Meet Alia

Lest this blog become all technological gloom and doom all the time, let me quickly point out something very cool I heard about yesterday — a counterweight to my last post, if you will.

I’ve started listening to a podcast called Team Human, hosted by Douglas Rushkoff. My introductory episode  — 93: Palak Shah: Who’s Going to Care? — immediately grabbed my attention because of its subject: domestic workers (nannies, elder care workers, housecleaners, home healthcare providers, etc). This is a field I know relatively well. I worked as a nanny for several years. My mother cleaned houses for a time when I was a teenager. One of my sisters-in-law does some work in the home assistance field. So I know a little bit about domestic work from my own experience, and when I was a nanny I often ran into other nannies and sitters (and occasional housecleaners) during the course of my days.

In her interview segment, Palak Shah, the social innovations director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), called domestic work the “invisible backbone” of society — and if you think about it, that makes sense. If you have children and want to go to work, you need someone to care for those children. If you have elderly parents you can’t care for, somebody else needs to fill that role. In many respects, domestic workers are the ones who let the “regular” workforce get to work. But it is a largely invisible field because the work happens in the privacy of other people’s homes. And although domestic work is everywhere, it’s not a particularly respected field, and certainly not a well-paid one. When I was a nanny I was very fortunate in that most of my families treated me fairly, and my main clients (hi, Bruce and Steph!) registered as a business so that I would also be getting/making contributions to the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, etc. But many (probably most) domestic workers, especially in America, lack the worker protections and benefits (pensions, health plans, paid sick days, contracts, etc.) that the non-domestic workforce often takes for granted.

But domestic work does have something big going for it, which is that it is what we might call “future proof” — which is to say, domestic work is not something that can be automated or outsourced. We’re a long way from robots that can clean a bathroom. You’re not going to skype in a nanny from India to watch your children while you work. Domestic work is going to be around for a long time, and so the question is — how can we as a society make it better? If it’s important work — and it is important work! — what can happen to make working in people’s homes more tenable, sustainable, dignified, etc. for those who do it?

These are the sorts of questions that Palak Shah and others like her are asking. And one of the potential answers is a cool little app called Alia, coming out of the NDWA’s Fair Care Labs, which functions as a “portable benefits plan”, currently being beta tested for housecleaners. The idea is that a housecleaner will sign up and get her clients to do so as well. Each client pays a premium into Alia of $5 or $10 per cleaning. That money accrues in the cleaner’s account and can be used to provide paid time off or go toward insurance costs. Because the benefits are tied to the worker rather than to the job, she doesn’t have to worry about losing them with a change in employment. I think it’s a very cool concept; here’s a nice write-up in Wired Magazine. (And if you clean houses or use a housecleaner, consider signing up for beta testing.)

There: technology being used for something useful and pro-humanity. See? It’s not all bad. Some of it is very good indeed, which I need to remind myself whenever I have one of my regular Luddite fits.