Pope's tweet opens window to an invisible workforce

On Tuesday, Pope Francis tweeted: "May we be always more grateful for the help of domestic workers and caregiver; theirs is a precious service." With one simple message in honor of St. Martha, the patron saint of cooks and housekeepers, the pope encouraged the world to care for the workers who care for us every day.

I was moved by Pope Francis' comments not only as a Catholic, but as a former domestic worker and advocate for caregivers. Last month in his weekly address, the pope remembered the tireless work of a domestic worker who helped his family for many years and said, "often the big and beautiful work they perform" is not valued "with justice." He also shared a heartwarming story that he keeps a Sacred Heart medallion in his pocket that was given to him by the domestic worker. Thank you, Pope Francis, for reminding us of the important role domestic workers play in our society and their lasting impact in our lives.

When I first came to the U.S. from Mexico 27 years ago, I immediately started working as a domestic worker. I was grateful to care for the child of the family I worked for and thought the pay of $75 every two weeks was a lot of money. However, my work dramatically changed. Soon, I was taking care of two additional children and was expected to do the cleaning all for the same pay. Months later, the husband started to intimidate me by insulting me and talking to me in suggestive ways. Alone and new to this country, I felt trapped.

My experience joins the countless stories of domestic workers suffering harassment and abuse. There are approximately 2 million domestic workers in the U.S. and an estimated 52 million domestic workers across the world. While caring for our families, cooking our food, and cleaning our houses, most domestic workers live in isolation and are vulnerable to exploitation. Domestic workers are excluded from many of the basic protections guaranteed by the Fair Labor Standards Act to most other workers in the United States, like minimum wage, overtime, and sick and vacation pay. Many do not earn a living wage and work without access to health care, paid sick days or paid time off. Because of domestic workers' unique workplaces -- inside other people's homes -- the struggles domestic workers face are largely out of the public spotlight.   

But the tide is turning. Domestic workers, in partnership with employers, religious leaders, and other advocates, have led the charge for dignity and respect. Four states -- New York, Hawaii, California and Massachusetts -- have passed the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in only four years. Each bill guarantees basic protections such as overtime, minimum wage, protections from harassment and the right to written contracts, days off and sick days. 

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Our movement has reached even farther. Last year, I witnessed the founding of the International Domestic Worker Federation in Chile. This major milestone helped to connect domestic workers across continents, languages and experiences. Our voices and our stories have become visible.

Years ago, I had the courage to walk away from the job when I faced injustice. For over 20 years, I worked with women all over the country -- nannies, housekeepers and caregivers -- sharing my story of abuse and neglect to inspire other domestic workers to stand up for their rights. But our work is not over. Domestic work helps make all other work possible, yet these workers who care for us can't afford to properly take care of their own families.  

As a Catholic, I am proud that Pope Francis has recognized and honored the work of millions of women who do this work, much like St. Martha. I hope as Catholics, we can take his lead and do our part to make sure all domestic workers in this country feel valued and have the dignity and respect they deserve.

[Juana Flores is the co-director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, where she has helped thousands of immigrant women develop their own leadership and become passionate advocates for themselves and their community. She is a former board-chair of the National Domestic Worker Alliance and was an official delegate to the International Labor Organization which passed the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.]

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