Healthy Job, Healthy Body A Profile of Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security

by Pauli Ojea

Imagine a stable job that pays well, includes benefits, provides opportunities for education and training, and is safe and healthy for workers. (If this describes your own job, you’re better off than most people in the U.S. workforce.) Now imagine that at this great job, instead of having a boss, you and your colleagues are in charge.

The worker-owners of the cooperative Natural Home CleaningWelcome to the cooperative business of Natural Home Cleaning (NHC) in Oakland, California.

Natural Home Cleaning is a worker-owned and -operated cooperative that employs low-income Latina women in eco-friendly housecleaning. The cooperative was formed with the help of the nonprofit organization WAGES (Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security), which helps form cooperatives like NHC by providing financial support and training.

Worker-owned cooperatives are businesses where the workers are also the owners. In a cooperative, decisions are made democratically by all the worker-owners, and earnings are divided among the group. In addition to promoting democracy in the workplace, WAGES and NHC are also committed to advancing women’s health and justice. The jobs they offer not only pay well and include benefits but also take into account the workers’ health.

WAGES was formed in 1994 to provide jobs to low-income immigrant women. The founders of WAGES knew that housecleaning was a job familiar to many Latinas. But they also recognized that housecleaning could be problematic for women: long hours, unreliable schedules, low pay, no benefits, and an often toxic environment.

Still, the women were convinced that “there had to be something good about this type of work; not all could be bad,” says WAGES spokesperson Ivette Meléndez. So believing that housecleaning cooperatives that use safe products were one way of providing stable, sustainable employment, they formed WAGES.

The cooperatives that WAGES helps to form provide jobs that are environmentally conscious and healthy for workers. Because the housecleaning is done with the safest products possible, the workers take care of themselves, their clients, and the environment. The products are less toxic and require less water. The workers try to avoid single-use, disposable items, and if they do use paper towels (they prefer to use newspapers), they are the kind made from recycled paper.

These efforts seem to be paying off. Leonor Rebollo, worker-owner at NHC, says that at her previous cleaning jobs, she often had respiratory problems and found that the cleaning products smelled bad. “Here there is no problem, there is no reaction,” she says, of the products she uses at NHC.

And the clients? They’re very pleased with the results. When one of her clients entered her freshly cleaned home, Rebollo says, “Her mouth dropped open.”

The houses get clean without that lingering smell of chemicals. Rebollo believes that many of the healthier products are also more effective than traditional cleaners. She now uses safer alternatives in her own home.

Many of NHC’s clients use its services because they understand the value of this type of business. “Clients understand that cooperatives are places where there is justice, where there is community, where the successes of one are the successes of all,” explains Meléndez.

In addition to offering a healthy job without exposure to toxic chemicals, WAGES also cares for women’s health by helping to provide health insurance to the worker-owners—an unusual benefit in service jobs like housecleaning.

NHC offers medical and dental insurance. This is very important for the workers (many of whom are single mothers) and a significant benefit in a state like California, where one out of every six women under the age of 65 does not have health insurance.

For the workers in the cooperatives, WAGES is not just a workplace but also a place to find support, community, and professional development opportunities. Working in the cooperatives gives them valuable experience in how to run a business and how to make decisions democratically. For women like Meléndez, the impact that WAGES has on the community is what most attracts them to the work. “I like working here because it gives me the opportunity to influence the lives of other women, mothers, and immigrants who are searching for a dream: the dream to succeed, to create, to integrate ourselves into this new society.”

WAGES’s success has had a noticeable impact on the housecleaning industry. The group continues to help organize other housecleaning cooperatives in the Bay Area and has helped others form green cooperatives, such as Eco-Bay Landscaping in Oakland, California.Organizations like WAGES and cooperatives like NHC show us that we can have good jobs that are also healthy jobs. Another world is possible, and these women are working toward it.

For more information about WAGES, visit its web site at www.wagescooperatives.org.

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