By Elayne Clift, Womens Feature Service
Walk the streets of the upper East or West Side of New York and you see them everywhere. Latina nannies hold the hands of well-dressed toddlers. Filipina women push the wheelchairs of the infirm. African-American women stroll with the elderly in their care. More than 200,000 women work as nannies, companions and housekeepers in New York State keeping households and families going. They work long hours – from ten to sixteen hours a day – but receive no overtime pay. They lack health insurance and are often denied paid leave. Many are fired without notice or severance pay. Some are abused, even held captive.
Marina is one of them. Made to sleep in a filthy basement, she was fired without notice and became homeless overnight. Lou’s boss became abusive after she tried to claim her back pay. Carolyn, a live-in nanny caring for three children, worked round the clock, got no holidays off, and was forced to return to work soon after breast cancer surgery. These stories are not unusual. They are well-documented by the Domestic Workers Union (DWU), founded in 2000 to represent Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers in New York. Their logo states: “We have a dream that one day, all work will be valued equally.” They organise for “power, respect, and fair labor standards.”
Last June DWU and its supporters rallied in New York’s Washington Square Park to educate domestic workers on the bill that had just passed in the New York State Assembly. The bill was designed to include domestic workers in the existing state labour laws. Right now, federal laws such as the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and various civil rights laws fail to include domestic workers. DWU was also pressing for a more comprehensive bill in the State Senate that would include basic labour standards such as notice of termination, paid sick leave, and paid holidays.
Deloris Wright, a 54-year old Jamaican woman who has been a nanny for 21 years, was at the rally. “We take care of your children,” she told the assembled crowd. “We clean your homes, do your laundry, take care of your aging parents… Now, with the economic crisis we are thrown out on to the street with no notice and no severance pay, no safety net, no nothing… Some of our employers treat their pets with more humanity than they would treat us.”
DWU points out: “The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights takes on new urgency in the wake of the financial crisis. Domestic workers are among the first and hardest hit by an economic turndown. In these times [they] are even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. … New York must act to protect their basic rights and human dignity!”
To that end, domestic workers have called on the New York legislature to end the epidemic of workplace violence, give caretakers the ability to care for themselves by granting them health insurance and paid sick leave, and “standardising an industry that leaves too much to chance.”
Specifically, advocates are fighting for overtime pay, annual cost of living adjustments, one day of rest per week, and paid time off for sick days, vacation, and holidays. They also seek advance notice of termination and severance pay. Further, they want domestic workers to be included in New York’s employment discrimination law and to ensure that employers provide health benefits commiserate with the Healthy New York plan offered to other workers. In addition, they argue, workers whose rights have been violated should be able to sue their employers in court.
The movement for domestic workers rights is growing regionally and nationally. Within New York State, the Domestic Workers Justice Coalition is comprised of groups such as Andolan Organizing South Asia Workers, Damayan Migrant Workers Association, Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, and Unity housecleaners. The collaboration led to the formation of DWU and resulted in passage of New York City legislation protecting domestic workers who are placed in their jobs by employment agencies. The Coalition now represents more than 10,000 domestic workers from around the world who currently reside in New York State.
During the last decade, according to a recent article in ‘The Nation Magazine’, domestic workers from various states and several cities began organising thousands of individuals representing dozens of nationalities. As a result, in 2007, the National Domestic Workers Alliance was formed. It now has 18 member groups. “It’s really a multiracial, multiethnic form of feminism,” a history professor at Queens College told ‘The Nation’. A former New York politician dubbed the Alliance “a model project for people working under the most brutal conditions.” Already, domestic workers in California are advocating to get a similar bill to the one in New York passed next year.
Those who’ve worked on the quest for a Bill of Rights in New York are optimistic that the Senate will pass its version soon. Governor David Patterson has said he will sign it into law. For America’s growing domestic labour force, now estimated at two million, that is encouraging news indeed.