Plenary Panel Highlight: Ai-jen Poo
By: Sara Grossman
Ai-Jen Poo began her speech by asking the audience to recognize that domestic workers were in their midst. Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, continued by describing these workers: “this is a workforce that goes to work every day in other people's homes. Unmarked, unregistered, you don't always know which homes are workplaces,” she said. “Yet they are among some of the most vulnerable workers in our economy today.”
Poo’s organization works to build respect, power, and fair labor standards for 2.5 million nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers in the United States. The National Domestic Workers Alliance successfully helped lobby for the passage of the California Bill of Rights, which extends overtime protections to personal attendants who care for individuals and families in California.
“The California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was a huge victory,” Poo said. “But it is not enough because this moment is a moment of profound change.”
We are experiencing a moment of “paradigm shift,” Poo said. Four million Americans turn 65 each year as Baby Boomers age. By 2050, 27 million Americans will need some form of care or support to meet daily needs. These aging Americans will need enormous care and will be attended to by these very domestic workers who face deplorable conditions and little compensation. It is in our own best interest, she said, to ensure that those who care for our loved ones are also cared for themselves.
“We need an exponentially stronger, larger workforce, and quite frankly, a whole new approach to caregiving to meet the profound need, and changes that are happening,” she said.
Earlier in her speech, Poo told the story of a Filipina caretaker who assists the elderly in Chicago. She has cared for over 20 seniors, helping them live independently by performing tasks like cooking, cleaning, administering medicine, and providing physical therapy. She works 24 hour shifts, four days a week, “ensuring the dignity of the elderly” with whom she works, Poo said. For all this she takes home between $5 and $9 per hour. Not to mention that she is supporting five children at home in the Philippines, and as a result often goes for days surviving solely on bananas and hard-boiled eggs.
While not every worker faces these extreme circumstances, Poo said, most work for poverty wages, “and this is the result of a very very long history and legacy of exclusion in this country.”
In an attempt to address this legacy of exclusion, the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance launched a campaign “Caring Across Generations” to “put forward a whole new vision for caregiving.” This vision, Poo said, is one that increases choice, affordability, and accessibility, “and one that transforms these poverty wage jobs that have been hidden in the shadows ... into millions of good jobs for the future that you can take pride in and support your family on and have a real pathway to opportunity.”
Poo concluded her speech on a positive note, saying that this vision for the future “uplifts all of us from a place of love and care and independence.”
"It is a future that we all deserve," she said.
Watch the entire video below.