The New Domestic Order

The New Domestic Order

Passage of a “Bill of Rights” in New York would be a promising win for a growing movement.



Deloris Wright has been a nanny for twenty-one years. In the strange class warp of Manhattan’s Upper East and West Sides, this places her squarely among the ranks of the invisible, a ministering ghost who is rarely seen and never heard. And yet, there she was on a startling spring Saturday, a 54-year-old Jamaican domestic worker standing at the edge of Central Park, demanding her rights.

“We take care of your children. We take them to school, to French classes, we clean your homes, do your laundry, and we care for your aging parents, right here in this neighborhood,” she shouted into a microphone. “Now, with the economic crisis, we are thrown out into the street with no notice and no severance pay, no unemployment, no safety net, no nothing…. Some of our employers treat their pets with more humanity than they would treat us.”

Before her, a crowd of several hundred supporters whooped and hollered. They were union leaders, young activists, sympathetic employers and, of course, domestic workers–women from a UN’s worth of countries who understood Wright all too well. Patricia Francois, 50, a Trinidadian nanny, had recently been forced to leave her job after her male employer–a documentary filmmaker who lives opposite Carnegie Hall–allegedly punched, slapped and verbally abused her. Mona Lunot, a Filipina domestic worker, had spent her first nine months in the United States all but indentured to an employer who took her passport and denied her a single day off–a situation she endured until she finally escaped in the middle of the night.

Like many domestic workers, these women toiled in underpaid drudgery even during the best of times, members of a profession so devalued it is still excluded from many of the nation’s labor laws. But as the economy collapsed, their lot grew even harder. So they headed to the Upper East Side–epicenter of the domestic trade, playground of Wall Street’s bailout chiefs–to press their case for their own government rescue plan: the first ever Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.

This bill, which has been battling its way through the New York State legislature for five years, aims to provide basic protections to many of the estimated 200,000 nannies, housekeepers and eldercare-givers who labor in New York State. Backed by a diverse coalition of labor and religious groups and even employers, it calls for severance and overtime pay, advance notice of termination, one day off a week, holidays, healthcare and annual cost of living increases, among other fundamental rights. By most accounts, it should have passed in June, but an epic power struggle in the State Senate halted all business for a month. Now domestic workers are hoping their bill will pass in September.

“We are fighting for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, for respect, for recognition, for justice,” declared Wright, rousing the crowd before sending it marching past the pre-war palaces of Wall Street honchos like Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Morgan Stanley co-president Walid Chammah and former Treasury Secretary and ex-Citigroup director Robert Rubin. On normal days some of these women might have turned in to one of these buildings, unseen and uncounted, the real invisible hands of the market. But on this day they sang and chanted: “We’re fired up! We won’t take it no more!”

Throughout the long history of American domestic work, women have come together to demand rights, respect, a livable wage and, literally, a room of their own (domestic workers have all too frequently been banished to basements, laundry rooms and couches). In 1881, for instance, members of an Atlanta group called the Washing Society successfully organized washerwomen to strike for higher wages. The twentieth century saw at least two extended organizing episodes–one in the ’30s and one led by the Household Technicians of America in the ’70s–as Eileen Boris and Premilla Nadasen explained in the December 2008 issue of WorkingUSA.

As the fight for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights suggests, a new movement is rising, with ambitions to take a mortal thwack at the industry’s injustices. “We are looking to change the law, we are looking to make history, we are looking to get fair labor standards,” says Francois, now a movement leader.

This latest domestic-worker uprising extends well beyond New York, though the Bill of Rights campaign is its most visible expression. In fact, throughout the past decade, nannies, housekeepers and eldercare-givers have been coming together in Florida, Texas, California and beyond–first a few women, then a few more in a rare kind of political parthenogenesis. Together, these women forged a movement that spans ten cities, several thousand members, dozens of nationalities and ever more groups. In 2007 thirteen of these formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a multiethnic, multilingual coalition; now it has eighteen member groups. Though they are all still evolving, their efforts have already garnered ecstatic praise.

“It is really a multiracial, multiethnic form of feminism that we haven’t seen very often in US history,” says Nadasen, a professor of history at Queens College. “Through their activism they are expanding our notion of what feminism means.” Ed Ott, former director of the New York City Central Labor Council, adds that the campaign represents “a model project for people who are working under the most brutal conditions.”

