Ai-Jen Poo, Domestic Worker Advocate
Ai-jen Poo is the Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and has made it her mission to empower and organize domestic workers to fight better working standards.
Domestic Worker Advocate
Ai-jen Poo is the Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, whose mission is to empower and organize domestic workers to fight better working standards.
AI-JEN POO: When it comes to human dignity, there is no such thing as an unlikely ally.
There are 2 and 1/2 million women who work as domestic workers in other people's homes every day. They're nannies, they're housekeepers, they're caregivers for the elderly. They do the work that makes all other work possible. And my alliance advocates for their rights and tries to bring respect and dignity to that work, because we do believe it's dignified work, and that all work is dignified work.
I remember spending time with both my mother and my grandmother growing up, and I remember both of them taking care of a lot of different people. My mother had two kids, she went to school, she worked, and she one day decided she wanted to be a doctor. And so she went to medical school with two kids, and English was her second language, and she just did it. And I just grew up with this notion that I could do anything that I wanted to do.
When I was volunteering at the New York Asian Women's Center, which is a shelter for survivors of domestic violence in the Asian community, one of the things that I saw was how difficult it was for women to break cycles of violence if they didn't have economic opportunity. And there was this organization in the Asian community that was just starting a project to empower women who are working in low-wage service jobs.
We started out with organizing Filipino domestic workers, and that opened up into organizing Domestic Workers United, which is an organization for all domestic workers here in New York City. That led to the formation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which now organizes domestic workers in 19 cities and 11 states around the country.
We often call the domestic work industry the wild west, because there's no guidelines. Domestic workers are explicitly excluded from almost every major labor law. And so, you have a situation where workers are isolated and they just never know what they're going to get in any given situation.
They might have a wonderful employer who wants to do the right thing and pay the living wage, or you might have the other end of the spectrum. I've worked on a case where a woman wasn't paid for 15 years. There's just nothing mediating that relationship, which is why things like the domestic workers' bill of rights are so important.
When we were organizing to try to win the first state law to protect the rights of domestic workers-- called the domestic workers' bill of rights-- we must have done dozens of marches and advocacy days in Albany. And they just completely moved a legislature over the course of six years to being willing to take the risk to be the first state in the country to pass this law.
And a pivotal moment for me was this march that we did called the Children and Families March, and it was led by children of domestic workers and the children that they take care of.
I do feel like because this organizing is relatively new, and a lot of what we do is just innovate and create out of very little, that it feels like we're making history every day. And that feels great.