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Domestic Workers Clean Up Their Work Environments

Fellowship Story Showcase

Domestic Workers Clean Up Their Work Environments

Picture of Ngoc Nguyen

Editor's Note: While the California Air Resources Board is taking a closer look at toxic cleaning products, domestic workers organized at San Francisco's La Raza Centro Legal have been detoxifying their work environments with a little elbow grease. Ngoc Nguyen is an environmental editor for New America Media.

New America Media
Friday, October 24, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – When Esther Gress walks down the aisles at the grocery or drug store, she surveys the wall of cleaning products critically: disinfectant sprays, bottles of bleach, the all-purpose stuff. The 34-year-old, who has cleaned homes for a living for the past five years, used to use toxic chemicals on the job. Now, she bypasses these products for cleaners she mixes up herself.

The California Air Resources Board is currently expanding the list of consumer products it regulates and setting tighter emissions limits on products it does monitor, after findings have shown many cleaning products to be a growing source of smog in the state.

Domestic workers, janitorial workers and their advocates are paying attention, too. That's because those who work in private homes are exempt from state health and safety protections. Some domestic workers in the Bay Area are mixing up their own non-toxic alternatives to cut down their exposure to toxic fumes.

"We use baking soda in place of Ajax and vinegar instead of Windex," Gress says in Spanish through an interpreter. "They are cheaper and you can use vinegar on wood floors, windows, on different furniture. Baking soda can be used to clean in the bathroom and the [kitchen] stove."

Gress started cleaning homes when she came here from Mexico and settled in San Francisco's Mission district five years ago. She worked for a company as a contractor and was sent out to clean homes. The company supplied the cleaning products. Fumes from those cleaners made her eyes sting and tear, irritated her nose, caused her skin to break out in a rash, and sometimes even caused nosebleeds, headaches and dizziness.

A friend and household cleaner told Gress about a community nonprofit, La Raza Centro Legal, that advocates on behalf of domestic workers. Three years later, Gress uses the dispatch service for domestic workers run by the Day Labor Program of the San Francisco Women’s Collective out of La Raza’s offices, and volunteers her time here teaching other women how to whip up non-toxic cleaners.

Gress started to make her own non-toxic cleaners out of common household items such as lemon juice, borax, baking soda and vinegar, when she learned that workers like her are not protected under federal or state workplace health and safety laws.

State labor codes explicitly exclude domestic workers from health and safety protections. The law has loopholes that state that domestic work is not "employment." Because of this, a place where that type of work is performed (a home) is not considered to be "a place of employment," according to Worksafe attorney Danielle Lucido.

"Because the law does not empower Cal/OSHA to investigate an alleged unsafe work condition relating to household domestic service, it cannot go into homes to investigate any such condition," Lucido says.

Domestic workers, who perform work such as childcare, elderly care, cleaning, and cooking, typically are not entitled to workers' compensation benefits, except in very limited circumstances.

The Day Labor Program Women's Collective, in collaboration with other nonprofits, surveyed about 250 household workers and published a report last year, offering a snapshot of the working conditions of domestic workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, the majority of whom are immigrant women. More than half of the women were the main breadwinners in their families, and more than 70 percent sent money home to relatives in another country. The majority of them earned less than $14 per hour.

The report found about two-thirds of the household cleaners surveyed viewed domestic work as a dangerous job. Cleaning products emit hazardous fumes, especially if the products are incorrectly mixed together. Bleach and ammonia, when mixed, emit hazardous fumes (chloramines and gaseous ammonia) that can cause acute respiratory symptoms.

Well-being for domestic workers and their families involves more than just removing toxic chemicals on the job. Domestic workers have organized to improve other workplace conditions on the job, including overtime pay, rest and lunch breaks, and a workplace free of harassment and abuse.

Gress trains other domestic workers during a bimonthly workshop called “Cleaning with Safety and Dignity,” where she teaches cleaners about less toxic alternatives and ingredients, and how to negotiate with employers.

"We explain [to clients] how [non-toxic cleaners] are better for them too, their house, children and pets," she says.

Gress is also helping to develop an ad campaign targeting domestic workers, which La Raza Centro Legal plans to launch next spring.

Jill Shenker, a coordinator of the Day Labor Program Women's Collective, says toxic products are just one part of the overall message that workers help to craft: "This is a dignified job, a regular job that deserves respect. I can negotiate good wages and work conditions."

Gress says she spends a lot of time at the organization, calling it her "second home." She sings in a choir and performs in a theater group, both programs run by the Women's Collective to boost self-esteem and foster a supportive environment.

"We strengthen ourselves," Gress says, "and try to be a good example for our children."