Nanny. Domestic caregiver. Housekeeper. These are some of the most difficult (and often demeaning) jobs in the American work force. How much do you pay your nanny? The national median is only $11 an hour. For housecleaners or "caregivers," the average is only $10, according to the "first-ever national statistical study of domestic workers," which was released today. It ain't hard to tell: domestic workers are in desperate need of a union.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which helped produce the study, says that it includes organizations representing more than 10,000 workers; a smattering of state-based organizations represent somewhat fewer. Great, until you learn that there are 800,000 domestic workers in the country, not including those that work for agencies. Domestic workers are also not subject to minimum wage laws. The vast majority of them are more or less thrown upon the mercy of their employers. A few key findings from the report:

  • 23 percent of workers surveyed are paid below the state minimum wage.
  • 67 percent of live-in workers are paid below the state minimum wage, and the median hourly wage of these workers is $6.15.
  • Less than 2 percent receive retirement or pension benefits from their primary employer.
  • Less than 9 percent work for employers who pay into Social Security.
  • 65 percent do not have health insurance, and only 4 percent receive employer-provided insurance.

Domestic workers, in other words, are low-paid, uninsured workers with no benefits and no real support system to fall back on to help them change their situation. Domestic workers have no leverage. Consider this: "Among workers who are fired from a domestic work job, 23 percent are fired for complaining about working conditions, and 18 percent are fired for protesting violations of their contract or agreement." They have no recourse. Live-in workers say that their hours are frequently extended or changed unpredictably. They have no recourse. New York is the only state in America that has passed a "domestic workers bill of rights," with basic guarantees like overtime pay. The other 49 states have not. There is no recourse. Most domestic workers do not make enough money to quit their jobs, or take labor actions that could threaten their employment. There is no recourse. We expect our domestic workers to do jobs that are, if we're being honest, probably harder than our own, yet we also expect them to accept working conditions that we would react to with outrage if they were forced on us.

Domestic workers are trusted to perform more intimate tasks than any other sort of employee that most of us will ever encounter. Still, they are unable to bargain for livable wages, basic benefits, and fair treatment. They need a union. And unlike workers in big retail operations, they do not have a massive corporate machine constantly trying to prevent them from forming a union. All they need is a union to do the organizing work. And unions, by the way, could use the members.

In the meantime, domestic workers will continue cleaning up your shit.

[The full report is here. Photo: AP]