APRIL 2002
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• Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York

• National Association of Korean Americans

• National Coalition for Haitian Rights

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Council Members Lobby for Domestic Workers

By Aleksandra Todorova

Mursheda Bedum takes care of two children and a household in Jamaica, Queens. She cooks breakfast, takes the children to school, cleans, cooks lunch, does the laundry, picks up the children from school, and cooks supper. And then, she goes home. Bedum is a 44-year-old housekeeper who works for $200 a week to support her son and daughter in Bangladesh. She barely speaks English, but she has learned this chant:

"What do we want?"
"Justice!"
"When do we want it?"
"NOW!"
"What do we want?"
"Dignity for Domestic Workers! Standard Contract NOW!"

In search for dignity and respect, Bedum and about 40 other nannies, babysitters, housekeepers and elderly caregivers, all immigrant women of color, gathered on the steps of City Hall on a recent Sunday afternoon. They were there to protest against long working hours and low pay, the lack of healthcare, social security and unemployment benefits, the scarcity of days-off and the lack of paid vacation, the lack of respect and the need for understanding-everything an estimated 600,000 domestic workers in metropolitan New York City have to cope with.

Council members Gale Brewer and Bill Perkins joined them to voice their support, respect and understanding, and to announce the introduction of new legislation in the City Council.

The bill would require domestic workers' employers to sign a standard contract whenever they hire a worker through an employment agency. The contract would guarantee minimum wage, overtime payment and some basic benefits.

"Women suffer from day-to-day abuse and exploitation because of the lack of regulations in the industry," said Carolyn de Leon, who started her nanny career for $2 an hour with the American family who brought her over from Hong Kong ten years ago. "Employers are free to do the hiring and firing without being held accountable!"

Employers take advantage of the fact that domestic workers are often new to the country, have few friends to talk to, know little English and even less about labor laws to stand up for their rights. Some employers even look for such women on purpose, says Ninaj Raoul from the Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, an organization that teaches workers their rights, holds English classes and advises newcomers on how to adapt to American culture.

A lot of people call the organization thinking they are an employment agency. Out of curiosity, Raoul asks them what they need and, usually she explains, they are looking for live-in workers and are willing to pay about $2 an hour, or sometimes even want a nanny to live with them and work for free.

"We've had people ask for someone who can't read, which I find strange, because how will they be any good at taking care of their children!" Raoul says.

To save a penny, many employers put the health of their domestics at risk, thus risking the health and well-being of their own children, argue the workers. One nanny remembers how she fell ill because her employers would make her sleep in the basement with no heat. She fell ill and could not do her job well. She asked for sick leave until she could work again and got fired.

"I think part of the problem is that in this fast-paced city people don't realize that when they are putting people in this situation, they are hurting their own kids, too!" Raoul exclaims. "Why would you want someone in poor condition to take care of your kids? So in the end, passing this legislation will be better for the employers as well as the employees."

The bill, said the sponsors, would cost nothing to enact and they are hopeful it will pass.


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