Others, meanwhile, praise the women for weaving three of our era’s most important movements into one: a women’s movement, striking out at the stigma against household labor as women’s labor and therefore not really labor at all; a workers’ movement, defying notions about what kinds of workers can and should be organized; and an immigrants’ movement, melding the struggle for rights here with the struggle for rights abroad.

This new movement began stirring in immigrant enclaves during the Clinton years, as the country’s rising appetite for domestic labor began increasingly to be satisfied by poor women from far-flung lands. “This generation of domestic-worker organizing really started in the mid-’90s out of the changes in the political economy,” explains Ai-jen Poo, 35, the whip-smart lead organizer of New York’s Domestic Workers United (DWU). “On the one hand,” Poo says, “you had globalization pushing people out of their home countries in search of a means to support their families. And then you had global cities like New York that needed a workforce of low-wage service workers who would meet the day-to-day needs of the sort of white-collar workers who were operating the global economy.”

If this sounds theoretical, it has nonetheless had very real implications for the country’s growing domestic labor force (estimated at around 2 million). The ranks of domestic-worker activists are filled with globalization’s refugees–with women like DWU member Barbara Young, 61, who lost her job as a bus conductor in Barbados in 1992 after the IMF pushed the government to downsize its transit force; and Linda Abad, 57, a Filipina domestic worker and organizer who opted to “join the global surplus labor” supply, as she put it, because the structurally adjusted Filipino economy made survival (and her kids’ education) increasingly difficult.

Abad is a taut, quick woman whose story is instructive. When she left her family to find work in this country, she didn’t expect a rosy transition, but she didn’t expect the “discrimination” and “alienation” either: the New Jersey employer who refused to help with medical treatment after she injured her back on the job; the Park Avenue beauty magazine editor (married to a Goldman Sachs executive) whose building required Abad to ride the service elevator; the editor’s frequent screaming episodes, which inspired one of the kids to do the same while hitting her and pulling her hair. “Because they have the economic power,” she says, “they think they can do anything with their workers inside their homes.” So she joined with other domestic workers to found the Damayan Migrant Workers Association.

Certainly there are instances of benevolence, but the women interviewed for this article cited a breathtaking range of abuses, from denial of minimum wage, days off, holidays and overtime pay to wage theft, verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, even slavery. Poo still gets teary when she remembers one of the first women who sought her help, a Jamaican housekeeper and nanny who was brought to this country by an electronics executive and his family at age 15 and held in latter-day servitude. For fifteen years, she raised their three kids and never received a salary because she was told that her mother was getting her checks. But the checks were never sent, and her employers gradually cut off her communication with her family. “Ultimately the way she escaped was that the kids she took care of saved their piggy bank money and gave it to her to run away,” recalls Poo. “And she didn’t want to press criminal charges because she didn’t want to take the parents away from the kids.”

Poo and her colleagues managed to win the woman a $125,000 settlement. For several years after that, DWU and other groups focused on the plight of individuals. But before long, domestic-worker activists recognized that if they really wanted to change the industry, they had to organize–an awareness that seems to have happened almost simultaneously across the movement. The members realized that “for every single case that our legal department might be able to resolve, there’s always going to be another one or another ten coming through,” recalls Alexis de Simone, 27, the former women’s organizer at CASA de Maryland, a Latin American immigrants’ rights group.

Put differently, they realized that they had to begin attacking the roots of domestic-worker exploitation, which extend at least as far back as slavery–in many ways the structural antecedent of modern domestic work–and touch on everything from the devaluation of women’s work to the ravages of neocolonialism to the very institution that’s supposed to protect people’s rights. “The government is in this, very much so,” says Abad.

The government has been an active player in the exploitation of domestic workers for years, but the cardinal example belongs to the 1930s: that’s when the architects of the New Deal, when doling out labor rights, explicitly excluded domestic and agricultural workers (both predominantly African-American) from such landmark laws as the National Labor Relations Act. Arguments around the government’s right to regulate the private sphere played a role in the decision, but skin color was clearly the defining factor. “It was an exclusion premised primarily around the issue of race, that Southerners would continue to have control over the labor force of the South,” explains Nadasen.

