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.

Not that this was the first time she had been ill treated by an employer. An immigrant from Mexico City who arrived in the United States at the age of 40 after a harrowing weeklong trek across the border and through the desert, Herrera has experienced a post-immigration life that reads like a latter-day Steinbeck novel, from the forced separation from her then-16-year-old son–a memory that still makes her cry–to the story of her first employer, who paid her $45 a week, made her sleep on the kitchen floor, let her rest only a few hours a night and then fired her when a hip injury prevented her even from walking. Even some of her kindlier employers have often shown an all-too-callous thoughtlessness, taking vacations at whim while refusing to let her spend Christmas with her ailing mother–now deceased–in Mexico.

“They never think we are humans,” Herrera said, her genial voice turning suddenly raw. “I am a lady. I am a woman. I have dreams. I want to do something. No, they never [think] that. They maybe think we are machines.”

To many of the women at the congress, stories like these, enraging as they are, are hardly new. As Gill-Campbell observed, they’ve been playing out their brutal plots since the beginning of time–or at least since the earliest days of this country. “The roots really date back from the days of slavery,” she said, tracing the evolution of modern-day domestic work from the forced household labor performed by women slaves, to the free but rarely voluntary housework performed by post-abolition-era African-American domestics, to her own degrading treatment in the house of her first employer.

“To see the way I was treated in that first job, having to wear a white uniform from head to toe and white shoes,” said Gill-Campbell, describing a scene in which, while dressed in this full servant regalia, she was forced to push her employer’s dog in a stroller.

Moreover, such scenes of humiliation just seem to be proliferating. The Census Bureau estimates that there are currently 1.5 million domestic workers toiling and struggling in the United States, and domestic-work advocates say that, anecdotally, this number is rising, spiking upward with the tide of increasingly wealthy Americans who feel that time, work or money makes them no longer capable of cleaning their own toilets.

“The documentation has shown that as wealth inequality grows, so does the domestic industry,” said Ai-Jen Poo, 34, a tall, preternaturally calm organizer who also works for Domestic Workers United.

In an effort to begin reversing this trend–or, at the very least, the exploitation that so often accompanies it–domestic workers and the groups that represent them have been forced to conjure up canny and sometimes unexpected solutions, like, working with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice to educate and organize sympathetic employers. At the same time, the New York groups have been waging a fierce campaign for a bill of rights, which, if passed by the New York State Legislature, would finally extend basic labor rights to the state’s roughly 200,000 domestic workers.

This campaign was in full swing on the third morning of the conference, when the women of the National Domestic Workers Congress gathered in front of City Hall in Lower Manhattan with banners, a sound system, and yellow T-shirts embossed with the words, “Rights, Respect, Recognition for Domestic Workers.” In reality, this rally probably would not serve as the grand, suasive push that would tip certain legislators in their favor (despite the bill’s uncontroversial, and incontrovertible, merits). And, it was excruciatingly hot. But none of this seemed to take any air out of the women’s lungs.

“We are the strength of this city, whether they know it, yes or no,” shouted Deloris Wright, a veteran nanny with a graceful Jamaican lilt, who served as master of ceremonies for the English-speaking part of the rally. “We are a powerful group of people!”

The crowd cheered, unleashing one of those wild roars usually reserved for large sporting events. The rally was just beginning. Perhaps some of those sleeping Albany legislators would hear them after all.