Migrant-Based Organizations Lead Fight for Domestic Workers' Rights

How are migrant women taking the lead in fighting for legal protections for workers in the United States?

December 2, 2010

How are migrant women taking the lead in fighting for legal protections for workers in the United States?

New York State's Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which went into effect on November 29, 2010, culminates a six-year campaign by Domestic Workers United (DWU), a New York-based organization led by immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.

The New York law closely resembles one passed two years ago in Montgomery County, Maryland (which borders Washington, D.C., to its north). That law was the result of a four-year campaign by CASA de Maryland, an immigrants-rights group founded by refugees from Central America.

New York State now mandates that employers give domestic employees time off each week, pay for overtime and annual vacation days and give them two weeks' notice or termination pay.

Montgomery County also specifies the type of quarters employers must provide for their live-in help and requires them to negotiate written contracts for all those who work for them 20 hours a week or more.

These may seem like the bare minimum when it comes to labor rights, but for the thousands of home-based workers who are covered (an estimated 270,000 in New York State alone), they represent a major step forward.

It should not be surprising that migrant women are playing a key role in campaigns for domestic workers' rights. They make up a growing proportion of home-based U.S. employees, including housekeepers, nannies and caregivers for children, the elderly and those with disabilities.

But migrants are often reluctant to mobilize because they worry about their precarious immigration status. And when they are employed as domestic help, it is even harder for organizers to reach them because the households where they work — and often live-in — are isolated.

DWU and CASA both found ways to work around these obstacles. CASA members reached out to migrant household employees at public sites such as parks and bus stops, where they were most likely to be found.

They also offered support to women seeking to leave bad jobs, particularly those who felt trapped because they lived-in and had no alternative housing.

Drawing on information gleaned through these contacts, CASA developed a strategy for improving domestic employees' working conditions. As a first step, they prevailed upon Montgomery County to commission a survey of nearly 300 local household workers.

The study found that almost 60% "were expected to be constantly on call to serve the needs of their employers' families, regardless of the needs of their own families" — while 80% were regularly deprived of overtime pay.

Their data provided the rationale for drawing up the bill of rights. CASA then recruited support from other organizations in the county and found legislative sponsors who brought the bill to the County Council.

There, it passed fairly quickly, though not without some debate. Signing the bill into law, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said that it is "only right that the country reach out [to domestic workers] to let them know that they, too, have rights that deserve to be respected."

In New York State, DWU also collected data on the plight of domestic workers. Its research found that over a quarter made less than the minimum wage and lived below the poverty line, one-third had suffered either physical or verbal abuse and two-thirds did not regularly receive overtime pay.

Their data, too, led to a legislative proposal, but it did not move as smoothly in the Empire State as in Montgomery County. The first bill, introduced in 2004 by Keith Wright, a Democratic Assemblyman from New York City's Harlem neighborhood, met strong opposition from Republicans who argued that it would prove too costly to employers and would also protect illegal immigrants.

In response, DWU waged a six-year campaign that included lobbying, demonstrations and sophisticated use of the Internet. The recession actually offered a key rhetorical opening for the cause. The DWU website declared that domestic workers were a "workforce in crisis" because they "bear the brunt of the current financial crisis."

"Even in a healthy economy," it noted, "domestic workers are uniquely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation….With the economic downturn, that crisis has deepened."

In 2009, DWU began running a series of weekly profiles dramatizing the plight of domestic workers. One described a woman named Marina, who "was paid just $2 an hour, and made to sleep in a basement filled with sewage. Then Marina's employers fired her without notice, and she became homeless overnight."

Another depicted a mother and daughter who felt compelled to keep "a good job," despite the fact that their boss frequently exposed himself to them.

Signing the bill into law on August 31, 2010, New York's outgoing governor, David Paterson, took the unusual step of acknowledging the role played by advocates. "I must express my gratitude," he said, "to the thousands of individual domestic workers who organized and fought for this legislation.”

“They provide all of us with an example of how individuals can, through struggle and dedication, bring about positive change in the face of skepticism and doubt," he noted.

New York is the first U.S. state to legislate domestic workers’ rights, but several local jurisdictions in addition to Montgomery County, Maryland, have had such laws on the books for some time, including New York City (since 2003) and Nassau County, on Long Island (2006).

There are also indications that the movement is spreading. DWU is one of the founders of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a national organization formed in 2007, also with significant migrant participation, to push for domestic workers' rights nationwide.

They are currently focusing their efforts on California and Colorado. All of these organizations draw inspiration from the International Labor Organization which, at its annual conference this past June, initiated an international conversation on "decent work for domestic workers."

But passing laws to regulate domestic employment is one thing — implementing them is another, particularly when migrants are involved. Stay tuned.

Takeaways

The recession actually offered a key rhetorical opening for the cause because domestic workers bear the brunt of the current financial crisis.

New York is the first U.S. state to legislate domestic workers rights, but several local jurisdictions have had such laws.

The budding U.S. efforts draw inspiration from the International Labor Organization, which initiated an international conversation on "decent work for domestic workers."

One woman was paid just $2 an hour, and made to sleep in a basement filled with sewage. Then she was fired without notice and became homeless overnight.