En Español Know Your Rights
Source: Indypendent
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Domestic Workers Demand Fair Labor Laws

It was at a
Westchester County preschool more than six years ago
that Joycelyn Gill-Campbell discovered there were other women just like her. An
immigrant from Barbados,
Gill-Campell had found work as a nanny, watching two young boys of a well-to-do
lawyer couple. “I found out about Domestic Workers United (DWU) through a
friend who was also a nanny,” Gill-Campbell said. “The two little boys [we
watched] went to the same preschool.”

Now a full-time DWU organizer, Gill-Campbell helped
lead more than 200 New York City domestic workers, students, labor organizers,
church members and activists to Albany April 15 to lobby key state politicians
to act on the proposed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, a bill that would
create labor standards, clarity and stability in one of the few industries not
covered by several major federal labor laws. Currently, the bill is awaiting
consideration in both the State Senate’s (S5235) and Assembly’s (A628B) labor
committees.

“Our fight
for a bill of rights challenges centuries of slavery in the U.S., institutionalized
marginalization, abuse and exploitation of women’s labor in the so-called
‘private sphere,’” said Linda Abad, a leading organizer with DAMAYAN Migrant
Workers Association, an organization within the DWU coalition.

It is estimated
that more than 200,000 domestic workers are employed in New York state. Domestic workers say they
are the “invisible backbone” of New
York City
’s economy, that without their work as
nannies, caretakers and housekeepers, thousands of accountants, doctors,
architects, bankers and those in the entertainment industry would be unable to
work.

“We need
our legislators to know that the passage of this bill affects all of us, not
just domestic workers,” Gill-Campbell said. “We want respect and recognition for
the work that makes all other work possible.”

A HISTORY
OF NEGLECT

While the
last century saw important gains for labor rights, domestic workers have been
left out of federal labor legislation, including the National Labor Relations
Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and
various civil rights laws. “Domestic workers lack protection under the law and
we have been actively ignored in labor laws since the days of slavery,” said
Beatrice, a New York City
nanny who preferred to not provide her last name. “Our situation is a critical
one since no law defines our rights as workers.”

DWU points
to the historic legacy of domestic work in the United States, in which a growing
capitalist economy has relied greatly on household help and nannies. From the
1620s to the 1860s, African slaves were forced to work in the homes of their
white owners. When slavery was abolished, domestic work largely became “black
women’s work” until waves of female immigrants flooded into the United States
looking for employment. According to a 2006 survey by DWU, 95 percent of
domestic workers in New York
state are people of color, 93 percent are women and 99 percent are
foreign-born. However, 77 percent of their employers are white.

The
Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights would address unfair working conditions and
provide for overtime pay; annual cost-of-living wage adjustments; one day of
rest per week; paid time off for sick days, vacation and holidays; severance
pay; access to healthcare, and advance notice of termination.

Yvon, a
domestic worker in Queens who cares for 19-month-old twins and who did not feel
comfortable giving her last name, explained how the bill of rights would
immediately help her. “I would have more money in my pocket, more time with my
family, get paid vacations, paid sick days and overtime pay,” she said. Yvon
immigrated to the United States
from Jamaica
in 2001.

GETTING
ORGANIZED

For more
than eight years, domestic workers throughout New York have been organizing for
improved working conditions through DWU, which has strong relationships with
other local groups working on similar issues of racism, immigration, economic
policy and labor rights, including Jews for Racial and Economic Justice,
FIERCE, Labor-Religion Coalition, New York Jobs with Justice, Urban Justice
Center,
Make the Road New York and the Transit Workers Union Local
100.

Efforts to
unionize the domestic worker industry face many challenges, including reaching
out to women who work in isolation with different employers, crossing language
barriers and overcoming fears of losing legal immigration status and being
deportated. DWU organizers often meet face to face with other domestic workers
in the playgrounds and on neighborhood streets.

Because
most domestic workers toil in isolation for different employers, Senator Diane
J. Savino, a Democrat of Brooklyn and Staten Island,
expressed concern during an April 15 meeting with DWU about how the Bill of
Rights would be enforced.

Alexis
Silver, a New York University law student who aids DWU through the university’s
Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, explained to Savino that the labor standards
outlined in the bill of rights would be enforced by the New York Department of
Labor, but that the legislation also had a provision that would allow domestic
workers to take legal action to enforce their own rights.

Sandy
Calixte, an organizer with the Haitian Workers Project, explained to Savino
that she has worked with domestic workers who have been exploited and abused,
have had their contracts violated or have had their employers withhold their
green card if they threatened to leave — essentially taking them hostage. “The
bill of rights would give them some leverage to bargain with,” she said.

“We are
committed to protecting the rights of all workers in New York State
said Terri Gerstein, the deputy commissioner for wage and immigrant services in
the New York State Department of Labor, the office charged with enforcing labor
laws. Gerstein stressed that even without the bill of rights, domestic workers
are still covered by minimum wage laws, maximum workweek hours and overtime pay
for those workers who live outside the home of their employer.

THE LOCAL
FACE OF A GLOBAL PROBLEM

While the
domestic workers and their supporters rallied in Albany,
it was clear from looking across the faces in the crowd that the roots of the
problem extend beyond the shores of New
York
. “The Filipino domestic workers, like our
sisters from the Caribbean, South America and
other poor third world countries, are driven to leave our homelands because of
extreme poverty and unemployment,” said DAMAYAN’s Linda Abad. “We all know that
the economic and social crisis in our home countries are mainly caused by the
plunder of multinational corporations, led by the U.S., in depleting our natural,
labor and capital resources. It is called globalization.

“As a
result of the severe and global crisis, we immigrants, mostly women, are forced
to leave to find livelihood abroad,” Abad said. She explained in an email that
she was forced to leave the Philippines
more than 13 years ago in order to support her two children in college. (According
to the DWU report, 33 percent of domestic workers immigrated to the United States
because they were unable to support their families in their home country.)
Since then, she has been a babysitter, housekeeper and a caretaker for the
elderly. Most of the time, she lived in the home of her employer, working an
average of 14 hours per day without overtime pay 90 percent of the time.

“We
all came here for the American dream but all we got is the nightmare,” Abad
said. “Our vulnerability and marginalization are systemic and
institutionalized. In our view class, race, gender and globalization are all
factors in domestic workers’ oppression and exploitation. … This fight is about
us — workers, women and immigrants — finally acquiring collective awareness and
getting organized to fight the various systems that oppress and exploit us.”

PHOTO: More than 200 New York City
residents rallied at the state capitol in Albany
April 15 in support of legislation that would set labor standards for the
estimated 200,000 nannies, caretakers and housekeepers in New York state.