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New Visibility for “the Work That Makes All Other Work Possible”

| January 23, 2014

In September, California became the nation’s third state in three years to enact a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, following in the footsteps of New York and Hawaii. The new law mandates that employers compensate workers with one and a half times their hourly rate in overtime pay for work beyond a nine-hour day or 45-hour week. According to advocates and workers, full Implementation of the law will be an ongoing process, one that depends on outreach and education for workers and employers.

In California, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) organized and campaigned to get the new law passed. But the victory marks just the start of a whole new, crucial initiative, according to Andrea Mercado, NDWA Campaign Director. “We know that the moment the bill becomes law, the ways that domestic workers are treated won’t change overnight,” said Mercado. “There is a lot of work and a lot of education that needs to be done.”

For the organization’s advocacy, and now implementation efforts, New York has served as a model, after its own Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights went into effect in November 2010. The New York law was signed after a decades-long, grassroots organizing campaign.

“We formed this national alliance for a reason,” Mercado said, “to build unity among domestic workers across the nation. There really are a lot of lessons that we’ve learned from our sisters in New York that we put into practice in California.” Organizers from the New York advocacy group Domestic Workers United shared strategies on organizing employers, including the voices of children (both those of domestic workers and those cared for by domestic workers), leveraging ethnic media outlets, using information hotlines, and starting ambassador programs to train domestic workers to educate their peers about their rights under the law.

“We talk to members to educate them about their rights,” said Margarita Vásquez, who moved to New York City from Mexico 14 years ago and is a member of the Brooklyn-based, immigrant-run childcare cooperative Beyond Care. “We let them know that you don’t have to live in slavery. You can educate yourself, educate your employers. We are humans just like they are, just like anybody else is.”

According to a 2012 study published by the NDWA, heralded as the first of its kind, women make up 95 percent of nannies, housekeepers, and home caregivers in the U.S. Of the 2,086 workers surveyed in 14 metropolitan areas, 46 percent were foreign-born and 54 percent were people of color. The study found that 23 percent of workers were paid below their state’s minimum wage, 74 percent reported that they were unable to refuse additional work beyond their original job description, and 67 percent were not paid for overtime. Ninety-one percent chose not to complain about problems with their work conditions for at least a year, out of fear that they would be fired, and only 4 percent received health insurance from their employer.

Almost three years since the first domestic worker labor laws went into effect, in New York, how much impact has the Bill of Rights had on the lives of these often-vulnerable workers?

Vásquez, who was directly involved in protesting and petitioning for the passage of the New York bill of rights, pointed to the law’s success. “I feel content that we have more rights for our workers,” she said. “I’ve spoken with many of them who have been treated badly before when they had no rights. Now, I think they feel more secure. Now you can do something about [mistreatment on the job], because the law has been signed.”

Mexico native Daniela Salazar now lives in Brooklyn and is a member of the Si Se Puede women’s cooperative for cleaners and housekeepers. Among her colleagues and friends outside of the cooperative, there is still little awareness of the New York law, she explained. “People need to be educated,” said Salazar. “There needs to be some campaign that lets them know they’re not alone.” For those workers who are aware of the new protections, many still do not exercise their rights out of fear of losing their jobs, Salazar added.

According to Mercado, the successes and the shortcomings are all part of an ongoing effort. “There are really big challenges,” she explained. “This is an industry where non-compliance with labor laws is really prevalent.”

Several other states, including Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, and Oregon, are currently working on their own legal protections for domestic workers. 

“Because it’s labeled ‘women’s work,‘ it’s devalued,” said Lili Hoag, Policy Director for Family Forward Oregon. The grassroots, nonprofit organization’s efforts include advocacy and lobbying work on behalf of domestic workers in Oregon, where a new campaign is growing after the Domestic Worker’s Protection Act, HB 2672, died in the state senate last summer.

“Why aren’t we paying attention to these people who are exempted from basically all labor standards?” Hoag asked, citing domestic workers’ exclusion from protections under both state and national labor laws.

“[It’s] the work that makes all other work possible,” Mercado said, sharing a phrase used among domestic worker rights advocates.

It’s not just a labor issue that concerns a select segment of the population, according to Mercado. “I have small children, and have needed the support of a domestic worker in my own life,” she said. “When my grandfather was dying, there was a domestic worker who helped my family during that time. It’s an issue we all have a personal connection to, and that’s what makes the issue really compelling. It’s not an ‘us versus them’ narrative. It’s about how, as a society, we figure out how to value these workers that play such an important role.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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