Saying #MeToo Is Harder for Low-Wage Workers

CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal in Hollywood, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Farmworker Women’s Alliance) delivered a “message of solidary” to the Hollywood victims who came forward. “We wish that we could say we’re shocked to learn that this is such a pervasive problem in your industry,” the group said. “Sadly, we’re not surprised because it’s a reality we know far too well.” 

The #MeToo movement that grew out of these diverse experiences of sexual harassment and abuse persuaded a group of women working in film, television, and theater to come together to establish Time’s Up, an organization to promote and support equity and leadership opportunities for women in the workplace, especially low-wage workers. One of their key aims is to provide legal defense assistance to women and men who have survived “sexual assault and harassment across all industries [and to] challenge those responsible for the harm against them and give voice to their experiences.” Since its January debut, Time’s Up has raised more than $20 million and helped more than 1,500 people needing legal help.  

Assault and harassment are rampant in blue-collar jobs where employers weaponize politics of race and gender to silence victims. Restaurant workers, home-care aides, and domestic workers and others in the service industry often put up with abusive patrons and managers—but unlike Hollywood actors, they have far fewer employment opportunities to available to them.

An overwhelming majority of workers in the service industries, 70 percent, are women, according to Saru Jayaraman of Restaurant Opportunity Workers (ROC) United. The Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey reports that 95 percent of nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers are women. Jayaraman co-founded ROC United after September 11, which now comprises 25,000 workers, 23,000 members, and more than 200 employer-partners. “The food industry is the lowest-paying but fastest-growing sector in the workforce,” Jayaraman says. 

In the restaurant industry, Mario Batali and John Besh resigned from the perches atop their culinary empires after allegations that they tolerated sexual assault and harassment. The food industry is perhaps the worst industry for harassment, Jayaraman argues; “Women are encouraged to dress sexy, to elicit a response and get tips,” she says. 

Investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who worked a series of minimum-wage jobs to gauge the affects of the 1996 welfare reforms for her 2001 book Nickled and Dimed, says many workers suffer from harassment as well as wage theft. 

She recalled an instance where a supervisor, miffed at her friendly relationship with an immigrant dishwasher to whom she was teaching English, held her for hours after her shift ended to do menial chores. She had clocked out so those extra hours weren’t counted toward her paycheck; “I couldn’t say ‘Fuck this,’ because I couldn’t get fired, I needed that job,” Ehrenreich tells The American Prospect. “Most working women can’t switch jobs and work at the Kmart down the street, because if they’re getting 8 to 12 dollars an hour, they don’t have the cushion to wait the few weeks between paychecks to find another job.” 

Many restaurant workers are also pressured to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from addressing or acknowledging hostile work environments. Often they are non-union workers without the protections of collective bargaining, and working for low wages. Going through the appropriate legal avenues is often costly, and workers will sign such agreements in return for monetary settlements, while employers are able to keep allegations confidential. 

In addition to barring workers from filing charges with law enforcement or speaking to the media, non-disclosure agreements prevent vulnerable workers from speaking with each other, via non-disparaging clauses. Part of what helped bring to light many of the abuses that employers such as Mario Batali and other celebrity chefs committed were the “whisper” networks that victims used to disclose information, warning each other to avoid certain bad actors. (Non-disparagement clauses prevent sharing such information, even in confidence.)

Domestic worker Teresa Molina, an organizer with Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), says that trafficking, as well as physical and psychological harassment are widespread in San Francisco, where the organization is based. Domestic workers who have housekeeping and child-care jobs in private homes frequently run into rampant racism and sexism: Employers threaten to report undocumented migrants to ICE and make sexual comments or use other psychologically abusive tactics. They also know that the workers either can’t or won’t speak up for fear of losing a job or having to navigate the courts to file a complaint or having to find a lawyer or other legal assistance. 

“Many women are also victims of domestic violence and don’t want the public exposure of a trial, in case their former abusers can track them down,” says Molina, who came to the United States from Mexico. “MUA helps women address grievances with their employers to avoid the possibility of a trial, such as negotiating to receive unpaid wages.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas organizes immigrant women, from Mexico, Central America, and South America, most of whom are nannies, housekeepers, or other domestic workers. They provide legal resources and support for immigrants and domestic workers, many of whom are undocumented and who then assume they have no rights to legal recourse if they are assaulted, as they often cannot speak English, and work in professions that are marginalized even in their home countries. 

