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Domestic Workers: A Movement for Fairness and Dignity

Kimberly Alvarenga and Socorro Diaz, California Domestic Workers Coalition

In this post, leaders from the worker rights movement share insights from their efforts to advance rights and protections for California’s workers. Read more conversations with leaders here.

The work of nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers — known as domestic workers — is indispensable to the lives of millions of California families and the work that makes other work possible. Yet these essential workers often negotiate hazardous conditions, like the higher risk of COVID-19 transmission, or work in the aftermath of wildfires, while lacking safety and health protections afforded those in other professions.

This fall, PBS will air “Dignidad: California Domestic Workers’ Journey for Justice,” a documentary on the California Domestic Workers Coalition (CDWC)’s fight to protect domestic workers. We spoke to Kimberly Alvarenga, Director of the CDWC, and Socorro Diaz, steering committee member and a domestic worker for more than 20 years, about the challenges workers face and their movement for change. *Socorro spoke in Spanish, with Kimberly translating.

Their message to those hiring domestic workers? Recognize your home as a workplace and make it one that values care.

Dignidad: California Domestic Workers’ Journey for Justice poster

Tell us about the issues facing domestic workers in California — what are you fighting for?

Diaz: I got involved with Alianza de Mujeres Activas y Solidarias (ALMAS), a coalition organization of CDWC, when my family was going through a challenging time. I attended a meeting on sexual harassment and wage issues, heard a lot of empowering information, and became more and more involved. Now I’m a member leader. I can’t remember the exact moment I became involved with CDWC, but I remember my first advocacy visit to Sacramento!

Being involved means everything to me. I never in my life imagined I would be here with no fear, with my full dignity, my full respect. We went to Washington, D.C., this month — with other powerful women fighting for dignity. I used to think I’m going to die without accomplishing anything important. But now I know I’m part of a fight for change.

Socorro Diaz
Socorro Diaz

Alvarenga: Like Socorro, there are so many other domestic workers at the forefront of this movement that are making change. They are advocating for their rights and their dignity. For equity, self-determination, and for their labor to be valued and respected. Domestic workers are organizing for fair wages, for basic occupational health and safety rights, and for benefits other workers enjoy such as paid sick time or time off. Socorro’s testimony and leadership story is similar to other domestic workers’ experience. They are mostly immigrant, women of color, who are emerging as organizers and leaders from a long history of exclusion from basic labor protections that is rooted in racism, anti-Blackness, and the devaluing of women’s work. Their time has come.


You were successful in helping establish an advisory committee to develop occupational health and safety guidance for domestic workers in California — how will this help?

Diaz: During the wildfires in Sonoma County, I had to go into homes that were partially burned or full of ash, with no health and safety rights at all — should I wear a mask, gloves? But I had to clean these houses because I had no choice. All the people in the pandemic who had the choice whether to work from home, I didn’t have that choice. After cleaning many houses, my nose started bleeding, and I began to feel sick. Because I don’t have the right to know in this country. It’s a country of dreams, but also nightmares.

My role is to tell the advisory committee about my experience as a house cleaner, to represent all the domestic workers in California. I hope the work of the committee will model how to protect those left out.

Alvarenga: By the end of this year, the SB 321 advisory committee will create the first ever voluntary occupational health and safety guidelines for the domestic work industry. Domestic workers are excluded from health and safety laws. This is an important step. The guidelines are voluntary, so our next step will be to make them mandatory. We cannot depend on the goodwill of employers. Domestic workers will finally have the health and safety rights that they so deserve.

California has to take responsibility, especially if we say domestic workers are “essential” workers. If you value their work, you need to reflect that in the law.

Kimberly Alvarenga

What gives you hope for the future of domestic work in California?

Diaz: What gives me hope is our unity as a movement. The coalition sometimes struggles, doesn’t always agree, but we stay united. I’m excited to reach all the workers. There are more than 300,000 domestic workers in California. We have our feet on the ground together.

Alvarenga: Our members give me hope. We are building a movement that is rooted in the experience and leadership of domestic workers. I am inspired by their strength and resiliency. They are fire! I’m certain that the long arc of justice will end in change.

Many Californians have a domestic worker in their home regularly. What do you see as our responsibility?

Diaz: Understand we are human beings, and we deserve the same respect. Provide the needed support, provide a fair salary, provide rest, and sick time. We are the ones who make it possible for everyone, from teachers to doctors, to do their work. Shouldn’t we have the same respect and legal protections?

Alvarenga: Employers need to recognize that your home is a workplace. Join us in changing the culture of this workplace and in a way that values care.

Masthead photo credit: Brooke Anderson | @movementphotographer