I looked around, and most of the people heading into the dark movie theater were white women in their fifties and sixties. There were no black people, and my mother remarked on this. I looked at her and said, “Why would they want to see a movie about racism and what it was like to be a domestic worker back in the 1960s? They’ve already lived through it and experienced it.” This made sense to my mother, and she nodded. We went inside, found our seats, and I put my captioning device in the cupholder, adjusted the screen, and sat back as the movie opened.
Even though the acting was amazing, and there were many funny and sobering scenes in the movie, I noticed that much of the narrative was focused on Skeeter and the racist housewives, Hilly and Elizabeth. There was a conceit to the movie from the white perspective, and when Aibileen said that she was a writer, and kept repeating that, it felt false to me. How could she be a writer when it was a white woman that wrote her story, and she didn’t publish the book under her own name? I felt that the author, Stockett, who had written the book, was patronizing us in the audience in that sense about Aibileen and Minny ‘being writers’ when in actuality, they were subjects for Skeeter to be interviewed.
It was Skeeter who ended up elevating her own success by going to New York City and getting that job of her dreams. She’d used those women, and she got successful for it. And what happened to Aibileen and Minny? Aibileen lost her job, and Minny kept hers, but never rose out of her role as a domestic worker to another elevated role.
After we left the movie theater, and we sat in the car, thinking about the movie. My mother remarked to me that she wished the movie had been based on an actual memoir, and the stories would have been more authentic. She’d noticed how much of the movie was done from the white perspective, and said, “You know those white women in the audience? How many of them really think about their own Latino help and see the similarities in what they’ve done to Latino women here in El Paso?”
The Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, the Border Network for Human Rights, and the Labor Justice Committee released a report in June of 2011 about the systematic exploitation of Mexican women and wage theftalong the border.
“Wage theft in El Paso correlates closely with El Paso demographics. Nearly a third of all El Paso residents are3―foreign-born, many of them from Mexico and undocumented and struggling financially.‖ Wage theft is particularly prevalent among immigrant workers, and ―work-related exploitation appears to be growing along with the country’s immigrant population.‖4 In addition to fear of losing their jobs, immigrants without legal status are also less likely to report incidents of wage theft for fear of immigration detention and deportation.5
But the question facing El Paso, along with the rest of Texas, is, ―What kind of jobs are we creating?‖ A recent report cast doubt on the optimism of Texas’ newfound job growth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas ranks as one of two states, along with Mississippi, with the highest percentage of workers making at, or below, the federal minimum wage.9 Of Texas’ 5.7 million hourly workers, 550,000 earned at or below federal minimum wage in 2010.10 El Paso statistics mirror these state-wide trends. Around eighty percent of low-wage workers interviewed in El Paso for this report earn less than $10 an hour. It is doubtful these are the kind of jobs that will create a healthy economy and sustain El Paso families and communities in the long-run.
These domestic workers have little recourse for help from the state. Governor Rick Perry has defunded our state to the extent that the agency, the Texas Workforce Commission, which is supposed to help these workers, only has 24 investigators for the entire state. The report points out that as a result of policy and lack of resources, these investigators have not conducted a field investigation since 1993.
Here is the story of Maria, a domestic worker, who did not receive the help she needed from the federal government when she turned to the local Department of Labor office for assistance:
As a domestic worker, she fell directly under the FLSA minimum wage provisions. Based on her calculation of hours worked, her employer owed her more than $11,000 in unpaid wages. When María brought this information to her investigator, the investigator refused to negotiate for the higher wage rate and refused to accept any other information she had regarding her claim. The investigator only recovered a little more than $3,000 in unpaid wages, a third of her owed wages.
More troubling is the inability of workers to have representation or an advocate when they make a complaint. In the case of María, an attorney represented the employer in negotiations with the DOL investigator. Maria was unrepresented. After feeling concern over the lack of advocacy in her case, she sought help from the Labor Justice Committee. She then tried to set up a meeting with the DOL investigator about discrepancies in her hour calculations. The investigator told her in no uncertain terms that, if she wanted to have representation of any kind, including a non- attorney community advocate, she would not be able to continue her complaint with the DOL.24 The investigator informed her that she could pursue the DOL conciliation or she could have an attorney, but could not have it both ways.25 Worried she would be left without any help, María decided to accept the vastly undervalued DOL settlement. By refusing to let María go to the DOL office with representation of any kind, the local DOL essentially forced her to go through the wage claim process alone, while allowing the employer to have legal representation.26
More women like Maria are slipping through the cracks because our society and those in power are unwilling to do anything about the problem. Why would those in power do anything different? They’ve got domestic help in their own households. We’ve got to keep beating the drum about wage theft, because it’s not just Latino workers that this is happening to, it’s happening to all of us. The report points out how wage theft and human labor exploitation ends up dragging us all to the bottom:
When employers shortchange employees, they also shortchange the local economy. Low- income families, who have to spend most of their earnings on basic necessities, are unable to spend, which in turn impedes the circulation of capital through local economies. As one report put it, ―[w]age theft robs local communities of this spending, and ultimately limits economic growth.‖47 Wage theft also depresses sales tax revenue for local and state governments. Further, it robs state and federal coffers of unemployment taxes. In this report, 47% of workers received all or some portion of their wages in cash. Employers seldom report payroll taxes on most of these cash payments. A recent report among Austin construction workers found that at least $8,618,869 of federal and state unemployment taxes were lost in 2009 due to employers’ misrepresentations of worker income and failure to pay payroll records.48
When it happens to the least of us, it also happens to us all. It is like a domino effect, cascading throughout the entire economy at the local and the national level. Worker exploitation, racism, and classism is nothing new, and even though The Help, as a movie, treated it as new revelations for majority white audiences, at least it is helping start a conversation about domestic labor.
One scene in the movie that I keep thinking about is of Aibileen in the bathtub, with her tired hands over the edges of the tub as her voice narrates about how much she earns per month, which is a paltry $182 dollars, for all the work she does for that wealthy white family. The scene shows her going to work, in her uniform, and working around the household. It is eerily similar to the scenes I see everyday on the border of Latino women waiting patiently by bus stops in the hot Texas heat, with their neatly pulled back hair, gnarled hands, and hoping to make it home safely without being killed, raped, or mugged by the drug cartels. They do this every morning, and they get shafted by wealthy and middle-class American households when it comes to their wages.
We need to treat domestic workers in this country like they deserve to be treated: with respect, human dignity, and pride in the work they do. They deserve to be compensated well. It is all too strange that we undervalue the work of those who work physically hard at menial labor, by paying them shit wages, like those child care workers who take care of our children for just $8.75 an hour, our teachers who have had their pay cut by state legislatures, and our construction workers who see no hope in a morose housing industry. They do so much of the work while the wealthy and the middle-class get paid for the ideas they produce, the computer work they do, and the kind of jobs that do not require hard, physical labor.
This is a topsy-tursvy world we live in. We all deserve better than this present economy, and politicians that put their own selfish needs ahead of our own. Change no longer can come from the top down, but must come from the bottom up.
Workers of the world are organizing, and we in America need to organize. We’ve got to do a better job at it. We are far too complacent, too involved in our lives, and politicians regularly lie to us into complacency. It’s time to expose the truth about how we value work in America, the systematic wage theft that is going on from Wall Street to Main Street, and how we value human lives and human families.