MUA has a crisis line for victims of sexual assault and abuse, and there are weekly survivor groups for women who have experienced sexual assault or harassment. Juana Flores, co-director of MUA and a Mexican immigrant like Molina, emphasizes that an anonymous crisis line is imporant because discussing sexual assault and harassment is taboo in many quarters: “Women feel really isolated when they go through situations like this. … Especially because there are very powerful people involved, and there are powerful structures, and the more powerful the man is, and the [poorer] the woman is, the more unfair the [power imbalance is].”

The domestic sector attracts diverse groups of workers, but the patterns of harassment and assault against workers are universal. Myrla Baldonado is the membership organizer of Pilipino Workers Center, a nonprofit that serves communities in Southern California. Before moving to California, she was a home-care aide in Chicago where she landed after more than 30 years as an activist in the Philippines. 

While looking after her elderly clients, bathing, feeding, and dressing them, she had to endure constant bullying from clients’ family members. On top of having to navigate the politics of working in private homes with families, Baldonado also found out that Illinois sexual harassment laws did not cover domestic workers. She began organizing her fellow domestic workers in Chicago and help them discern what rights they had as private home carers, leading workshops and collaborating with attorneys. As a leader with the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, Baldonado received a “Champion of Change” honor from the Obama White House for fighting for domestic home workers’ rights to be recognized within Illinois labor legislation. 

When she moved to California, she found the same problems. “There is a history of exclusion of nannies [too] from the labor movement,” Baldonado says. “California excluded domestic workers and careers [from its labor rights bill].” She also witnessed patterns of shame and stigma. Carers who were violated felt a deep sense of shame, and they downplayed incidents of groping or assault. “They feel guilty, they are afraid, they feel embarrassed,” says Baldonado. “They are told their actions provoked it, so in addition to all they went through, they also are afraid to be blamed for what happened.” 

PWC and MUA are members of the California Domestic Workers Coalition, a coalition of grassroots organizations. In 2013, the movement scored a major victory when Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Domestic Workers Rights Bill, allowing workers to claim overtime pay, an especially important issue since carers are expected to work up to 24 hours a day taking care of infirm patients. Flores says that the survivor groups and education that MUA provides has helped alleviate some of the trauma women can face. “Women can share, feel empowered, feel that their voices are heard, feel that they can actually speak up and learn about their rights, so they can do something about it,” she says. 

Meanwhile, ROC United’s Jayaraman says that the food industry is the best industry to address structural issues of sexual assault and harassment, because so many people work their first jobs in the industry, and new sector policies can often set standards for others. In 2013, ROC United launched a “One Fair Wage” campaign to eradicate the distinction between non-tipped and tipped workers, who can make as little as $2.13 an hour, leaving them reliant on tips. 

So far, seven states have scrapped these policies entirely, requiring employers to pay workers full minimum wages before tips, according to the Department of Labor. Raising wages would fix the power imbalance between employees and customers, and that of employees and employers, says Jayaraman. If workers were ensured of a living wage before tips, they wouldn’t have to rely on customers’ good will to make extra cash, or have to curry favor with bosses to ensure that they would receive their full paycheck. 

Ehrenreich, the journalist, says that working women need safe spaces like the ones that MUA and PWC provide: “A place where you can go to, where nothing gets repeated outside … where you could kind of relax, and share with other workers,” she says. “It’s up to unions, and to affluent feminists, to help create these spaces.” Women in leadership positions who have suffered assault and abuse have also provided an outlet for support and healing.

The “Me Too” social media campaign has also helped push those women to the forefront of the movement. The horrors that high-profile celebrities have endured are very similar to the abuses faced by domestic workers, according to Molina of Mujeres Unidas y Activas. “This moment has been really helpful for the organization because women feel more conscious, more aware, of what they can actually call an assault,” she says. “They are more aware of what kind of behaviors are not okay, and it helps them to feel confident to [assert] their rights.” 

Yet after “Me Too” moment fades from view, Molina argues, the legal challenges will remain. “The fact [is] that there are no laws that actually protect those vulnerable women; employers can do whatever they feel like,” she says. They don’t think, they don’t believe, they will be [held] accountable for this kind of thing, so that has to change.”

You may also like