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The Coronavirus Pandemic Revealed How Domestic and Migrant Workers Are ‘Invisible’ in the U.S. Economy

4 minute read

Activists Ai-Jen Poo and Mónica Ramírez have long been fighting for the rights of domestic workers and migrant women—many of whom lack fundamental protections and often are underpaid and expected to work long hours. These systemic problems are even more pronounced because of the coronavirus pandemic, the two activists said in a TIME 100 Talks interview with TIME senior editor Haley Sweetland Edwards.

Poo, executive director of The National Domestic Workers Alliance, represents individuals (mostly women) who work as home care workers, care givers and domestic workers. Ramírez, founder of Justice for Migrant Women, works with a broader array of people, including other low-paid immigrant workers, especially farmworkers. Many of these workers have found themselves on the frontlines during the COVID-19 crisis without adequate protections.

Ramírez says these workers are not always included in economic relief legislation related to the coronavirus. She also notes that difficulties facing these workers and the fight for the recognition of their rights under basic labor and employment laws long predates the coronavirus pandemic. “Unfortunately, our political leaders have not stepped up in the way that they need to to ensure that these workers are being cared for,” she says.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance has started an emergency relief fund that provides $400 in assistance to caregivers and domestic workers and has already drawn in donations from about 105,000 people. But even this, is “frankly not enough,” says Poo.

“It can never replace what the government must do to provide a strong safety net for all of us,” Poo says. “What this crisis has really revealed is just how unsafe our safety net is and it’s also revealed how many workers we have taken for granted and made invisible in our economy.”

Among those who the two activists say need greater protections are home care workers who look after the elderly, disabled and those with chronic illnesses, who have found themselves on the frontlines of the pandemic. These workers, usually women, are faced with “an impossible choice” around how they’re going to feed their families and keep themselves, their loved ones and those they care for safe without necessary protective equipment and easy access to testing and treatment, says Poo.

Ramírez also says she takes issue with the way the terminology around “essential workers” has been used “because not all of the workers who are essential workers are defined as such. “It’s important for people to understand that all work and all workers are important and critical and so we want people to not use that language to differentiate (which) workers deserve rights and protections and which workers don’t,” she says.

“When this moment passes, will these workers continue to be viewed as heroes?” Ramírez asks. “What will our country, everyday people and political leaders do to actually show that they value the work and the lives of these workers enough to actually make the changes that are required at a political level and at a policy level?”

Both Ramírez and Poo hope there’s a silver lining in this crisis—a recognition of just how valuable and deserving of support these vulnerable workers are. Poo says she hopes she can look back and reflect on this moment as a “time when we as country went through a horrendous crisis but it taught us how to take care of each other.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com