Feb. 24, 2012 | Posted by: Rebecca Smith

The Oscars:  Picturing America’s Low Wage Workers

The Oscars:  Picturing America’s Low Wage Workers

This year, on Hollywood’s biggest night, we have an extraordinary opportunity to learn about low-wage workers’ struggles in times past and present, through two extraordinary movies.  Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are nominated for best actress awards in “The Help.”  The movie is up for best picture.  Demián Bichir is nominated for best actor in his role as a Los Angeles day laborer for “A Better Life.”  We celebrate the actors and the films they made, and congratulate Hollywood for its portrayals.  At the same time, we compare the Hollywood versions with the real lives of real low-wage workers in today’s economy.


In “The Help,” Abileen (Davis) and Minny (Spencer) struggle to raise their families and eke out a living caring for other peoples’ children and other peoples’ homes.  They shoulder the added yoke of Jim Crow Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights era. 

Today’s real life domestic workers are overwhelmingly immigrant women of color, a labor force 2.5 million strong in the United States.  Forty-one percent of workers in private households nationwide regularly suffer violations of their basic minimum wage rights.  Abuse can sometimes rise to the level of labor trafficking; in fact, some experts have opined that up to one-third of victims of labor trafficking in the United States are migrant domestic servants.  These are women who, just like Abileen, bring love and dedication to the families for whom they work, and get little in return.  Yet today, just up the road from Hollywood in Sacramento, politicians are debating whether or not these hard-working women ought to be included in the basic labor standards that nearly all other workers enjoy. 

The Department of Labor is currently proposing rules that would bring workers excluded by the so-called "companionship exemption," under the cover of basic minimum wage law.  You can submit comments by going here:  http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=WHD-2011-0003-0001.

For more on domestic workers today and to interview domestic workers, contact the National Domestic Worker Alliance, C.J. Frogozo,  310-570-2622.


In “A Better Life,” Carlos (Demian Bichir) struggles alone to raise his pre-teen son Luis and keep him on the straight and narrow, while he plants, weeds, and trims the trees in the homes of the one percent.  In a memorable scene, Carlos’ truck is stolen.  Carlos avoids the police car cruising nearby.  He knows that to report a crime means sure deportation, separation from his son and financial devastation. 

In real life, some 200,000 day laborers go to work every day across the United States.  Day laborers fill a niche labor market for which there is huge demand – as landscapers, household workers and home repair experts for urban and suburban families and businesses.  Some 50% of day laborers suffer wage abuses on a regular basis.  And day laborers have been the target of virulent anti-immigrant attacks throughout America.  Day labor victims of crime cannot go to the police because in many cities across America, under the so-called “Secure Communities” program police have been turned into immigration agents.

For more on day laborers in Los Angeles, contact B. Loewe, National Day Laborer Organizing Network,  773-791-4668.

Work is a central pillar of real life.  It's past time that we made all jobs in America good jobs.  Picture it!

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Filed under: Caregivers | Day Laborers | Domestic/Homecare Workers | Immigrant Workers | Labor | Legislation | Local Campaigns | Worker Centers