In the United States – whether we are aware of it or not – domestic workers play a huge role in most of our lives. Some of us had nannies growing up, have relatives that work as in-home caretakers for elderly people, or babysat our way through college. Furthermore, 47 percent of Americans have used or would consider using household cleaning help. In any case, we know that these types of jobs require the employer to put the people and things they care about the most into the hands of another person. And yet, until recently, domestic workers had very few rights. While they work tirelessly to maintain homes and care for loved ones, they struggle to support their own families – living on low wages and often no health care. How is it possible that the basic rights of a group – totaling 1.8 million in the United States – could be disregarded for so many years?
These abuses of basic rights are deeply rooted in Jim Crow laws from the 20th Century. Early labor legislation specifically excluded domestic and farm workers in order to preserve antebellum-era conditions for African Americans who made up the majority of domestic workers at the time. Today 95 percent of the domestic workforce includes female migrant workers and people of color. Many are undocumented workers who, despite their poor conditions, are not vocal about their abuses for fear of losing their job or putting their immigration status in jeopardy. Nearly 80 years later, laws protecting domestic workers are beginning to emerge and a new movement acknowledging this particularly vulnerable group has begun.
In 2007, an organization called the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA) was formed and launched a nationwide movement aimed at improving working conditions of domestic workers. In just six years, NDWA has become the leading voice for this sector of the workforce. They played a vital role in the grassroots movement that led to the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights in New York – the first state mandated law that gives basic labor rights to this long-deserving segment of the workforce. In 2010, NDWA went on to launch a similar bill in California – a state with over 200,000 housekeepers, health care and childcare providers, and private chefs. The bill hasn’t passed yet, but it would help to ensure that employees earn a minimum wage and are paid overtime. These basic rights that will help ensure that this vital part of America’s workforce is not only fairly compensated, but also protected from abuses and mistreatment that often go unnoticed and unreported.
You can help domestic workers in California by taking a moment to tell Governor Brown and California’s state legislature that now is the time to take a stand for domestic workers. By building on the momentum of New York and California, we can demand fair wages, meal breaks, and better working conditions for all domestic workers nationally. Together, 2013 can be the year that the people who spend their lives providing for us are also provided for.
by Joy Gardner
Editor’s Note: Many of the facts and figures mentioned in this article were gathered from Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work, a national study conducted by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago which can be downloaded here.