Behind Closed Doors: Arnold and Domestic Workers’ Rights

The media has been abuzz with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “sex scandal”–the all-too-common story of a powerful man in an extramarital relationship that resulted in the birth of a child.

But what’s been little noted is the equally common power imbalance at play between Arnold and his housekeeper: He was her employer, she was a domestic worker.

Domestic workers labor in isolated environments–the ostensibly private space of a home, behind closed doors. The vast majority, as in this case, are immigrant women of color, who sometimes don’t speak their employer’s language, don’t know their legal rights (and have few legal protections) and often have few other occupational opportunities.

And those realities have made domestic work an occupation where sexual abuse is, and has been, rampant. Dating back to the era of slavery, household slaves were routinely raped by their masters. After the end of slavery, domestic work still carried powerful connotations of servitude that encouraged employers to conflate hiring an employee with purchasing their bodies. Although it is difficult to know the full extent of the current problem—most domestic workers are too afraid of losing their jobs to speak out publicly—there are numerous private discussions among domestic workers about the kinds of sexual assaults they have had to fend off or endure on a regular basis. These cases rarely make the headlines.

Domestic workers have little recourse to challenge abusive behavior. They are excluded from most workplace protections, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans sexual harassment in the workplace. Those working in homes don’t have coworkers with whom to share their grievances, and have no union to protect them. In fact, domestic workers are denied the right to organize and bargain collectively because they’re excluded from the National Labor Relations Act—a product of racist legislation in the 1930s which sought to deny labor rights to African American workers. While domestic workers have organized historically, and are organizing today, to improve labor standards and protect their basic human rights, the vast majority of domestic workers remain vulnerable to a wide range of abuses.

Schwarzenegger has not been accused of anything illegal. But his cases have shone a light on all women domestic workers, and thus make us take stock of what we’re doing to ensure their safety and rights. It’s time to look behind those closed doors.

May 23-27 is a week of action for domestic workers in California. Today, May 25, Californians are urged to call their legislators to support a state Domestic Workers Bill of Rights like the one passed in New York. Make your voice heard!

Photos from Flickr users Steve Jurvetson and Steve Punter under Creative Commons 2.0.



  1. Thank you for stating this important point so well.

  2. love this article. thanks for all you do!!!!

    why aren’t there icons to share on twitter and facebook? social media is the way to spread the word. please add these! you can get an intern to do it.

    • Amy Borsuk says:

      There are icons on the left side of the page in a column that you can use to retweet, share on Facebook, StumbleUpon and Buzz!

  3. In, The Professional Housekeeper classe, my message to the domestic workers is to gain self-respect by never crossing the lines nor allowing their employers to do so. Both the domestic worker and Arnold Schwarzenegger were wrong. There is no doubt that many workers are abused and feel they have no choice or a way out of it. But in this case, they were both very aware and in full consent of what they BOTH were doing. Nonetheless, I am all for better protections in the workplace for domestic workers.

    • How do you know the housekeeper consented, that she wasn’t coerced? As far as I know we haven’t heard her side of the matter. Schwarzenegger may be guilty of far more than adultery.

  4. NWOslave says:

    How does a man and a woman, whom have both willingly committed adultery translate into…

    “Dating back to the era of slavery, household slaves were routinely raped by their masters”

    “Domestic workers have little recourse to challenge abusive behavior.”

    “And those realities have made domestic work an occupation where sexual abuse is, and has been, rampant.”

    How does, by any stretch of the imagination, two people who both broke their vows of fidelity, translate into slavery, rape, abuse and rampant sexual abuse? We obviously know who is at fault; man.

    If you think by pouring hatred onto all men for crimes that go back to slavery, (which is what this article suggests), for a mutual act of transgression by a man and a woman is going to “help.” You’re sadly mistaken.

    • I genuinely don’t think the author was trying to imply that Schwarzenegger committed rape, or that all men who cheat on their wives are committing rape.

      I think what the author is trying to do is shed light on the imbalance of power that occurs between a domestic worker and their employer. The domestic worker is isolated, has no union or coworkers to turn to if he/she experiences harassment or inappropriate behavior, and in general is simply at the mercy of their employer – hence the comparison to the plight of house slaves. No, not exactly the same situation, but it’s interesting how many similarities there are.

      Schwarzenegger is a powerful man – not just in terms of his being the Governor, but he has a well-known and powerful reputation as an iconic American figure. Because we are talking about Schwarzenegger, and then a domestic worker in his house, we are dealing with someone who has an immense amount of power, next to someone who has very, very little. This makes for a very problematic dynamic, as relationships entered with such radical power imbalances tend to introduce problematic issues from the very beginning.

      • Christina says:

        Thanks for pointing out the obvious to this guy. He always seems to think that every other article on here is calling men evil, instead of actually reading the article, and realizing that matters between men and women are complicated, and need to be discussed.

  5. proservitor says:

    I am a former domestic worker of 15 years and experienced many uncomfortable situations while on the job. No home, and no family is perfect – nor will it ever be – and I think it is important to remember that there is an imbalance of power in ANY employer/employee relationship. The saving grace for me was to seek – and find – a support group. There are a multitude of professional support groups available to the domestic worker beginning with the International Nanny Association ( to help them from becoming (or acting like) a victim.

