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Photo courtesy of Fuerza del Valle Workers' Center

Equal Voice

Domestic Workers: Dignity Needed on Border

June 25, 2018

Paul Nyhan
By Paul Nyhan
Manager of Storytelling

A new report from organizers and allies of the National Domestic Workers Alliance calls for better wages, benefits and respect for Latinas who earn their living as housecleaners, caregivers and nannies in South Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Each workday, for four years, Irma began her job as a nanny at 6 a.m., preparing breakfast for the family’s three children in a house where she both lived and worked.

After two of the children went to school, Irma cared for the youngest, a baby, while cleaning the house and doing laundry, until it was time to make dinner. Often her day stretched deep into the evening – her employers sometimes would not return to the house until early in the morning, she recalled. For all of this, she reports she earned $160 a week, though her pay eventually rose to $180.

“I would only see the sunlight when I would take the garbage out, or when I would pick up the newspaper,” Irma, who didn’t disclose her last name because of her immigration status, said during a June 19 event to release a report on domestic workers in South Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border. “So, for four years I was living in the shadows.”

Irma’s story highlights often brutal working conditions that domestic workers face in jobs along the border, where they are yelled at, threatened, and hurt, according to the report, “Living in the Shadows: Latina Domestic Workers in the Texas-Mexico Border Region.”

They toil as nannies, housecleaners and caregivers for people with disabilities or the elderly, for low wages, few if any benefits like paid sick days, and struggle to pay basics, such as electricity and rent. At some point during the last year, close to half of the surveyed domestic workers (44 percent) were unable to pay rent and more than a third (37 percent) said someone went hungry in their home, according to the report.

“Irregular pay and wage theft are extremely common for domestic workers in the border region,” said Rosa Sanluis, a community organizer for one of the four groups that worked on the report, Fuerza del Valle in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. “Almost a fourth of the domestic workers, 24 percent, report they received less pay than they agreed to receive or they did not receive any pay at all.”

Almost none of the workers – 2 percent – said they have any kind of paid leave, whether it’s sick days or vacation, according to organizers who worked on the report. One third of workers caring for elderly clients said they were yelled at, and 20 percent said they were threatened, the report found.

Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center, Rosa Sanluis, domestic workers, caregivers, nannies, South Texas, Rio Grande Valley, social justice
Rosa Sanluis, a community organizer with the Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center in the Rio Grande Valley, worked on the new report about domestic workers in Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo source: Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center

“They become almost like their servants, their nannies, their cooks, their gardeners, their nurses. This is something they have to do in the day and at night,” added Olivia Figueroa, executive director for San Elizario, Texas-based Adult and Youth United Development Association Inc.,another of the groups that worked on the report.

Undocumented domestic workers face even tougher challenges in their jobs, the report said. The survey, for example, found that among undocumented or unauthorized domestic workers 35 percent “were paid less than agreed to or not at all,” compared with 15 percent of U.S. citizens.

“It is common to see employers…take advantage of the immigration status of workers to not pay them for the work they have done,” Sanluis said. “This is the community that lives in constant fear because our families are composed of people of mixed status.”

This is yet another aspect of immigration in the U.S., an issue that at times seems to dominate federal policy debates. Recently, the move to separate families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security exploded as a national concern and sparked outrage worldwide. Photos of parents and children being separated have dominated the news media, as Congress continued to struggle to craft a package of immigration reforms.

With an increasingly militarized U.S.-Mexico border, domestic workers face even tougher working conditions, community organizers added.

“This is inhumane. This is unhealthy. But, this is the reality of the domestic workers in the Mexico-Texas border region,” Sanluis said.

The report proposes a set of recommendations to address issues domestic workers face along the Texas-Mexico border. They include:

  • Ensure domestic workers have workplace protections that other workers enjoy.
  • Provide domestic workers with paid leave, such as paid sick days and vacation, while also paying a living wage.
  • Ensure there is no tolerance for “discrimination, and harassment, including sexual harassment.”

“This report, and the ongoing organizing in the Texas–Mexico border region, should serve as notice to employers and policy makers alike that the workers who play such a critical role in private households and in the economy as a whole must be treated with the fairness and respect they deserve,” the report said.


Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

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Domestic Workers: Dignity Needed on Border