“Precarity, Pragmatism, and Professionalism: How ‘The 3 P’s’ Define Immigrant Women in New York City’s Domestic Care Industry”
Adapted by Sophia Futrell
Original article: “’My Profession Chose Me:’ Precarity, Pragmatism, and Professionalism in Caribbean and West African Immigrant Domestic Workers’ Narratives “ by Lee Glaser
Working-class immigrants, particularly those who work in the growing domestic care industry, have always been the backbone of New York City’s job economy. The 2019 U.S. Census Bureau reports that 78% of domestic workers were born outside America and 94% identify as women (National Domestic Workers Alliance, n.d.). Domestic care work includes maid services that cover cooking and cleaning, along with the care of children, the elderly, and disabled people. This article aims to reveal how immigrant women are discriminated against, both in their work environments and in day-to-day life, because of their intersectional identities. Intersectionality is the overlapping of multiple identities such as race, class, and gender; taking all of these identities into account can fundamentally change how someone is treated in society.
Anthropology as a Tool for Understanding
To understand the struggles faced by immigrant women in domestic care, social anthropologist and feminist writer Lee Glaser joined the Domestic Workers Union (DWU), an organization dedicated to “bring[ing] dignity and respect” (Glaser 2022, 7) to care work, as an eldercare worker. She then interviewed fellow DWU advocates and domestic workers Pamela, Aminata, and Ellen. The author decided to cover the narratives of these three women because they all come from countries in the Caribbean and West Africa, where most of NYC’s immigrant citizens have originated in the past twenty years (Glaser 2022).
Despite their different job experiences and backgrounds, Pamela, Aminata, and Ellen all described their jobs using precarity, pragmatism, and professionalism.
Precarity: “A situation in which someone’s job is always in danger of being lost”
(Cambridge English Dictionary, n.d. a)
As Ellen puts it, “how I got into [domestic work]—as an immigrant woman in America, let’s start there. There [were] really not a lot of choices coming into this country” (Glaser 2017, 4). She explains how her job in childcare felt natural to her because back home in Barbados, she carried the responsibility of taking care of her young family members and friends’ kids. “‘I didn’t choose my profession, my profession chose me’” (Glaser 2017, 4) is something she commonly says about her career. Coming to the US undocumented during the 1990’s, Ellen, who is now in her mid-thirties, struggled with sustaining herself with a babysitting job. Domestic care is still looked down upon by native-born Americans, which has made the field very economically and socially limiting. This is especially true in cities like NYC, where the median annual salary for domestic employees is less than half of the average pay for workers of all other fields (Ruggles et al. 2022). Additionally, domestic care workers receive limited healthcare coverage, less paid time off, and very few retirement benefits. And the turnover rate – a measure of how many employees are replaced over time – was 64% nationally (Holly 2020).
Pamela is a 35-year-old Jamaican immigrant who has alternated between live-in eldercare, temporary wait-staffing, and unemployment. Financial instability has led her to picking up a dead-end position from the Midwood employment agency, which she calls “a bunch of thieves” (Glaser 2022, 10). This infamous domestic agency is known for taking advantage of immigrant women who have limited education and few connections with family-friends. She works around the clock in her employer’s home and also expresses how “living in somebody’s house locked up” (Glaser 2022, 9) is a genuine fear of hers. Without travel documents, she worries of being kept there for unpaid or even forced labor, something that many other immigrant women relate to. And this fear isn’t unfounded: a woman on Long Island had been “enslaved in the home where she worked and lived” (Glaser 2022, 9) around the time of Pamela’s interviews (Vittello 2007). Even though she isn’t a member of DWU, Pamela speaks on her experiences with job instability and urges other immigrant women to have a close-knit circle that will help them find a safe employment agency.
Aminata, a 20-year-old community college student, picked domestic work because of its long-term reliability and necessity in the area she attends school in. “With home health aide,” she asserts, “[people] always need somebody, so that’s why I decided to go with that” (Glaser 2022, 11). This is especially true now, with how the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand in taking care of the sick and immunocompromised. While she considers her position as a health aid more comfortable than a store job, Aminata is always looking out for openings in hotels or better-paying positions within her workplace. Aminata has lived in America for longer than the other interviewees and thus faces less restrictions when it comes to her citizenship status and knowledge of English, but like Pamela, she stays working for the same health aid agency as her family members and friends because that is the safe environment that she knows best.
