WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
The Frontline talks to Ai-jen Poo, cofounder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, about the pandemic, workers’ rights, and the lessons they offer to the climate movement.
Wildfire season is around the corner, and it’s become a time of much stress for domestic workers in California. That’s because, as reports have found, they are on the frontlines of these disasters. They’re often the ones packing up homes before the flames arrive—long after evacuation orders are in—and the ones cleaning up the ash as smoke lingers in the air. These workers are vulnerable; even asking for a face mask during the smokey fire season could result in termination. Health and safety rights are non-existent without proper protections.
That’s why an alliance of advocacy organizations, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, are supporting the Health and Safety for All Workers Act in California. If made into law, this bill would finally extend the most basic protections to this invaluable workforce.
Welcome to The Frontline, where you’ll hear from Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and director of Caring Across Generations. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. The connection between workers’ rights and the climate crisis aren’t always clear—but it’s there. Poo breaks it down.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve been spearheading the idea of universal family care and the rights of domestic workers for years. I’m curious how you’ve seen these conversations evolve, especially as the climate crisis has become the forefront of so much U.S. policy and justice work.
When I first started organizing with domestic workers in 1998, the realities and struggles of this workforce were very much in the shadows. More people have experienced the conditions that domestic workers face since then: no job security, no access to a safety net, barely making ends meet. That reality is increasingly the reality for so many workers in our economy. More people can identify with the experiences of domestic workers and the vulnerabilities of doing work at the bottom of the economy.
Over the years, women of color have been organizing and building power and making their experiences, their priorities, and their dreams more visible. And I think that has really shifted how this workforce and the priorities of this movement have been treated. The care crisis—like the climate crisis—is a crisis that has been simmering for a long time. More people are experiencing the direct effects of our failure to address these crises as a society, and more people are realizing just how interconnected these issues are. We have not invested in the kinds of jobs that are our future, the jobs that create a more sustainable economy and reality for our families. The connections are being made powerfully by leaders across movements. The fact that more women are leading movements and organizing and building power has really helped in making those connections.
Years ago, Naomi Klein said we need to move from a “gig and dig” economy to a “care and repair” economy. And I think that’s a really powerful way of talking about how we reimagine and redesign our systems to be more sustainable for the planet and for people. Care is central to all of that—as is addressing the climate crisis head-on. And doing so from the standpoint of the people who have been at the forefront of these crises: women of color, low-income people, workers in the shadows, undocumented people. If we begin to address these massive challenges of our time from the standpoint of the people who have suffered the longest and the most, we then design solutions that are more impactful, that don’t leave anyone behind.
Let’s discuss this topic of care because I don’t know that our readers are familiar with how you talk about care, the care economy, and the care crisis. Break that down a little bit and explain why it’s critical to bridge the two crises as leaders start planning out what the next decade or two looks like as they decarbonize the economy.
We, as a society, are part of families (chosen or otherwise) where we have people we love across lifespans, who we care for and are responsible for. In our country, every eight seconds, someone turns 65. People are living longer than ever before. We’ve basically added an entire generation onto our lifespan without updating any of our policies or programs to support a quality of life for that new generation. We need more elder care than ever before. On the other end of the generational spectrum, millennials are also having children now at a rate of about 4 million babies born per year.
On both ends of the generational spectrum, we have a huge and growing need for care. That comes at a time when we have less in place to support it because, for decades now, most women have been working outside the home to make ends meet. We have relied upon women as our default care infrastructure, and what the pandemic really showed us is that that is unsustainable, unsafe, and frankly untenable. What we saw was millions of women, especially women of color, get pushed out of the workforce during a pandemic because of caregiving challenges. It was just impossible.
We now have the opportunity to invest in childcare, in paid family medical leave, in home care, and in home- and community-based services for the aging and for people with disabilities. Every job in the care economy should be a good job with living wages, benefits, and economic security. Just like we took manufacturing jobs in the 1920s that used to be dangerous sweatshop jobs into good jobs for generations to have economic mobility, we can—and we must—do the same for care jobs.
