Georgia Danan was both laughing and crying. It was Friday, June 6, and she was sitting in a Barnard College classroom, telling the tale of how she came to be a 76-year-old Filipina domestic worker fighting to win $22,000 in back wages from a recalcitrant employer. Speaking in hurried, distraught sentences, she unfurled the story of how she immigrated to Los Angeles in 2005, sought a job as a domestic worker through the Mt. Sinai Home Care agency, and then, like so many before her, found herself being both poorly treated–she said she was regularly yelled at and accused of stealing–and cheated out of a minimum wage. For one fifteen-day period, she said, the agency didn’t pay her at all.
“I am old. If I get sick, if I have no money, what will happen to me for my medicine and doctors?” said Danan, a former third-grade schoolteacher, as she wiped two streaks of tears from beneath her bifocals. “So I am appealing for the sake of all caregivers that are exploited like me. I am appealing that we should have justice!”
And then she chuckled.
This gesture of defiance in the midst of despair, of humor amid horror, was the dominant if unofficial theme of the first National Domestic Workers Congress, which took place June 5-8. For four days, some one hundred nannies, housekeepers and caregivers came together in New York City–one of the most important domestic-work capitals–to share their stories and to strategize solutions with regard to their collective mistreatment. Many of these women (and they were almost all women) had traveled long distances to be there: from Miami, Denver and as far as San Francisco. And many, like Danan, had undertaken personal journeys that stretched back even farther: to India, Mexico and the Caribbean. These treks had been followed by excruciating tours of misery in the homes of wealthy, and occasionally violent, employers. Several women had actually been hit or otherwise assaulted in the line of duty. By the time they reached New York, they were determined to make themselves heard.
“For too long we women have been silenced,” said Joycelyn Gill-Campbell, a Barbados-born nanny-turned-organizer for Domestic Workers United, one of the leading New York-based domestic rights groups, during a speech to her sister congressgoers. “But today we are in the forefront, we are moving forward… We are going to build an enormous movement!”
The time is certainly ripe for a movement of domestic workers. In the annals of contemporary American labor injustices, the ills suffered by domestic workers remain among the most stark and stomach-churning. Barred from even the minimum protections of basic labor laws like the National Labor Relations Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, domestic workers float in a kind of legal zero-gravity zone where they have no right to organize and no guarantees of paid sick days, paid vacation days, severance pay or advance notice of termination. Some forms of domestic work are also excluded from portions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (a fact that helps explain the wide pendulum-swing of wages that domestic workers earn, from as little as 50 cents an hour to, say, $10). As a result, all too many women who make their living in other people’s homes–cleaning their dishes, raising their kids and otherwise making their lives possible–find themselves enduring everything from humiliation to exploitation to worse.
“The lady said, ‘Scrub it, scrub it, scrub it!'” recalled Araceli Herrera, a 58-year-old housekeeper in San Antonio, replaying a former employer’s obsessive insistence that she clean, clean, clean even though Herrera was suffering from agonizingly painful gallstones. Later, when she tried to return to work after a monthlong recovery from gallbladder surgery, she found that the employer had hired somebody else.