Jonathan D. Klein
“Do not oppress a poor or destitute hired hand, whether from among your brothers or from among your strangers who are in your land, within your gates.” (Deuteronomy 24:14)
Rashi empathizes with the destitute, who “long for everything.” Emma Lazarus welcomes “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” In America, the “homeless, tempest-tossed” soon had surnames like Cohen and Roth.
Several previous columns in this ongoing Sh’ma conversation about the ethics of immigration have referred to countless mitzvot that demand ethical treatment for immigrants and workers. These sources reveal detailed proscriptions against economic exploitation of immigrants, which are framed as flashbacks to our own ancestors’ struggles. “Do not oppress the stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be strangers, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Today, the Jewish community’s overall financial success has distanced most Jews from the daily struggles of immigrants in America. I work as an advocate for low-wage workers in Los Angeles, and in that capacity, I have not met a single Jew who works as a hotel housekeeper, car wash worker, grocery store worker, food service worker, farm worker, truck driver, agency-employed security officer, or home care provider. If Jews no longer work in immigrant-related jobs, how might we still relate to worker communities of color? Are we “our brothers’ keeper”? When considering domestic workers, our answer is critical.
Domestic workers, excluded from labor law protections established by the Wagner Act in 1935, include housekeepers, nannies, care providers for the elderly, and others who are hired to maintain their employers’ homes and family needs. The 1930s witnessed the exclusion of domestic workers and farm workers from labor laws because of racism; protecting these predominantly African-American workers and other people of color, it was argued, would undermine the economy. Similar arguments were made in the South to preserve antebellum slavery.
Today, the data are startling. Most domestic workers earn poverty wages (on average, between $22,000 and $24,000 annually), not enough to pay rent and buy groceries. They almost never receive overtime salary; only 20 percent of them earn enough to support a family of four, though most (54 percent) are the family breadwinners. Eighty-three percent do not receive even ten-minute rest breaks, and 78 percent do not get basic meal breaks, endangering the wellbeing of the families they serve and jeopardizing their own health. Worse, worker intimidation is horrific: Twenty percent are insulted or threatened; 10 percent experience acts of violence and/or sexual harassment; and wage theft results in 31 percent working more than their contracts require. Nearly a quarter are illegally underpaid, and many employers feel free to exploit these workers; many, if not most are undocumented, living in continuous fear of deportation, and thus easily susceptible to the most egregious exploitation imaginable.
California’s domestic workforce is 94 percent women, and 99 percent foreign-born.1 Only 5 percent receive health insurance coverage, a disgrace, considering how many Jews employ domestic workers in our homes.
Nevertheless, as Jews, we can also be proud. A New York based nonprofit, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ),2 recently played a key leadership role in a coalition of employers, workers, and community advocacy groups to pass the nation’s first domestic workers “Bill of Rights,” which establishes an eight-hour work day, overtime pay, a day of rest, vacation time, prohibitions against discrimination, sexual harassment protections, and worker’s compensation standards.
Here are several questions we might ask ourselves as we head to our seder tables this upcoming Passover, as we relive our Egyptian servitude and subsequent liberation: How do we, as Jews, live our values at home? Will we be Pharaoh, enslaving workers, or will we be Abraham, welcoming strangers into our tents and nurturing them? The Haggadah provides a grounding for the answer: “In every generation, one is obligated to see oneself as if redeemed from Egypt.”
Meanwhile, does your Honduran nanny have healthcare coverage?
1 “Behind Closed Doors: Working Conditions of California Household Workers”; March 2007. http://www.datacenter.org/reports/behindcloseddoors.pdf)