Luwalhati is a 72-year old Filipino mother who is working as a live-in caregiver in the suburbs of Chicago. She takes care of an elderly American couple inflicted with serious medical conditions affecting their mobility. She has been giving them care for over six years now, and has treated them with love and respect. “I protect them like they are my own family.”
As a live-in caregiver, Luwalhati would work non-stop from sunrise to sunset: preparing meals, monitoring medicine intakes, rendering assistance in the use of toilet room, fixing their beds and closets, pushing their wheelchairs, running errands, handling occasional tantrums thrown at her, and managing all other chores in the house. Her only chance to take a break or eat her own meals is when the couple are resting or sleeping. “My job is really physically challenging because I have to exert energy all day with limited opportunity to rest. But it is rewarding for me to know that through my hard work, I am able to help other people and ensure their well being.”
However, despite her dedication, Luwalhati feels that her labor is undervalued. The society sees her as an an invisible part of the household. “My clients treat me well, but whenever I go to family gatherings or social events with them, other people would not consider me a part of the circle. People would hardly notice me. No one would talk to me. No one would offer me food. They treat me like I need to belong first to their status in the society before they could recognize my existence.”
Luwalhati does not have a health insurance, social security coverage, or paid sick days. She is an aging mother herself, who also needs to be taken care of, but she sets aside her own health issues, so that she can attend to the elderly couple whose medical conditions require constant monitoring and assistance.
Luwalhati worked as a public school teacher in the Philippines for several years before she immigrated to the US in 2000. When she moved to the US, she decided to perform domestic work so that she could earn a living and send support to her family back home. “Some people say that we swallow our dignity to do a job that is different from our profession in our home country. But I disagree to that. Yes teaching is a noble profession. But I believe that caregiving is even more. Because we are helping other people. The American society should see that our work is more than an affirmation of human dignity. We sacrifice our time with our own family, so that we could help other families and protect their homes. Wherever we are, whatever we do, we just have to do our best.”
In the United States, most of the domestic work is done by women, and women’s work is largely unrecognized. Domestic work like caregiving is considered socially invisible and is not prioritized in policy and political discourses.
Luwalhati is one of the women who pushed policy makers to prioritize the protection of domestic workers’ rights in the labor legislation. She lobbied for the passage of the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was finally signed in August 2016, and is now fully effective. This law safeguards the rights of domestic workers to minimum wage, to rest for at least one day in every calendar week, and to be protected from abuse and harassment. “I am excited to know that with the passage of this law here in the state of Illinois, we can finally encourage our employers and their families to recognize our contribution to the society, and to realize that caregivers and other domestic workers are not invisible. We exist, and we need to be respected.”