Field Research and Collaboration on Domestic Workers’ Rights

The following is a guest post by Jeanna Lee, with contributions from Nirali Shah. Both students are 3Ls in WCL’s Immigrant Justice Clinic. All photos used with permission.

Nirali Shah (left) and Jeanna Lee (right)
Nirali Shah (left) and Jeanna Lee (right)

As student attorneys, we envision research happening in libraries and on computers. However, when it comes to community-based work, we need to expand our paradigm to include field-based research and personal testimony. This is especially true when researching domestic workers’ rights. Because of the hidden nature of domestic work, comprehensive and accurate research on domestic workers is difficult to find. Additionally, the concept of domestic work is fraught with the stigma of inferiority, despite its impact on the economy and individual lives. Because of this stigma, while workers were gaining rights during the New Deal and beyond, domestic workers were systematically left out. These factors present obstacles for everyone conducting the on-the-ground research desperately needed to paint a realistic picture.

Last week, my clinic partner and I attended a conference entitled “Justice in the Home: Domestic Work Past, Present, and Future” at the Barnard Center for Research on Women in New York. The motto of the conference, “It’s the Work That Makes All Other Work Possible,” explains why domestic work is so important. The conference focused on the novel research done on domestic work and domestic worker organizing and provided a forum for professionals to have a comprehensive discussion on key related issues. Throughout the conference, scholars, legal practitioners, and community organizers were able to discuss how new research altered our conceptual frameworks about labor, gender, race, and resistance. We learned a great deal about the existing groundwork in this field as well as the relevant topics of debate and areas of advancement. Most importantly, we met the activists and researchers who work in the trenches and understand the needs of domestic workers on an intimate level.

At the beginning of her Keynote Address, Ai Jen Poo (Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, Co-Director of the Caring Across Generations campaign, MacArthur Genius Grantee, and overall super activist) asked all of the domestic workers to come on stage and introduce themselves. The domestic workers were surprised but spoke with pride. It was a touching moment.
Ai Jen Poo (Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, Co-Director of the Caring Across Generations campaign, MacArthur Genius Grantee), inviting the domestic workers in attendance to come onstage and introduce themselves.

Legal scholarship is not only for case work and theory – it can make a difference on the ground. By collaborating with researchers and organizers in the field, we learned about the intricacies of advocating for domestic workers’ rights. We discussed potential solutions related to injustices faced by domestic workers in an academic, thought-provoking forum. Most importantly, we established a network of support and guidance at the conference that will serve as an important foundation for our research. All in all, it was a productive and eye-opening weekend. For more information about the conference, please click here.

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