In the 1930s, when Congress was debating the New Deal, there was a whole suite of labor laws that Congress was debating. Southern Dixiecrats refused to support those labor laws if they included protections for domestic workers and farm workers who were mostly Black at the time. So this group of workers, which was excluded from the New Deal because of racism, now has the opportunity to be at the forefront of a job and economic recovery plan—the biggest jobs plan since World War II. And that feels really transformative and essential at this moment.
And it is related to the climate crisis because these are jobs that are here to stay. They can’t be outsourced. They’re not going to be automated, and they’re low carbon jobs. They’re jobs that we need. There’s no algorithm for empathy yet. We need human beings doing this work. And the human beings that we rely on are mostly women of color, and we need to invest in them and value this work. If you think about our economy, our society, and the way they function, there are these two invisible undervalued resources that we’ve always taken for granted: the planet’s natural resources and the work of women when it comes to care. We’ve never valued or protected those resources and those contributions. We’ve designed our entire economic framework to be able to take those resources for granted. That has proven to be not only unsustainable but incredibly dangerous. We have the opportunity right now to value these essential resources, this infrastructure, and capacity that we need and have always needed to put it at the forefront of our solutions for the future. That’s what we must do now.
“When society as a whole is put into crisis, it’s always the people with the least amount of power and resources to navigate it all who end up in the positions of the most precarity, insecurity, and vulnerability to abuse.”
I was reading how you got started in this space as a volunteer with a domestic abuse survivor hotline. I’ve reported a bit on the intersection of domestic violence and the climate crisis in the past, but I don’t think it gets discussed enough. Many experts have concerns around the increase in domestic violence when extreme weather events occur, and hurricane season has begun early this year. Talk to me a little bit about that intersection and the urgency around it.
Extreme weather disasters are like other disasters: When society as a whole is put into crisis, it’s always the people with the least amount of power and resources to navigate it all who end up in the positions of the most precarity, insecurity, and vulnerability to abuse. I think about the fires in California and the domestic workers. While everybody else was evacuated, the domestic workers were there trying to figure out how to keep these homes safe and, then, were the last to be secured and safe themselves. I think the same thing is true in the pandemic: the essential workers who have been a lifeline to our elders and people with disabilities who are some of the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. They risked their health, safety, and that of their families to make sure the people we love are safe. And they had to do it without resources and support.
So, yeah. In a situation of domestic violence, when you look at it from the standpoint of power, we are still living in a society where women and women of color are overwhelmingly still underrepresented in positions of power and influence and overrepresented in positions of abuse and vulnerability in our economy, in our homes, in society at large. That is going to make them more vulnerable to domestic violence. When things shut down, every resource that they rely on—whether it’s a shelter or another service—they’re alone and isolated, trying to navigate it all. Every existing vulnerability gets exacerbated in that context. We must look at how we can enact the kind of structural reform that puts more power in the hands of more everyday women, women of color, and people who have been systematically disenfranchised by our existing programs and policies so that we can all be less vulnerable in times of crisis.
I’m really glad that you brought up the pandemic. How has the pandemic shifted our understanding of how these issues intersect with outside forces? Those that may feel out of our control, whether that’s a deadly virus or rising sea levels.
In really important ways when you look at it through the lens of care and caregiving.
Before the pandemic, most of us thought about care as a personal responsibility and burden. If we somehow couldn’t afford childcare or home care for an aging loved one or a loved one with disabilities, we considered it our own personal failure. What the pandemic helped us realize is that it’s actually not our fault that we need collective solutions, public policy, and infrastructure to support the sustainability of our families. The same is true when it comes to the climate crisis.
The government’s role is to solve the challenges that are impossible for us to solve on our own individually—but that are essential to our health, our safety, and our wellbeing in the short-term and long-term.
Another situation that was born out of the pandemic was this rise in anti-Asian hate and violence, which has targeted Asian American women and elderly women who play a critical role in our care economy. How has this affected your advocacy for this workforce, and do you have any hopes for how this month as Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month may honor those and shed light on the ongoing issue?
My hope is that this Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a time for us to really mark this awareness that we’re having as a country—this awakening that we’re having as a country—to the experiences of AAPI women and move that awareness toward action, power building, supporting the incredible AAPI women who are working on the local level in our communities. That work is happening all over the country, and we’re fortunate to have great organizers in our community who are working incredibly hard.
I hope that we all take action in support of the work that they’re driving right now.