Vida Verde Co-op is comprised of fifteen house cleaners (14 women plus 1 man), recent immigrants separated from their extended families in Brazil. Vida Verde formed in response to two problems these workers experienced in Boston: exploitative domestic work conditions and extensive exposure to toxic cleaning products.
Before Vida Verde formed, these cleaners were isolated from each other and typically earned less than $600 per month for exhausting and unsafe work. Many experienced asthma, headaches, and reproductive problems from exposure to products like SOS All Purpose Cleaner, Clorox, Easy Off, Dawn, Tide, Spic and Span, Windex, Lemon-Fresh Pine-Sol, and Formula 409.
A non-profit immigrants group provided a space where some of the women shared stories and testimonials about their house cleaning work, which inspired them to collectively address the problems. With the help of start-up funding from NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) and collaboration with a Tufts University professor, Vida Verde Brazilian Women’s Co-op launched in 1995.
Working as individual contractors, Vida Verde Co-op members collectively set their pay-rates, so that each one now earns $2000 per month for cleaning two homes a day, five days a week. Every Co-op member gets this basic level of work, distributing referrals among themselves as needed. Once everyone has the basic amount of work, those who are interested can seek additional cleaning work. Most of the Co-op’s clients are in Jamaica Plain and Somerville, Massachusetts.
Becoming a Co-op member requires training and a six month trial period. Members each contribute 5% of their income to support the Co-op’s advertising and other expenses, including child-care while they are giving trainings. The Co-op makes all of their decisions by majority vote. If a member gets sick or has a family emergency, other members step in and assist as needed –there is a culture of mutual aid and solidarity.
Central to Vida Verde’s mission is that they use only non-toxic cleaning products that they make themselves out of vinegar, castile soap, borax, and essential oils. They package and sell these products for low prices and teach classes about how to make one’s own cleaning supplies. UMass Lowell’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute tested Vida Verde’s products and found them to be very effective, as well as non-toxic for both the cleaners and the inhabitants of the homes being cleaned.
At the Green Solidarity Economy conference, I heard several Vida Verde Co-op members speak movingly in Portuguese about how important it has been to work with non-toxic cleaning products and how much they have benefited from the sense of Co-op community and solidarity.
One Vida Verde member, Lucimara Rodrigues, explains:
“I was exploited when I was a cleaning company employee. Most employers do not seem to be aware that we are human beings. Today, I am no longer exploited neither [do I] have any health problems because I just use our natural cleaning products. The cooperative also taught me that you can make a better world and it stirred my desire to work more in my community. I understand that the cooperative is the solution to end the exploitation at work. Because of this, I love what I do.” (from their website.)
Economics and spirituality are often seen as opposing categories -but really they are very much the same thing. They are both about relationships and the quality of attention and care we bring to this world.
One of the commitments we make in my Zen lineage when we take our Buddhist vows is to support a culture of solidarity and a just economic order. I am drawn to Vida Verde, because it is a living example of this vow. Vida Verde Co-op is a space of solidarity (mutuality, collective organizing for the benefit of all) and an example of just economics, infused with dignity, joy, care, environmental concern, and recognition of women’s and immigrants’ labor.
Committing to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order mean a lot to me, and I want to keep exploring the full meaning and implications of these commitments, in part by documenting exciting examples and role models.