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The Immigrant Workers Disrupting the Cleaning Industry
Before Juana Camacho joined Liberty Cleaners, the country’s first women-led workers’ hub, she made less than minimum wage as a cleaner and felt she had no rights to negotiate with her employers. But as she organized alongside the women in the group, who together learned about their rights, from wages to safe working conditions, her perspective changed.
“I lost the fear,” she says. She began advocating for minimum wage—and now works for employers who pay it. “I had used my children to help negotiate deals, and now I can do that.”
Camacho is one of about 50 women who make up the quickly growing Liberty Cleaners, a group under the New York City–based Worker’s Justice Project that started four years ago with just a few women. In July, the group celebrated the completion of a first-of-its-kind training program, developed in partnership with the State University of New York’s Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, with a focus on green cleaning, technology, and labor empowerment. A few weeks ago, the group kicked off ESL training at the Worker’s Justice Project Williamsburg HUB to support women negotiating in English.
“This was a group motivated to see a change, organize themselves, and grow,” says Maria Valdez, Worker’s Justice Project Williamsburg HUB director who leads the Liberty Cleaners. The group loosely modeled itself after Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group of app delivery workers who also organize under Worker’s Justice Project.
Their early work included OSHA and “know your rights” trainings, as well as outreach to women day workers who gathered on a corner of Williamsburg, Brooklyn—known as La Parada—in search of work. As they continued to organize, the women rejected the title of domestic workers. “The word sounds like we’re being domesticated,” Valdez says. “We thought we deserved a name. … We identified as a powerful group of cleaners.”
Two years ago, roughly 20 women settled on the name Liberty Cleaners and picked the Statue of Liberty as a logo. “Many of the community are immigrant community, and the statue represents changes and better opportunities,” Valdez says.
Liberty Cleaners noticed a major difference between the informal economy of the women day laborers and Los Deliveristas Unidos, whose work is mediated by apps. “Women would pick up work and sometimes, at the end of the day, the employer doesn’t pay,” Valdez says. “If the employer sees you don’t speak English, they will take advantage.”
Liberty Cleaners wanted to increase tech education among workers, with the goal of utilizing existing apps as well as developing an app to pick up jobs and ensure fair pay. They turned to SUNY’s Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies—which had previously worked with Los Deliveristas Unidos—about developing a curriculum that covered tech education alongside green cleaning and workers’ rights.
“The idea was to combine workforce development with labor education and leadership,” says Maria Figueroa, dean of the school. She and Liberty Cleaners worked with one faculty member, two university employees, and two consultants to design a curriculum. The team found that when it came to comprehensive training for the cleaning industry, “there wasn’t much,” says Figueroa.
The team broke down the training into soft skills and hard skills modules. Topics include cleaning training (with a focus on green products that have less health implications), technology basics, filling out safety forms, negotiation, and business principles of the industry. They also added tips on self-advocating for better working conditions and wages.
They picked a two-day span to hold the training at the university. “These two days meant a lot for the women,” Valdez says. “For many of them, they left hours of work, had to find babysitters, and had to do a lot of juggling.”
Camacho, the Liberty Cleaners member who advocated for minimum wage, also attended. “Through the training, I learned more about how to negotiate with my employers, how to use eco-friendly products, and about technology,” she says.
The class was an opportunity for the women to converse with each other and instructors about their experiences in the cleaning industry, their purpose in doing this work, and the skills acquired over the years. For participant Merced Aguilar, who has been organizing with Liberty Cleaners since the beginning, it was also a way to share the power of organizing.
“I want to let more of my compañeros know that being part of Liberty Cleaners will help you get more fair wages and more respect and dignity,” Aguilar says. “I want others to have the opportunity and learn the way I did.”
A total of 50 women graduated from the new program with a formal ceremony, wearing caps and gowns. “It was a special date, and I wanted women to feel proud,” says Valdez.
She and Figueroa hope to continue the partnership and evolve the curriculum into an accredited course and apprenticeship program. “It can become something official that can contribute to a degree,” Figueroa says.
Liberty Cleaners, for its part, is building off the SUNY curriculum with twice-a-week ESL classes, which includes tech practice skills, at the Williamsburg HUB to help women negotiate in English. Liberty Cleaners knows the importance of this skill—it’s what allowed Camacho to speak out against employers who weren’t paying minimum wage.
Valdez believes trainings can be the main strategy to attract new women to Liberty Cleaners—she plans to expand options if the group receives more funding. Her dream is to start a collective retirement fund to support the women in the group.
“Liberty Cleaners are here, and they’re growing,” she says. “These are women dominating whatever they need to face, powerful women that are giving themselves an opportunity to learn.”
This article originally appeared in NextCity, and is republished here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed and other publications.