to us, we have had to fight for everything — even our right to live and breathe.

Anastancia Cuna

How is organizing today different as compared to when you first started with Matahari and NDWA in 2016?

“We are still fighting for the same rights, but the context is completely different because so many domestic workers have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. 

“For example, I have a friend who has been working as a nanny, and her employer asked her to live with them instead of taking public transport to work each day, to protect the employer and her family from risk of infection. But my friend has two children under the age of 7, who need their mother to make them dinner at night and tuck them into bed. Before the pandemic she would have said no, but she knew that if she did the employer would just fire her and find someone who would live-in. So she lives with the employer during the week, and only sees her children on the weekend.

“Domestic workers have been exploited because we are women, we are immigrants, we are Black, and we have been invisible. Now, in the pandemic, some employers are taking this opportunity to exploit us even more. This nanny is now working more hours than before, but without getting paid more. She is not only doing childcare work, she is also cooking, doing the laundry, and ironing for the whole household. Not only that, but the employer is not social distancing herself even though she is asking her nanny to distance from her own family. The employer is having visitors to the house, and the nanny is expected to tend to their needs as well. This is why we have to keep fighting for domestic workers, because unfortunately employers will still take advantage of workers.” 

How has becoming an organizer changed you?

“When I joined Matahari in 2016, there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment and I felt afraid to leave my house in case I would hear people shout ‘Go back to your country’ at me. It was very scary.

“Today, there is still a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, and there is still fear among immigrants — fear of abuse, assault, or deportation — but I think what has changed is that there is also a rising strength, too. People aren’t necessarily less afraid, but they’re more courageous when they see others speaking up and showing support for immigrants. Today, I know there are people on my side — other domestic workers, immigrant advocates, programs like We Dream In Black that celebrate Black domestic workers, and people who have been protesting against systemic racism and police brutality. The fear is still there, but I am more hopeful today, and I have hope that things will be better. There are people rooting for us, and I have hope that we will live in a world where we are not fearful anymore.”

If you would like to support domestic workers, you can donate to the Coronavirus Care Fund, which is providing domestic workers who apply with $400 in emergency assistance.

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