Seventy years later, some of these wrongs have been partially righted–thanks largely to the last great domestic-worker movement, which managed to win federal minimum wage and other protections in 1974. But enormous gaps remain. “Casual” workers like baby sitters and “companions” for the elderly are still barred from minimum wage protections, and all domestic workers remain excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right to organize, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Act. And because most domestic workers labor in environments with fewer than fifteen employees, they are also excluded from such key civil rights legislation as the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Title VII, which bars most kinds of employment discrimination. Add to this the difficulty of enforcing even the few protections that do exist–particularly for undocumented workers–and for many domestic workers it’s still 1934.

All of which raises some weighty questions. How do you begin to undo all these decades of exploitation, particularly without the right to organize? How do you build power where there’s been none before?

One increasingly popular answer has been to push for legislation creating rights for household workers. In 2003 New York City domestic workers persuaded the City Council to pass a bill requiring placement agencies to obtain signed promises from employers to respect minimum wage, overtime and Social Security obligations. Five years later, the women of CASA de Maryland led a successful campaign for a bill requiring employers in Montgomery County to provide workers with written wage and benefits contracts. More recently, a number of the groups have gone international, working with domestic-worker unions in South Africa, Trinidad, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Their current goal is to persuade the International Labor Organization to pass a convention protecting the rights of domestic workers by 2011.

Still, by far the biggest effort has been the battle for the Bill of Rights in New York–a campaign that is being closely watched by domestic workers across the country, though particularly in California, where groups have already begun plotting their own 2010 push for a bill. (In 2006 they nearly passed similar, if more modest, legislation, but it was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.) “We know that if it gets passed in New York, it’s going to help legislative efforts across the country,” said Beatriz Hererra, an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) in San Francisco.

On a sparkling afternoon, four domestic workers sat in the basement offices of Adhikaar, a women-led Nepali rights group in Queens, discussing the Bill of Rights. Escapees of Nepal’s civil strife, they were mostly middle-aged and older, and their tales ranged from nasty, name-calling employers, to seventeen-hour workdays for $4 an hour, to one woman’s four-year nightmare toiling for a family that refused to pay her or let her leave. These women know that the Bill of Rights won’t solve all their problems; for that they’ll need even greater transformations in women’s rights, immigrants’ rights and global economic policy. But when asked what the bill could mean, they shouted enthusiastically.

“We have to work seventeen hours a day, and hopefully with this we’ll have to work less,” declared a woman named Basanta. “It will be better than now!” added another named Brinda. “We can get our leave!” “Christmas Day, New Year!” “Minimum wage!” shouted others.

By most accounts, the quest for the Bill of Rights began out of discussions like this–specifically, out of the dreams of some 250 domestic workers who gathered in 2003 to discuss what it would take for them “to feel respect and recognition on the job,” according to Poo. The resulting legislative odyssey hasn’t always been easy. Even in the absence of any vocal opposition, some legislators (in particular, those whose constituents tend to be employers) have balked at some of the bill’s most basic demands, like health benefits and severance pay.

Nonetheless, this past spring, the legislative gears finally began to turn, and after years of lobbying and forging alliances with labor unions, religious leaders and sympathetic employers, a Bill of Rights is close to becoming reality. Governor David Paterson supports the bill and has promised to sign it. On June 23 the State Assembly passed a modified version, a so-called Inclusion Bill that guarantees important rights like overtime, a day of rest per week and inclusion in state human rights and collective bargaining laws (though it leaves out important others). Now all that remains is for the State Senate to pass its version, which organizers hope will strengthen the Assembly version.

“At the end we’re going to have what we all hope is protection for domestic workers, with some dignity in their work life, a real degree of enforcement for them, and a change in the discussion of how domestic workers should be treated,” says State Senator Diane Savino, the Senate bill’s lead sponsor, who has been pushing for a stronger version.

Will it be the dream Bill of Rights? Certainly it will be a powerful initial step, the first time a state has guaranteed domestic workers some of the rights and respect they have been denied for so long. But don’t expect domestic worker activists to stop there. “The work has just begun,” says Christine Lewis, a Trinidadian nanny and DWU activist. “To say that when the Bill of Rights comes through, that it’s going to be a walk in the park–the work will just begin.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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