I remember when I used to live in a house where I was with a romantic partner in their mother’s house. The mother was in a wheelchair some of the time and was maybe in her 50s or 60s, I can’t remember. She never needed much assistance past help with the dishes, trash, her cats, groceries and a few other things. But I remember even just having to do these things and getting worn out at times, especially as someone who struggles with executive function issues.
The work was technically unpaid but it also helped pay for my rent. It was a fairly unorthodox arrangement but so have many of my housing situations over the years. It was fairly equitable overall and although the experience was sporadic and only lasted for perhaps a year or so, it gave me at least a small taste of what care workers may deal with.
That’s not to say my work was on their same level. These are folks who have to often wash and bathe other people and do other more personally invasive things. I never had to do any of those things and if I could even be called any sort of “care worker” by doing the things I did do, it’s in a very limited capacity and I fully recognize that.
But given how taxing it could be at times (though again, I should note my executive function issues), I can’t even imagine what care workers go through. Especially if they were wildly underpaid, underappreciated, prone to being sexually harassed or even assaulted and mistreated in systematic ways.
Unfortunately, I don’t need to imagine.
The Guardian had a recent piece by Sarah Jaffe on care workers and the conditions they face on the job.
This includes, sexual harassment (“…one client demanded she come to bed, groped her and kissed her.”), non-contractual labor (“There are people whose family believes that the home attendant is their own domestic worker,” she says”.) and low wages ($10 and $11 an hour for each of these women, respectively).
Elly Kugler of National Domestic Workers notes that,
“I think one of the interesting things about home care is that it forces all these different worlds to connect,” Kugler adds. “The world of state funded home care and and healthcare and also worker rights and disability rights and senior rights and racial justice – all these different worlds are connected in home care.”
I would agree this is an interesting intersection and as such it proves vital that modern day feminists ally themselves with care workers in their struggle for autonomy. This is obviously a very complicated issue given all of the identities and groups intersecting on this particular societal dynamic and it doesn’t help that much of the organizing is done around reforming laws or trying to undo the harm that Trump is doing to the current system.
In any case a movement like this is best led by care workers themselves (“nothing about us without us” and all that) but I think it’s also worth thinking critically about why care workers are often so mistreated or looked down upon. It’s a multifaceted issue and I think there are many reasons but I’ll try to highlight the most prominent and obvious ones:
- Ageism: Generally, society cares less and less about us as individuals as we cannot contribute to it any longer. And so the old tend to be devalued to significant degrees because of their lack of mobility or even interest in doing things like getting jobs or making big financial decisions, switching careers, etc. Many elderly are left in retirement homes or some other sort of care arrangement where they may just be left to die.
- Misogyny: Given the amount of women who are care workers it should be no surprise that in a patriarchal system things like serving in the military and using brute force is valued more than caring for others. And caring for others, tends to be (to the detriment of all genders) gendered as “female”. Often times labor that is centered around women is either downplayed or isn’t paid the same as men. This is especially the case where we have immigrant labor and otherwise non-white laborers involved.
- Racism: Which brings me to another obvious factor: Care workers (from what I’ve read of the article and my general knowledge of how society tends to relegate these roles) are filled with many immigrants and people who are not white. As a white person myself I’m not entirely clear on why this is the case and feel reticent to speculate too much, but so far as I can tell, it is because non-white labor is valued less and so is care work. So I would presume that non-white folks may have better luck in such a position under a patriarchal and also white supremacist system.
There are likely many more causes, but these three jump out at me.
The article is trying to push a narrative that things were starting to improve with Obama and now Trump is threatening those improvements. I’m not exactly clear on how true that is (though I don’t find it implausible) but the important thing seems to be encouraging care workers to organize, no matter the perceived greatness of the given president. I don’t doubt that Trump is making things worse (whether Obama significantly improved things is what I’m skeptical of) but workers should always be organizing against capitalism, no matter if the president has a D next to their name or an R.
I think things like increasing wages and improving conditions as well as legal protection for house care workers aren’t nominally bad things to fight for. Clearly house care work is important and them being free (or as free as possible) from harassment and assault is really important. But on the other hand, I’d hate to trust in a system that has been devaluing this labor for the past 40 years or so and expect it to do much better.
From the little work I’ve done caring for the elderly/disabled folks in my life I’ve realized how much our society does not cater to their interests. From the cracked sidewalks that often prevent those in wheelchairs from getting around, to the lack of nuance in what it means to be “disabled” to begin with. The latter helps things like discrimination or harassment of folks who can sometimes walk without the use of a wheelchair and are accused of “faking” it.
And these struggles for the inclusion of less able-bodied folks is often similar to my own and my executive functioning issues. They aren’t extremely notable but they do often interfere in my own life and they make life a lot more difficult (in “death by a thousand tiny cuts” kind of way) than it would be otherwise. Therefore it’s in my best interest to also want the best for folks who are either caring or being cared by workers.
The devaluation of care ultimately hurts all of us and disproportionately women and women of color given the current societal dynamics involved. One strategy that can be highlighted is building a culture of nuturance instead of a culture based around the virtue of strength and “good genes”, etc. A culture that highlights the benefits of giving and receiving care instead of treating it like a weakness or something to always “overcome”.
This is especially the case for folks who struggle with chronic illnesses and likely will never be able to overcome their health issues. They are just as valid as anyone else, regardless of their needs for care or ability to give it and yes, even their ability to be “productive” members of society.
I don’t doubt if Trumpcare passes it will do much harm to the state of society (I’ve written about this here) but I think the best alternative we can all look for is to build alternatives for ourselves, instead of relying on oppressive and unstable systems of power. If care workers can build their own movements and organize them effectively (and I have little doubt they can) then hopefully they can organize them in more effective ways.
As it is, organizing around marginal improvements or keeping the marginal improvements in place year after year doesn’t strike me as a winning strategy in the long-run, even if it makes sense in the short run. The fight to be recognized by a system build on and around dehumanization is one that doesn’t seem to be getting any easier as the years pass by.
Perhaps it’s time to invest energies elsewhere, but wherever it should be, it’s probably best led by those who have more experience with the cause and the culture.
AKA, probably not me.
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