3 ways to fix the economy for essential workers, according to a leading labor activist

3 ways to fix the economy for essential workers, according to a leading labor activist
A grocery store worker bends down to pick up food items to stock shelves. Tempura via Getty Images
  • Essential workers around the world are calling for a more equitable recovery.
  • That includes higher wages, better working conditions, and more protections.
  • Insider spoke to leading activist Ai-jen Poo about the importance of an equal recovery.

When life began to shut down due to the spread of the coronavirus, some workers turned bedrooms into offices and adapted to Zoom calls from home.

But many essential workers were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, whether they lost jobs in private homes, or were forced onto the frontlines for low pay. As the world looks towards recovery, essential workers and activists are demanding a different type of economy. One of those activists is Ai-jen Poo, the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Domestic workers include housekeepers, nannies, and home care workers. In the US, 2.2 million people normally work in private homes, according to research from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Almost 92% of those workers are women, and over half of them are Black, Hispanic, or Asian American Pacific Islander.

A report from the UN's International Labour Organization found that domestic workers were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with working hours falling by 50% in 13 countries.

3 ways to fix the economy for essential workers, according to a leading labor activist
Ai-jen Poo. Courtesy of Essential for Recovery

Poo has been at the forefront of the domestic labor movement, and was awarded a MacArthur grant in 2014. She spoke with Insider about what domestic workers need for an equitable recovery ahead of a three-day summit called "Essential for Recovery," where international workers and activists alike - including Poo - will present a framework for recovery.


There are three themes that essential workers around the world are calling for in an equitable recovery.

Unite a disperse workforce for collective bargaining

Domestic workers are far more likely to be part of the informal economy - meaning that they don't have the legal protections or benefits of a full-time job. A recent report from the ILO finds that, worldwide, eight out of 10 domestic workers are informally employed; according to the EPI report, one in five domestic workers in the US get health insurance through their jobs.

"The vast majority of domestic workers lost their jobs and income at the beginning of the pandemic; 82% of domestic workers didn't have a single paid sick day going into the pandemic, and there was no job security," Poo told Insider. "People lost their jobs and income overnight, and ever since then it's been a struggle of just a set of impossible choices."

Domestic workers are also excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which gives workers the right to create unions or other collective actions, the EPI report notes.

For domestic workers, Poo said that change means "ensuring that workers have a voice in their workplace, where they are connected to unions or organizations where they can break out of the isolation of this work and work collectively to raise wages."


Making sure workplaces are safe and healthy

"That's everything from ensuring that people have clean water and sanitation to PPE," Poo said.

A survey of 636 primarily Asian and Latinx essential workers in California from Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus and UC Berkeley found that just 12% of domestic and home healthcare workers regularly got N-95 respirators.

On a basic safety level, that means ensuring vulnerable workers receive PPE; the group is also calling for resources and protections to guard against sexual harassment and violence, from paid leave to flexible work arrangements for survivors.

Ensuring social protections like childcare, healthcare, and education

"If we are serious about creating economic mobility and economic security for the global workforce, we're going to have to really think about what kind of social protections can enable that," Poo said. She said that lack of caregiving infrastructure and universal paid sick time "are some of the most powerful drivers of inequality that nobody talks about."

The ILO report found that half of the world's population doesn't have access to social protections like healthcare, stable income, childcare, or retirement plans - and posited that the onslaught of the pandemic has created a moment where it's possible to change that.


"I think the pandemic really revealed just how interdependent we are in our economy and otherwise - nothing like a public health crisis to remind us that as societies, we are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent," Poo said. "And if there is a set of workers who are unprotected and highly insecure, it creates a downward gravitational pull where more and more of us will be at risk."