NORTH PARK — If people are willing to pay more for a latte so that the workers who pick coffee beans can earn a living wage, why not apply the same principles of fair trade to domestic workers— the (mostly) women who clean up after us?
That's the premise behind a new program, launching Tuesday at the Albany Park Workers Center, which aims to boost wages and improve working conditions for domestic workers, and create a more formal structure around a typically informal, unregulated employment arrangement.
The center — a non-profit project of the Latino Union of Chicago which is technically located in Albany Park — already acts as a hiring hub for a worker-run program that coordinates employment for the center's members who are day laborers.
In 2015, a total of 53 workers registered to seek work at the Albany Park Workers Center and were placed in jobs 192 times, according to statistics provided by the center.
Organizers saw a need to create a similar service for domestic workers, who can be subject to many of the same abuses as laborers, including wage theft, according to Analia Rodriguez, the center's executive director.
Most labor laws exclude domestic workers — housekeepers, nannies and caregivers — which can result in those workers seeing a piling on of chores for no additional money or not getting breaks for meals, Rodriguez said.
Adding to their vulnerability, these women typical work alone in their employer's home, leaving them open to sexual harassment, she said.
"Many are undocumented [immigrants] and they feel like they can't complain," said Rodriguez.
Aurelia Aguilar, 38, is one of a core group of domestic workers who helped shape the center's new program, which will match workers with employers who contact the center and draw up a contract between the two.
A mother of four who immigrated to Chicago from Guatemala 11 years ago, Aguilar experienced many of the conditions described by Rodriguez, she told DNAinfo Chicago through an interpreter.
"My goal was to work and support my family and have a better life for my family," said Aguilar, who had been a teacher's assistant in Guatemala.
Instead, Aguilar said she found "a lot of problems and obstacles because I didn't know my rights."
She frequently put in 60-hour work weeks and brought home just $300, not much more than she had earned in Guatemala.
"It's very hard work — you work and you work," she said. "You can be picking up dishes, and there's more. I'll clean the floor and come back and it's dirty again."
Employers would dock her pay as much as $50 for showing up five minutes late, or would add laundry and cooking to her duties without increasing her wages, she said.
"I felt trapped. I didn't know where to go, I didn't know what to do," Aguilar said. "So I stayed quiet."
A teacher at her daughter's school told Aguilar about the workers center, which changed her life, she said.
She received job training on things like workplace safety and green cleaning products, as well as coaching on how to negotiate her wages with employers.
"Before, they would just decide what they would pay me," Aguilar said. "Here, I've learned that when I go to a house I can make a budget," and include the cost of supplies and equipment in her estimate.
"Here we learn how to value ourselves and value our work," she said.
Receiving higher wages — the center says it has tripled wages for its members — has allowed Aguilar to scale back her work week, giving her more time to spend with her husband and children, as well as to go back to school.
"Mainly I want to learn English, I want to earn my GED," she said. "I want to be a different person. I want to improve my skills and improve myself."
The benefits of the program run both ways, Rodriguez said.
Employees are assured a more dignified, safer work place, and on the other side of the coin, employers know that workers have been vetted and trained, she said.
"If you hire a worker from the corner, you don't know them," Rodriguez said. "Here you have a space where you can call. ... There's accountability."
Unlike other temp agencies that operate in this niche, the Albany Park Workers Center doesn't siphon off a cut of workers' pay, she added.
"We're raising the standard in the industry," Rodriguez said.
The center is hosting an open house for employers and workers to learn more about the program, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, 3416 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Those interested in hiring the center's workers — either domestic or day laborers — can call 773-588-2641 and speak to a job coordinator, 7-11 a.m., Monday through Friday.
The center also holds information sessions the first Saturday of every month, where people can meet workers and learn more about the realities of their day-to-day lives. The next session is set for 11 a.m. to noon, April 2 at the workers center.
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