Gotham Gazette

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The Next Step for Domestic Workers' Rights

domestic workers
Photo courtesy ofpoverty initiative
Domestic Workers and their supporter successfully won passage of an unprecedented Bill of Rights for in Albany this year.

As Domestic Workers United members celebrated in the blazing heat at Union Square July 6 after the State Legislature passed a sweeping set of labor provisions protecting nannies and other home-care workers, the demonstrators received some unwanted resistance.

A lone man with a hand-held video camera in the otherwise empty park shouted "clean my room," and "wash my dishes," to the disgust of the activists who used a bull horn to rattle off a list of state lawmakers who pushed the bill forward. Park security led the heckler away while he tried to argue that he was simply exercising his free speech rights. By his demeanor and appearance he seemed not so much a political contrarian as a bystander who was a few sandwiches short of picnic, but the knee-jerk negative reaction offered a sign of the push-back the domestic workers are likely to confront as they try to implement their newly won legal rights.

The Bill of Rights is a milestone to be sure. A coalition consisting mostly immigrant women of color gathered enough political support to codify employee rights they have lacked: one day off per week, overtime pay and protections against workplace harassment. These are people who cannot form a union because of the nature of their work -- individual arrangements with employers who usually have only one or two people working for them. Now the legislation -- the first law of its kind in the country -- is intended to fill that gap.

These are great things for workers, but how will Domestic Workers United, which is not a union, hold employers accountable to these new laws? After all, the group does not have shop stewards who can file grievances and take employers before arbitrators. And just because something is illegal, it does not mean an employer won't do it.

Spreading the Word

Gov. David Paterson has announced his intention to sign the bill. Once he does, the Domestic Workers United will have to rely on one, the state to enforce the laws, and two, domestic workers to know their rights and have the confidence to speak up if they believe those rights are being violated.

"The most critical piece is going to be the education of workers so they understand their rights under the new law and employers understand their responsibilities," said Domestic Workers United director Priscilla Gonzalez, noting that the group communicates with members via newsletters and a network of volunteers to reach out to workers face-to-face.

Domestic workers cannot form unions for a variety of reasons, Gonzalez explained, but mainly because most of them are lone workers employed by one family, making the collective-bargaining process impossible. In addition, and much of industry is based on casual employment -- cash under the table.

Luna Ranjit, the executive director of Adhikaar, a coalition of Nepali workers collaborating with the Domestic Workers United, said that making the set of laws in the bill of rights effective will rely on simply word-of-mouth among domestic workers.

"Most of work is really talking to our members on a day-to-day basis," she said.

The State Role

With the state budget in shambles, enforcement may be a problem. While the state Department of Labor has been relatively progressive in terms of enforcing wage ordinances, it. Like many other state agencies, may see its workforce, diminished and weakened over the next several budget cycles.

"We understand the constraints at the Department of Labor, which is why we want to work closely with them to ensure that any existing resources are used in the most efficient way possible," Gonzalez said.

For the more-than 200,000 domestic workers in the downstate region, working conditions vary. Some employers already go above and beyond the minimum standards outlined in the law. But there are bad bosses too. Gonzalez explained that some domestic workers earn $12 per hour, while others have an hourly pay of 50 cents. In late 2007, a Long Island couple, Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani, were convicted in federal court on charges of enslaving and torturing their Indonesian servants. The news coverage sparked outrage against the family, though Gonzalez does not believe it was an isolated incident.

"There's more than we actually think," she said. "This is work that happens behind closed doors. The government has refused to see the home as somebody else's workplace."

Indeed, labor inspectors are common in commercial and industrial zones, but do not go door-to-door in residential neighborhoods.

A New Image

All this comes as many domestic workers are still grappling with the effects of the recession. When financial firms laid off traders, thousands of nannies, house cleaners and other similar workers lost their jobs as well. Things have recovered, although Domestic Workers United has been scrambling to direct out-of-work members to social services. Some have encountered new problems such as "nanny sharing," where two families seeking to reduce expenses share one nanny for one salary.

As it seeks to implement the law here, Domestic Workers United is looking beyond New York, helping to push similar legislation in Colorado and California. The group, Gonzalez said, also is exploring how it might push for federal legislation would make the domestic work industry a part of standard labor law.

All of this activity, the group hopes, could lead to a change in the change the perception of domestic workers. And that in turn, it thinks, could spur employers to adhere to acceptable workplace standards for people who care for children, cook and clean.

The time has come, Domestic Workers united argues, to realize that, for the class of movers and shakers in a place like the five boroughs, employing household workers is not a luxury, but a necessity.

"Domestic workers make all other work possible -- literally," Gonzalez said. "If a domestic worker doesn't show up to work then other workers can't go to work. These are the invisible hands that hold up countless families and homes."

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