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Ensuring the Dignity of Workers and Employers

By Jennifer Hirsch | Issue Date: August 2009

My name is Jennifer Hirsch and I am a mother of two and a BJ member. This year I have been engaged in the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights Campaign as a member of the BJ Manhattan Together Hevra, in partnership with two organizations, Domestic Workers United and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Like a lot of you, the foundation of my whole domestic house of cards, ever since my two boys were born, has been the women I pay to help care for them. I’m an anthropologist, and the focus of my work is what you might call “the toxicity of inequality”—that is, the way that intertwining inequalities of social class, race, and nationality put some people at much greater risk for poor health outcomes than others. So, from the earliest moments I left baby Isaac with Adriana, I was in this potentially contradictory situation of spending my days studying inequality, while also, as an employer of an immigrant woman of color to whom I did not provide health insurance, being a beneficiary of that same system of inequality.

I tried to find solutions that allowed me to look at myself in the mirror without seeing the hypocrisy meter readings go off the charts. This meant taking advantage of our connections in the health care field to get Adriana gall bladder surgery; later, when we moved to New York, it meant paying Aracely, our babysitter, and housekeeper all summer long, even though we were away. I understand that my being on vacation did not mean that she would have to stop paying her rent. But it was—and is—always an imperfect balance, with a never-ending stream of situations that, despite my best intentions and huge appreciation for the love and care our babysitters have provided the children, have sometimes pitted my interests and convenience against their wants and needs—and I need to remember that I am, after all, the boss.

We have big debates in our house about whether religion is a force for good or evil in the world. One of my standard responses to Jacob, who is 7, when he asks me why we need G-d and Judaism anyway, is that it can be a guide for hard decisions, and that having a shared set of rules and standards for what it means to be a good person can help us do better, without feeling like we have to make it up on our own.

Using Jewish values and ethics to guide my individual practices as an employer means that I have some some guidelines other than my own individual desire to be a good person—that is, some concrete measure of what a good person might do. This enriches my relation to Judaism, providing an unexpected context in which I can live as a Jew.

The campaign, the very idea that domestic work is work and should be treated and regulated as such, honors the efforts of all the women who make me able to do my own work. I’ve had bosses I’ve loved and bosses I’ve hated, those who have pushed me to excel and those who have pushed me over the edge, but I always got paid on time, and knew how many vacation days I would have—and domestic workers deserve the same. I have tried to honor this in more personal ways as well—for example, in my most recent book I thanked my babysitter before my husband and sons. True power, however, resides not in personal gestures but in collective action, and enhanced legal protections for domestic workers will make them less subject to the moral scruples of employers—even employers, like many of us, who strive to be good and just in our individual practices.