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Can Technology Give Domestic Workers A Voice and a Safety Net?

Rosana Araujo last saw her hometown of Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, in 2002, when her husband was offered a job in a Miami hospital medical lab and moved his wife and young son to the United States. With a deep financial crisis bubbling in South America, this new adventure held promise.

But right from the start, Araujo felt lost. “The heat was terrible, the city so big, and I didn’t speak the language.” Even more challenging, they discovered upon arriving in Florida that the job her husband thought he’d been offered didn’t actually exist.

So the former university arts and anthropology professor soon turned to cleaning homes and warehouses, routinely working nights and weekends, simply to feed her family.

It was a grueling schedule; she miscarried a second pregnancy but continued to work, primarily cleaning homes and a carpentry shop, and doing paperwork for the shop. Then in 2012, Araujo and her husband divorced “and I entered into deep crisis.” She began to work more jobs and longer hours, leaving at 4:30 a.m. to take a bus to her first gig, returning home between 8 and 10 p.m.

This was not the life she’d envisioned.

“I was angry at myself and everyone else,” says Araujo, now 52. “I didn’t want to go back to Uruguay and separate my son from his father. But really, I don’t know how I did it. I was very stressed. There were moments of deep depression.”

NDWA Labs Harnesses Technology to Unite an Underground Community

Hers is a story at once unique and familiar to domestic workers. Enter the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA), and especially their groundbreaking work to use technology to create a community of those facing similar challenges and eager to fight for a better life.

Palak Shah (NDWA Labs), Alicia Garza (NDWA) and Ai-jen Poo (NDWA) at the launch of Alia Benefits in 2018.

In 2008, Araujo discovered NDWA through the immigrants’ rights movement, and then founded Women Working Together USA, a domestic workers’ rights organization in Broward County, Florida, that joined the national movement by becoming an NDWA affiliate.

It was a moment of optimism. “We are volunteers but we were growing, and we were excited with what we were doing, especially advancing the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights,” she says. “I attended the NDWA conference in Las Vegas in February of last year. I finally felt like I had a solid structure.”

Then, Covid-19 struck. “My jobs began falling apart. After two or three months, I had no income at all and, because I was undocumented, no federal relief.”

Even before Covid-19, NDWA Labs, the innovation arm of NDWA formed five years ago, had focused in on the lack of a social safety net for domestic workers—no sick days or vacations, no health insurance. The NDWA Labs created Alia, a portable benefits platform making it easy for employers and clients to contribute regularly to the benefits for domestic workers. The contributions were voluntary with a suggested contribution of $5 per cleaning, but it was still progress.

“Our vision has always been to extend the safety net to domestic workers, who weren’t included in its design because they work outside the traditional nine-to-five structure, for multiple employers and with informal work agreements,” says Palak Shah, the Lab’s Founding Director. “The first iteration of Alia proved that it was possible to design a benefits platform for domestic workers—when the solution is designed by and for those workers.”

In the midst of the pandemic, The Rockefeller Foundation stepped up to help support NDWA as it sought to use technology to both quantify the impact of Covid-19 and provide rapid response cash funds to low-wage workers who typically live in the shadows.

“Domestic workers epitomize what it is to be essential,” says Otis Rolley, The Rockefeller Foundation’s Senior Vice President, U.S. Equity and Economic Opportunity Initiative. “Every day, through their professionalism and experience, they prioritize the care of others before themselves. Covid-19 put a spotlight on the unacceptable choice facing domestic workers, a choice between their wellbeing and a paycheck. We wanted to help.”


A Look at the Data

Press the arrows below to view findings from the survey.

March 18th 2021

What We Learned

Nine out of 10 domestic workers surveyed would get the Covid-19 vaccine if they could, but less than 12 percent of those who tried to get the vaccine had been able to secure an appointment, according to a March report from NDWA Labs’ La Alianza survey.

Read more about this survey

Technology That Solves for Dignity and Equity

Part of the NDWA Lab’s success is built around a willingness to experiment with new strategies. “The truth is, there is no silver bullet to transform 400 years of an undervalued labor market overnight,” Shah says. “The root problem is built up and entrenched in culture and laws for hundreds of years: the work of cleaning homes and caring for children and the aging is not seen in the context of ‘real work’ because it is historically women’s work, and devalued.”

Rosana at the mic speaking during an NDWA meeting

Another challenge, she says, is an underground and disaggregated labor market. “Domestic work is mostly done and paid for in the shadows. In any city, you may have hundreds of thousands domestic workers, each with two or three or four employers, and over a million homes—no one knows. There is no water cooler, no HR department. Many are undocumented.”

NDWA Labs believes technology has a role to play in supporting this workforce, but Shah notes that technology is not inherently good, or even neutral. Depending on how it is used, it can enshrine and preserve existing power imbalances, or disrupt them.

“Much existing technological innovation seeks to optimize efficiency and profit, rather than optimizing for equity and dignity,” Shah says. “Part of the running hypothesis of the NDWA Labs is that technology can disrupt unequal power and be part of the solution—if we can crack it.”

Bringing Collective Power to an Unprotected Industry

In 2018, the Lab began experimenting with a chatbot called La Alianza (The Alliance) that collected the concerns of domestic workers, and in March 2020, it started surveying domestic workers every week to learn how the pandemic was impacting their lives, reaching more then 20,000 cleaners, nannies and homecare workers.

Rosana Araujo (far right) with fellow domestic workers

By late March, more than 90 percent of workers were reporting lost jobs due to Covid-19. The median hourly wage for a domestic worker before the pandemic was below $11, and close to a quarter of domestic workers live in poverty. Once pandemic shutdowns began, more than half were unable to pay their rent or mortgage for six consecutive months. The vast majority did not apply for unemployment insurance, mostly because they did not believe they qualified.

This reinforced the Lab’s immediate certainty that the pandemic was going to be economically devastating for domestic workers, Shah said. “We announced a Coronavirus Care Fund with the goal of raising $4 million to distribute to 10,000 workers. Instead, we raised $30 million. Overnight we built a safety net, quite honestly.”

“And then we had to figure out how to distribute it. So our friends at sent us a small team and all of us together rapidly built software to distribute these dollars through Alia Cares.”

“These funds,” Araujo says, “helped me eat.”

We Cannot Unsee What We Have Seen

Building on this progress is critical, Shah says. “We can’t unsee what we have seen: the most essential of us are the least protected. That’s what Covid revealed. Now we have the opportunity to make sure the safety net extends to this workforce that our society and our economy relies on.”

One critically needed change, says Araujo, is that more domestic workers need to be trained on how to use technology to their benefit. “Technology has provided this platform for us to increase our organizing and be more inclusive. It’s a safer way for those who feel vulnerable or don’t want to be exposed.”

Araujo and other domestic workers gather in Washington D.C.

But the drawback, she says, is that many face a steep learning curve. “At night when I get home, around 11 p.m., I am teaching them little by little, how to access online workshops. But we need more people doing this.”

After 18 years of working primarily as a cleaner, Araujo has not forgotten her roots in the arts. She created and hosts a radio show for domestic workers that includes dancing and singing along with information. “I consider art to be a way of living,” she says.

Her son Damian, 20, was recently hospitalized with a brain cancer diagnosis. But she nurtures hope—for his healing and for an improved life for her and the women NDWA supports. “It’s been beautiful to see domestic workers organize,” she says. “Together, we can accomplish things.”

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