    I strongly support human and worker rights – but I cannot stomach what is happening politically to the domestic service industry in California right now. Proponents of a current bill before the assembly are twisting truths, misleading “people of influence” like the author of this article and playing games with peoples emotions to pass a bill that will only damage the industry in California and the working conditions of those working in it. One example: This author writes “… They are excluded from most workplace protections, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act…” Can someone please direct me to where this is true in the Act? I am looking at SEC. 2000e.,[Section 701] from her link, and then Definitions(F) but I don’t see domestic workers listed under the exceptions.

    In most cases, AB889 is redundant, far-reaching and petty. It will push employers underground and we should all know what happens when people engage in that sort of behavior. Everyone loses. Here’s are some FACTS about the rights of domestic workers in the State of California:

    FACT: Domestic workers in California are currently entitled to overtime after an eight hour day, or 40 hours in one week. [Wage Order 15, Section 3(C)]

    FACT: Live-in domestic workers are currently entitled to overtime after nine hours in one day or 45 hours within a seven-day period. [Wage Order 15, Section 3(A)]

    FACT: Live-in domestic workers are currently entitled to one-day off every five days, and are paid overtime for every hour that exceeds 45 in a seven-day period. They are paid double-time for hours worked in excess of nine on the sixth or seventh day they work. [Wage Order 15, Section 3 (B)]

    FACT: Domestic workers who currently work through a “referral agency” are usually independent contractors and free to negotiate the amount of their fees with their clients, including allowances for overtime. They receive a form 1099 annually. [Civil Code, 1812.5095 (b)]

    FACT: Live-in domestic workers cannot currently be “on the job” for more than 12 hours in one day, 3 hours of which MUST be break time. [Wage Order 15, Section 3(A)]

    FACT: Live-in domestic workers must currently be provided with full-time, adequate, decent and sanitary accommodations where they are not required to share a bed. [Wage Order 15, Section 10(B)]

    FACT: The State of New York was NOT the first State to enact protections for domestic workers. The State of California recognized and corrected many of the inequalities in the law 10 years ago (2001) when it enacted Wage Order 15 to regulate the Household Occupations. []

    Here are some additional facts, about the REAL AB889 that make it scary:

    FACT: Passing AB889 will require anyone employing an individual to work on their private property for more than six hours to provide unrestricted access to their kitchen for 30 minutes, so that the worker can cook and consume whatever kind of food they want, regardless of the household inhabitant’s allergies, medical restrictions or religious law. If denied, the employer must pay a fine of $50 to the domestic worker for each day they refuse over a three-year period. [AB889, Chapter 2, Section 1460]

    FACT: Passing AB889 will require domestic employers, who provide meals to any domestic worker, to purchase food items the domestic worker requests, without restriction. If denied, the employer must pay a fine of $50 to the domestic worker for each day they refuse over a three-year period. [AB889, Chapter 2, Section 1460]

    FACT: Passing AB889 will require anyone employing an individual to work on their private property for less than $100, 2.5 hours per week or 52 hours in a 90-day period of time to purchase a separate Worker’s Compensation policy, whether or not they are already covered under their Homeowners Insurance Policy. These workers include handymen, gardeners, cleaners, assistants and others if the employer provides the tools to complete the work and directs the employee. [AB889, Section 4-9]

    FACT: Passing AB889 excludes “referral agencies” from the definition of a domestic employer and appears to lift the requirement for them to check the legal status of the workers they refer to their clients, as mandated in current law. [Civil Code, Section 1812.5095 (e) and AB889 (c)(2)(B)]

    FACT: Passing AB889 makes a broad statement toward defining a private residence that employs assistants of any kind as a “commercial enterprise.” [AB889, Section 1(f)]

    FACT: Passing AB889 circumvents the accepted protocol for employee claims of misconduct by their employers, and creates a special “private right to sue” for domestic workers that includes heavy fines which can be assessed for non-compliance during a period that is three times longer than any other industry. [AB889, Chapter 1, Section 1453(d)]

    • hermione says:

      >>and I think it is important to remember that there is an imbalance of power in ANY employer/employee relationship. <<

      i was going to burst if someone didn't state THAT obvious point.there is soooo much evil men in power are still doing behind close doors-with glee and arrogance.

  6. I agree completely with standing up for domestic workers’s rights. Using Arnold S is a wrong way to go! the domestic worker in question, from what i have read, met Arnold at a vacation spot, before he married Maria. they had somekindof affair, and TTHEN she got the job at his house. No One Should Feel bad for this nasty woman!

    Using her works against all the hard working ,innocent domestic workers.

  7. The historical references in this blog seem to imply that domestic work started after the end of slavery in this country which is really not accurate. There were domestic workers in wealthy and upper middle-class non-slave holding households and businesses while slavery was going on. Most of these maids as they were called, and some still are called this, were poor or immimgrant women mostly from Europe. A lot of them Irish. This continued after slavery ended as well. My own great-grandmother worked as a servant in a hotel in Indiana according to the 1900 Census and she was white. Men who committ awful crimes against their employees or a worker at a hotel, like the incident in New York, may be commiting these crimes not just because the woman is of another race but also because she is poor and they feel above her in status. The men may feel that the woman is of little consequence, and so they can treat her any way they want to. Let’s hope more women speak up and this abuse comes to an end.

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