Yesterday the New York State Senate, an otherwise dysfunctional political institution, passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights by a vote of 33 to 28. The new law would provide New York’s estimated 200,000 domestic workers with basic labor protections such as a day off every week, overtime pay, paid sick days, the right to form a union and recognition under the state’s Human Rights Law. If the bill passes the Assembly, New York State would become the first state to provide labor protections to domestic workers.
Much attention on a domestic and international level has been given to the plight of persons trafficked into harsh or exploitative working conditions – often with an over-emphasis on sex trafficking. Frequently ignored in the debates about human trafficking is the vulnerability of the women (typically women of color and often immigrants with less than secure legal status) we pass every day on the street who are caring for other people’s children. The legal vacuum in which they work has placed them in a state of precariousness that renders their working conditions in many cases indistinguishable from those who the law would consider trafficked. Because the labor of domestic workers is not primarily sexual in nature, their exploitation has been largely ignored by advocates, law enforcement officials and politicians who are otherwise concerned about trafficked persons.
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights has been championed in New York State by Domestic Workers United, an “organization of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers in New York, organizing for power, respect, fair labor standards and to help build a movement to end exploitation and oppression for all.” According to a study, Home Is Where The Work Is that DWU produced with Datacenter, 26 percent of domestic workers earn wages below either the poverty line or the minimum wage rate. Thirty-three percent have reported verbal or physical abuse. Although half report working overtime, few have received overtime pay. Only 10 percent receive health insurance from their employers. And because 93 percent of domestic workers are women and 95 percent are people of color, this injustice tends to affect New York’s most marginalized communities. The Report explicitly relates the economic and legal vulnerability of domestic workers today to the domestic work that African American women performed, often while enslaved, for white families in the 18th and 19th centuries in the U.S.
Professor Robin D.G. Kelley, our former colleague in Columbia’s History Department, now at USC, wrote the introduction to the study, and it does a masterful job of setting up the issues that the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights are designed to address:
Today, one can hardly walk up Park or Madison Avenues without seeing black and brown women behind strollers or with bigger white kids in tow. They are hypervisible reminders of a largely invisible working-class of 200,000 women throughout the city who do the essential work of childcare, cleaning, cooking, washing, shopping, and whatever else their employers might demand of them. We don’t know, or rarely acknowledge, that these women are grossly underpaid, exploited and often abused—in some cases forced to live and work under conditions tantamount to slavery. The majority are immigrants, often caught in a web of modern-day human trafficking created, in no small part, by U.S. political and economic policies.
As I write these words, there are untold numbers of middle and upper class, mostly white women, complaining about their “help” or trading tales about their nanny problems or possibly exchanging references. But the true conditions of domestic workers and their own collective efforts to improve those conditions are rarely part of the popular discourse.
While there have been many critical scholarly studies documenting the exploitation and abuse of domestic workers in the U.S., there is no substantial survey of the current conditions of domestic workers in a major city like New York. And as far as I know, this is the first study initiated by domestic workers them- selves, through the auspices of Domestic Workers United (DWU). Assembled by DWU members and the DataCenter, the report tells the truth about the work of the city’s nannies, caretakers, and housekeepers. If its findings are widely circulated and seriously engaged, the report may finally lay to rest many of the myths surrounding the fate of domestic workers.
We learn, for example, that the vast majority of domestic workers in New York City earn substandard wages, often working 50 hours a week or more. Live-in workers suffer greater exploitation since they are always on call and can work up to 100 hours a week! Although they are legally entitled to overtime pay, few receive it. Approximately 90% of the workers do not receive health insurance benefits, nor do their employers arrange to pay social security. And for so little money, we discover that untold numbers of workers are forced to sleep in damp basements with no heat in winter or ventilation or air conditioning in summer. Worse, the report records shocking stories of outright slavery. Included in these pages are documented cases of employers bringing immigrant workers from other countries with promises of decent wages and working conditions, but once they arrive in the U.S. they are neither paid nor allowed to leave. One particularly har- rowing story involves a young Indian woman who was hired to work for one family in the U.S., but once she arrived her employer literally subcontracted or ‘leased’ her to another family, who then paid her employer $1,200 a month directly. The employer sent $200 of it to the worker’s family, but the worker herself never saw a dime.
Domestic workers are often victims of verbal and even physical abuse. But unfortunately, they have very few protections outside of the criminal justice system (and, in truth, very few domestics have the luxury of turning to the law for support since so many are undocumented workers fearful of deportation). Indeed, federal and state governments are accomplices in the exploitation of domestic workers because domestic workers are largely excluded from laws intended to protect workers’ rights— notably, the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
What this startling document tells us is that the battles these women endure extend far beyond the rights of labor. They are immersed in a struggle for human rights and dignity; for immigrants’ rights and social justice; for the dismantling of racism and globalization. As depressing as the report’s findings may be, what I find heartening is the fact that groups like DWU are fighting back, working feverishly to overturn these inhumane working conditions and to provide all domestics with a living wage. One of the functions of the myth that domestic workers are merely “part of the family” is to discourage collective organization. Of course, there have been efforts to organize domestic workers in the past, beginning as early as the late 19th century, but what DWU has done is unprecedented. Through solidarity, mass mobilization, and hard work, they forced the city council to pass a “code of conduct” for domestic employment placement agencies, and currently they are working on a statewide Bill of Rights for domestic workers. In the tradition of social justice unions such as Justice for Janitors, DWU members understand that in order to truly transform the conditions of household work, they have to transform the city … the nation, and quite possibly the world. Pipe dream? Not if you do the math: domestic workers are 200,000 strong in New York City, and those who benefit from their services num- ber in the millions. All of us need to read this report and decide where we stand. And if you really believe in freedom, the choice is obvious.
—Robin D. G. Kelley, William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies, Columbia University, introduction to Home Is Where The Work Is, Domestic Workers Union and DataCenter, 2006.