Over the past decade, a group of workers has stepped slowly from New York City’s middle-class kitchens and living rooms into the forefront of the country’s labor rights movements. Domestic workers—the nannies, health aides, housekeepers and other household service workers—have organized, petitioned lawmakers, and championed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights legislation, which has been passed in four states so far. But the rise of the labor movement has come with some growing pains. The journey of Andolan, one of the first domestic workers’ groups to emerge in New York, attests to the power of grassroots labor activism, along with the hurdles that often crop up with each movement milestone.
Andolan began organizing in Queens the late 1990s with just a handful of domestic workers from South Asia. They evolved into a fierce crop of community leaders who knew the vernacular of their ethnic communities as well as the language of political struggle. Departing from the traditional union model, they meshed social work with advocacy, helping women take legal action against abusive bosses, and connecting them to services ranging from counseling to self-defense classes. They made history with a lawsuit brought by an Indian worker against her former employer, claiming grueling work hours and massive wage theft, which led to a $94,000 settlement—an unprecedented sum for a domestic worker case, the group noted. Together with the local labor network Domestic Workers United, the group campaigned for stronger labor protections and shepherded the first-ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights through Albany in 2010. In recent years, justice for household workers has become a hot cause, with campaign endorsements from Hollywood celebrities and official initiatives for global domestic worker protections through the International Labour Organization.
A new documentary, Claiming Our Voice, traces Andolan members as they learn to grapple with their own history. Centered on a homemade theater production—a show developed by the women under the guidance of South Asian-American artist YaliniDream—the film, directed by Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel, follows the women as they seek self-expression beyond the simple survivor narrative. They reconstruct their stories as individuals and as a collective, with a pastiche of dialogue, song and dance, merging folk traditions with contemporary politics and radical performance art.
As a kind of Pins and Needles for the South Asian diaspora, the performance is a seemingly simple act of storytelling—the women are essentially playing themselves. The dialogue and choreography depict memories of economic hardship in their homeland and after migration, facing exploitation and degradation as laborers, and marching together with fists in the air. Between the staged scenes, women speak in interviews about their fears and hopes on their own terms, outside the tight format of the media interviews and tragic testimonials that they were often asked to give.