Pragmatism: “An approach to situations that is based on practical solutions”
(Cambridge English Dictionary, n.d)
Aminata mentions three things about domestic work which appealed to her: domestic workers can communicate nonverbally and don’t need a complex understanding of English to do their jobs, employees do not need to be documented immigrants to start working, and “women are used to [care work], so it’s easier” (Glaser 2022, 11). Like Ellen, she also believes that her unpaid work as the feminine caretaker of her own house has prepared her for paid domestic work. Aminata doesn’t necessarily enjoy the work she does, but she sees it as her only stable and safe option for a salary. Domestic work, as she notes, is not as easy as people outside the industry perceive it to be, and immigrants often have to give up more comfortable jobs that they had in their home countries for domestic work. For example, many immigrant health aids and medical assistants were once doctors and nurses in their home countries but their degrees aren’t applicable in the US. This is because immigrants typically must take exams in the US in order to transfer their degrees, but if they aren’t fluent in English or understand how the exam is formatted, they end up scoring lower (even if they understood the content of the exams in their native language). The educational gap that forms as a result of this boxes immigrants into choosing labor-intensive jobs instead of being able to use their years of academia to their full advantage (Richwine 2018).
Pamela mirrors Aminata’s points and again brings up the inherent gendering of domestic care. Based on her own experiences and her studies of political theory, she believes that women, especially immigrant women of color, are automatically grouped into these “invisible jobs” as a result of her home country’s neoliberal policies surrounding immigration. “Most of the visas were always given to women,” she explains. “Because they want us to come over here to be [housewives]. They use immigration against us” (Glaser 2022, 11). There aren’t many hurdles to jump over to enter the domestic workforce as an immigrant for this reason, as opposed to jobs that require more training and work permits. However, she emphasizes how important it is to learn how to understand the American work environment and legal language, so immigrants can know their rights. To combat the exploitation that comes with working in domestic care as an immigrant, self-education and self-awareness are key.
The DWU makes practical training sessions for certifications in CPR, immigration law, and other skills more easily accessible for immigrant workers. Ellen echoes the points that the other two women have mentioned about the field’s practicality, but also brings to attention how domestic work takes away the tedious responsibilities of others. “When I go [to] work in the morning, I allow my employers to go to work,” she explains. “I allow them to have a social life. I allow them to function like normal citizens in society without having to worry about the care of their child or worry about daycare.” (Glaser 2022, 13) She views domestic care as practical for both her clients’ leisure and her own growth as a hardworking individual. Ellen also shares Pamela’s views on how domestic work has been historically dehumanizing but she is optimistic in how this is changing with DWU’s push for laws that will protect the industry’s workers.
Professionalism: “The qualities connected to skilled and trained people”
(Cambridge English Dictionary, n.d. b)
Pamela stresses how various intersectional forms of oppression pressure her and other immigrant women to prioritize professionalism in their jobs. And the oppressors are not just the distant politicians or CEOs passing discriminatory laws against immigrants – according to the same 2006 study from DWU cited in the introduction, 76% of employers in domestic care are native-born white Americans (Glaser 2022). This means that immigrant women are likely to face personal prejudice when trying to enter the workforce and have to work harder than their white peers to maintain their jobs. Pamela states, “When you have your immigration status… you are alienated, you feel minimized… you won’t stand up for your rights” (Glaser 2022, 9). While elder companions don’t need as much formal training as health aids or nannies, they must provide conversation and company to people. As mentioned before, this job is familiar to those who had been responsible for taking care of family members and friends, but workers like Pamela must put in extra effort to understand their clients and accommodate their needs.
New York City’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic (anti-Muslim) social climate makes it difficult for Aminata to get around without facing discrimination, so she also finds herself taking initiative in her job by actively choosing her agencies. Having moved to the US when she was young, she’s fluent in English and knows what to avoid in jobs as an immigrant. She earned her Certified Nursing Assistant certification from one agency but didn’t want to work for them because its location in Brooklyn didn’t bring in business from other areas. Aminata turned down another agency because they didn’t pay her on time. “They would give you half of your paycheck and be like, ‘Oh, next week we’re gonna send the other one’” (Glaser 2022, 11).
