Domesticated Democracy? Labor Rights at Home in Lima and New York City
Domestic workers’ struggles for labor rights—both historically and currently—draw attention to the private sphere of the home as an unregulated site of gendered and racialized labor that has often been overlooked across historical moments and economic configurations. Usually performed by indigenous and immigrant women, domestic work tends to be undervalued via a lack of prestige, respect, labor protections, and sufficient pay, though it remains socially necessary work within the global economy. Yet the privacy of the home often masks the social relations of intimacy, power, love, and exploitation that take place inside of it, as domestic workers reproduce family life and the ideologies of home by cleaning, cooking, and caring for those who live there.
This dissertation builds upon a large multidisciplinary body of scholarship that has focused on the intersectional inequalities of class, caste, gender, race, and ethnicity embedded within domestic employer-worker relationship in varying contexts, and yet has failed to fully theorize how those relationships change when legally regulated, and in what ways those laws then shape anew the household. Yet due to the entrenched nature of the dominant discourse around the home as separate from work, it is by definition more difficult to draw attention to the labor performed there. I ask, given the place of the home as constitutive of the private sphere, how do we regulate it as a workplace? How do we bring legislated labor protections into the home? And, once there, how do they shape the lives of the very domestic workers they were designed to protect?
Through a global North/South comparison set in New York City and Lima, Peru, two large urban centers of migration with recent legislation for domestic workers, I focus on the home and show that in order to consider the home as a site of work, we must also understand it as a site of law. In both sites, I explore how household workers have been categorized, understood, and excluded by employing an analysis that brings history to bear upon our contemporary understandings of efforts to bring labor law into the space of the home. Drawing from 10 months of ethnography in Lima and 8 months in New York City, 120 in-depth interviews, legislative transcripts, and demographic survey data, I show how progressive labor laws for domestic workers are stifled by historically-entrenched patterns of racialization and labor informality. Drawing from 10 months of ethnography in Lima and 8 months in New York City, 120 in-depth interviews, legislative transcripts, and demographic survey data, I show how progressive labor laws for domestic workers are stifled by historically-entrenched patterns of racialization and labor informality. I find that the Peruvian law extends to household workers only half of the labor protections afforded to other occupations, codifying preexisting inequalities and shaping a labor regime of colonial domesticity around body, space, and time inside Lima’s contemporary homes. In New York City, the law grants negligible protections and deliberately eschews language around immigration, thus establishing a labor regime of immigrant domesticity instead of improving working conditions.
Separately and together, then, my fieldwork from both sites sharpens our understanding of how, despite important legislative victories for domestic workers, the home has not (yet) been democratized.