Essentially Surplus: The Struggle for the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (AB 241) and the Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery


  • Salvador Zárate



This article offers an account of the relationship between “essential” and the category of labor by examining how reproductivity, as the foundation—what is essential—to all work, life, and sociality, is, as Kalindi Vora argues, rendered (and renders those who perform it) into racialized surplus, a condition of devaluation and disposability premised on the extraction and exhaustion of life. I draw on a year of ethnographic research with domestic worker activists following the 2014 implementation of California’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (AB 241). This breakthrough bill overturned domestic and at-home care worker labor exclusions grounded in New Deal labor legislation that shored up the rights (and category) of the industrial worker and offered major concessions for organized labor while legally cementing the exploitation and unfree labor conditions of the South’s Black women domestic workers. Rather than positioning California migrant women’s domestic worker activism as a compelling teleological and linear challenge and victory against Jim Crow–era exclusion, however, I tarry in the overlap and disjuncture that such tied fates represent under settler racial capital and demonstrate how this alternative tracing of reproductivity confounds notions of labor, value, and inclusion at the core of the U.S. racial liberal state. I contend that the conditions of New Deal industrial capitalism, shaped as they were by Jim Crow anti-Blackness and the afterlife of reproductive slavery, now form the originary knot through which current-day racialized migrant women’s reproductive labor and life is appropriated under the neoliberal reorganization of care in the United States. I term this atemporal modality of racialized extraction essentially surplus, a “racializing process” that subsumes the life and bodies of racialized migrant women as if they essentially occupy the same category of surplus life occupied by Black women domestic workers historically.