As Ellen puts it, being a domestic employee means taking care of families constantly and literally carrying the personal lives of workers in other fields. Between taking responsibility for her own families, both in the US and her home country, and her clients, she describes domestic work as “hav[ing] the whole world in [your] hands” (Glaser 2022, 13). Ellen has been involved in this advocacy group’s activities for over ten years and recognizes the objective importance of domestic jobs, referring to it as “real work” numerous times in her interview. She points out issues such as the dehumanization of immigrants and the degrading of women in American society, things that have made her domestic care work seem like less of a profession and more of a service. Ellen doesn’t agree with this status quo – she asserts that “[domestic care] is a real industry that needs to be protected,” (Glaser 2022, 12) throughout her interviews .
Immigrant women, who make up the majority of the domestic work industry, find themselves at the crossroads of financial instability, misogyny, ethnoracial discrimination, and sociopolitical alienation. It is necessary to view domestic work in an intersectional manner that recognizes all these forms of oppression faced by immigrant women.
The 3 P’s – Precarity, Pragmatism, and Professionalism – are concepts that are interwoven into the lives of Pamela, Ellen, Aminata, and many other immigrant women. All three women found themselves pushed into domestic work based on their upbringings, but carry different ideas of how gender has affected the role of their jobs in society. Since Aminata spent more time growing up in America, she didn’t face the same obstacles as the other interviewees when it came to language barriers or employer discrimination.
DWU and other organizations have been pushing for government reform laws that will benefit the lives of domestic workers and combat the stigma surrounding their jobs, such as the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that was passed in 2010. Starting in March 2022, the NYC Human Rights Law has been updated to offer more paid leave days and civil protections to domestic workers of color (Adams and Palma 2021). The main social solution presented by Glaser in her research paper is to recognize how impactful immigrant women are to the domestic work field and to New York City’s job sector as a whole.
Adams, Eric and Annabel Palma. 2021. “Protections for Domestic Workers under the New York City Human Rights Law”. NYC Commission on Human Rights, October 21. Accessed [June 15, 2022]. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/cchr/downloads/pdf/publications/Domestic-Workers-339-Fact-Sheet.pdf
Cambridge English Dictionary. n.d. “Pragmatism.” Cambridge English Dictionary website. Accessed [August 26, 2022]. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/pragmatism
Cambridge English Dictionary. n.d.a. “Precarcity.” Cambridge English Dictionary website. Accessed [August 26, 2022]. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/precarity
Cambridge English Dictionary. n.d.b. “Professionalism.” Cambridge English Dictionary website. Accessed [August 26, 2022]. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/professionalism
Glaser, Lee. “My Profession Chose Me: Precarity, Pragmatism and Professionalism in Caribbean and West African Immigrant Domestic Workers’ Narratives.” North American Dialogue 20 (1): 4-16. https://doi.org/10.1111/nad.12053
Holly, Robert. 2020.“Caregiver turnover rate falls to 64% as home care agencies ‘flatten the curve’”. Home Health Care News website, June 18. Accessed [June 15, 2022]. https://homehealthcarenews.com/2020/06/caregiver-turnover-rate-falls-to-64-as-home-care-agencies-flatten-the-curve/
National Domestic Workers Alliance. N.d. “Domestic work is an engine of New York City’s economy”. National Domestic Workers Alliance website. Accessed [August 31, 2022]. https://www.domesticworkers.org/membership/chapters/we-dream-in-black-new-york-chapter/nyc-care-campaign/new-york-city-domestic-work-factsheet/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwjbyYBhCdARIsAArC6LKkuW3mVg92UOfBRnRLe9zGuArJFaryP3uN_OMwILhM2C9jgvuoRAoaArdHEALw_wcB
Richwine, Jason. 2018. “High-skill immigrants in low-skill jobs”.Center for Imigration Studies website, July 12.Accessed [June 15, 2022]. https://cis.org/Report/HighSkill-Immigrants-LowSkill-Jobs
Ruggles, Steven, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Megan Schouweiler and Matthew Sobek. IPUMS USA: Version 12.0. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS, 2022. https://doi.org/10.18128/D010.V12.0
Vittello, Paul. 2007. “Involuntary-Servitude Case in New York Highlights Plight of Domestic Workers.” New York Times, November 3. Accessed [August 26, 2022]. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/03/world/americas/03iht-slave.1.8567142.html