Growing up in Miami, I saw the grueling physical and mental toll that housekeeping placed on my mother and tías. They fled violence in Colombia seeking a better future for their children in the U.S. Instead, they were exploited by employers who took advantage of them because of their status as non-English-speaking immigrants.
Nonwhite people and immigrants are highly overrepresented in the housekeeping profession, which can add layers of racism and xenophobia to exploitation from employers that treat them more like replaceable tools and less like human beings worthy of a fair wage, a safe working environment and acceptable living conditions.
More than 22 years later, I find myself at UNC-Chapel Hill, nearing the completion of my medical doctorate degree and pursuing a master’s in public health at the number one public school of public health in the country as the first in my extended family to even reach college. UNC’s unwillingness to meet the housekeeper’s demands of a living wage and free parking at work stands in sharp contrast to everything we are told the institution stands for, both at the School of Medicine and the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
One day, I am in a public health lecture room learning about social determinants of health and how things like income, job insecurity, working conditions and access to affordable health services account for between 30-55 percent of health outcomes. The next, I am standing with dozens of other students, staff and allies in the community to place pressure on the Board of Governors so UNC’s housekeepers can afford basic necessities like food, rent and access to adequate healthcare.
The cognitive dissonance required to align the vision and mission statements written on school websites and advertised to current and future students, staff and faculty with UNC’s actions toward housekeepers is impossible to continue to ignore as a community.
UNC has taught me that addressing social determinants of health is fundamental for improving health outcomes and reducing inequities. However, it does not take a medical or public health degree to know that housekeepers deserve to make enough money to live. I was too young to stand up for housekeepers when my family was exploited and mistreated. Now, I see the faces of the housekeepers here at UNC standing up for what they deserve, and I see my tías, my mother and my family reflected in each one of them. The housekeepers here at UNC deserve better from their employer, as my mother and tías deserved better over two decades ago.
I invite you to join me in taking action by signing the petition, reading the demands and staying up to date on this issue. Get connected with UE Local150 – the workers' union at UNC – on social media.
– Santiago Bejarano Hernandez, MD/MPH Graduate Student