Domestic Workers Taking a Stand

By Norma Nyhoff, Field Intern

Domestic workers — nannies, housekeepers and aides for the elderly, among others — lack even basic protections and benefits under U.S. law. This field is overwhelmingly populated by women of color, many of them immigrants. These workers contract privately, without government oversight, and are therefore particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

However, this systemic and invisible exploitation may soon be a thing of the past. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, currently moving through the New York legislature, could set a precedent for instituting legal protections for domestic workers nationwide. Initially proposed by the Domestic Workers United union, it has already passed through the state Senate and needs only be aligned with the Assembly’s version and signed by Governor David Patterson to become law.

Domestic work has been excluded from fair labor standards since the New Deal era, when Southern politicians conspired to exclude it from federal protections. As a result, domestic workers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right to unionize, or by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees basic employee benefits.

Today, domestic workers are not guaranteed days off, sick leave, notice of termination, overtime pay, health insurance, or even minimum wage. They also face unique vulnerabilities born of working in their employer’s home, with high risk for physical, sexual and psychological abuse — and no coworkers with which to share their experiences. Furthermore, immigrant domestic workers may feel that they are unable to report any mistreatment to the authorities for fear of deportation.

The passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York could signal the beginning of a revolution in which the value of domestic, “feminized” labor is given legal validation and recognition — and in which historic injustices perpetrated against immigrant women of color are corrected.

Congratulations to Domestic Workers United, and to the estimated 200,000 domestic workers in New York. It looks like you will soon be one step closer to legal equality — and we can only hope that the rest of the country follows your lead.

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