Meet the L.A. Household Worker Taking On the Toxic Cleaning Industry

María is one of many house workers on the front lines of the fight for environmental justice. (Brooke Anderson)

In 2016, after more than a decade of intense struggle, a statewide coalition of domestic workers won a landmark Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in California. The legislation establishes overtime pay for some of the lowest paid and most exploited workers in California’s massive economy.

Now this scrappy but increasingly influential coalition of mostly first-generation Latina and Filipina immigrant women is taking on the powerful consumer cleaning product industry that is poisoning their bodies, children, air, water and soil.

Like many of the women who mop floors and scrub toilets in other people’s homes, when María first started cleaning, she developed a nasty rash and cough, among other ailments. Now she’s one of the leading organizers behind an effort to require that the consumer cleaning product industry include ingredient lists so housecleaners can identify health risks.

While people have made and cleaned homes for tens of thousands of years using natural cleansers and disinfectants—from vinegar and citrus fruit peels to rosemary and thyme—the production of synthetic chemicals skyrocketed after World War II. Of the at least 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States today, tens of thousands have never been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency. Studies show that our bodies—including our breastmilk—are awash in these chemicals, leading to a host of health issues like asthma and cancer. Now, women like María are fighting back.

While in Los Angeles, Calif., I sat down with María, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, in light of recent immigration attacks and the many reprisals workers face for speaking out.

Brooke Anderson: You’re a leader in the Los Angeles-based workers’ center, the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). How did you first get involved in IDEPSCA?

María: I grew up in Honduras and later moved here to the United States, like everyone who came to work, because there is little work in our home countries. We came to find a better future for our kids. Once in Los Angeles, I came to know IDEPSCA’s workers’ center. I was going there for several months but then found work in the garment industry. They paid me 3 cents per piece, and I was exposed to a lot of toxic products. Since it was a really hard and exploitative job, later I came back to the IDEPSCA in search of cleaning work, and I got involved as a volunteer. I learned a lot about what the community needed, including about toxic products in our food and the environment.

Brooke: So it was here at IDEPSCA that you found work as a domestic worker?

María: Yes, I found work as a household worker here in the IDEPSCA worker center. I really don’t like the word “domestic,” because people are not domesticated. Animals are domesticated, but not people. So we say that we are “household” workers. [In Spanish, “domestic” is more commonly used to refer to domestication of animals].

Brooke: People often think, “I clean my own house and it doesn’t seem like that much work.” But, I imagine the work is really exhausting. Tell us about the work of a household worker.

María: That is what the employers think—that housework is not exhausting. But of course it’s exhausting. A household worker is not only one who cleans, but also includes workers who do caretaking and cooking in private homes. Housecleaners dust, sweep, mop and clean the kitchen and the bathrooms. Sometimes employers ask us to clean the windows and the walls, to do the laundry and iron, to take care of the pets. But this is all additional work, not housecleaning.

Brooke: What challenges or abuses do household workers face on the job?

María: Many household workers suffer from wage theft and not being paid minimum wage. We did a survey, and some workers reported wage as low as $2.50 per hour. Some workers live in the home where they work as “live in” workers. These workers are some of the most abused, because they are at the beck and call of their employer. They work more than eight hours but are not paid overtime. Many workers do not file labor claims out of fear that the employer will call immigration enforcement.

Brooke: It was because of this that you fought for and won the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. What did you win, and why was that so important?

María: We fought long and hard to win the Bill of Rights. At the time I got involved in 2011, we had 10 points in Assembly Bill 889, but it was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. Two years later, it was re-introduced to specifically protect the right to overtime pay. We won that right, and it became law, but it was set to expire in 2017. Then, with SB 1015, after much work and sacrifice, we won a permanent right to overtime for household workers. Now that we have this right, we have to enforce it. Even this is a challenge. Many workers don’t know that we won this right, because they are not organized.

Brooke: Now, in the wake of that victory, you’ve launched a campaign against toxic cleaning products.

María: Yes. The employers have toxic products and many workers have gotten sick. When I first started working as a housecleaner, I used a lot of these toxic products. They’d make my eyes really red. I’d get headaches, allergies and be sneezing and everything. I was scratching at myself all the time. I’d cover up with a turtleneck, because, if not, people would stare at me. It made me ashamed that people would think I was sickly. I’m a person who is generally really healthy. The doctor told me that I was sick from the toxins I was absorbing from the products that I used in cleaning.

The companies that make these toxic products are not obligated to say what the ingredients are or what problems they can cause. If a person keeps using these toxic chemicals over the long term, they can cause cancer and hurt your reproductive system. Another concern are the younger workers who have children. For example, if a young mother is breastfeeding her baby, she could pass particular toxics to her child indirectly as a result of what she has absorbed on the job.

For these reasons, IDEPSCA and other organizations have been fighting for California Senate Bill 258: the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017, which was introduced by Senator Ricardo Lara. SB 258 would require companies to disclose on their website the toxic ingredients in their cleaning products. Even though this proposal doesn’t get us all of what we really want in the long term—that they no longer produce toxic products and that organic products are accessible to the community—we see SB 258 as progress and we are going to keep fighting for this law until we win.

Brooke: While you all are fighting to pass SB 258 at a statewide level, you are also educating and organizing your own community to make the switch to non-toxic products right now.

María: Yes, we are educating the community. We meet every Wednesday at IDEPSCA. We have an Environmental Justice Committee where workers learn more about toxic products, and we talk about environmental justice for Latina communities in Los Angeles. We are all women. We also go to health fairs where we demonstrate how to make healthier products that the workers can take home with them. The Environmental Justice Committee also organizes the community to speak with their representatives about the importance of SB 258.

Brooke: How do you make low-cost, non-toxic cleaning products? Could you share with us one of the recipes that you teach in the workshops?

María: Of course. People say that the toxic products clean better than natural ones, but it is not true. You can make your own products like we do here in the Environmental Justice Committee. The ingredients to make a multi-use paste are: 1 cup of baking soda, 1/4 cup of liquid Castille soap, 2 tablespoons of vegetable glyceri, and 5 or more drops of essential oil (for example tea tree oil, rosemary or lavender). Mix the ingredients, store them in a sealed glass jar and use the mixture within two years. For exceptionally difficult jobs, spray vinegar first. Let it sit and then continue scrubbing.

Brooke: Here at the IDEPSCA office, you have a “Tree of Justice” in which you’ve written all the things you’re fighting for beyond just healthier cleaning products. What are some of those things?

María: We want clean water, clean air to breathe, healthy children, accessible education, physical and mental health for all and respect for all living things. With healthy and united families, we can do something different for the environment.