Thursday, July 19, 2007

Domestic Workers Take USSF by Storm; Form National Alliance
By: Brent Perdue

During the US Social Forum, New York-based Domestic Workers United (DWU) and over ten other domestic worker organizations from California to Maryland founded a historic national network of domestic workers to link their struggles and more effectively agitate for change. As Celeste Escobar of DWU commented, "We need it more now than ever…"

Stemming from the history of slavery, domestic workers are excluded from most basic labor protections US workers enjoy. And that legacy continues as nearly the whole workforce is foreign-born women of color, who are forced to migrate to the United States in search of viable employment opportunities.

Day in the Life

Household workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which grants workers the right to organize. As “casual” workers, they are not afforded the federal minimum wage mandated in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Nor does the FLSA provide live-in household workers the right to overtime. And the Occupational Safety and Health Act excludes domestic workers “as a matter of policy.”

Domestic Workers United 2006 Home is Where the Work Is survey, which canvassed over 500 workers, found that 41% of workers receive low-wages (between $8.98 and $13.46 an hour). According to New York labor law, household workers have the right to overtime. Yet, 67% of workers do not receive it despite nearly the majority of workers clocking in 50 to 60 hours a week. Only one in ten domestic workers receive health insurance. As these women scrap-by, nearly 60% are primary income earnings for their own families.

Long-hours, little pay, and little personal time is the daily reality. Workers' basic necessities are at the “hands of the employers.” In Maryland, domestic workers report 79% of household workers are on-call 24 hours a day. Lou reported her employer's behavior: “Many times around 11:00 o’clock at night, Ms. Lemay would wake me up and she would ask me to clean the floor with Clorox Bleach…”

Yet, many workers will remain at jobs out of economic necessity that caused their migration in the first place. Linda of DWU put it crystal clear, "Neoliberal globalization put into place politics that have destroyed home countries and pushed them to migrate to places like New York to support their families." In fact, 33% of domestic workers reported coming to the US because they couldn't support family in their home country.

Modern-Day Slaves

During a human rights tribunal hosted by DWU in 2005, domestic worker Cindy told a horrifying real-life tale of how employer's really viewed the 'help:'

…that was the day when Fontaine beat me, pushed me down from her porch, causing me physical injuries to my back. While she was beating and kicking me, she was saying to me, “I was nothing but a nigger.”…she was cursing and saying that she had wanted to call me a nigger for three years. And her words – because I was an illegal nigger, no one would listen to me because she was an upstanding citizen of Massapequa Park and she pays taxes. And I was nothing.

This May, a millionaire couple was arraigned in federal court on charges of slavery and “incomprehensible inhumanity.” According to two Indonesian domestic workers, their employer, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, beat them with a bamboo rod and scalded them with boiling water, among many more things. One worker was found wandering the streets, half-naked, muttering 'Master' and making slapping motions. After she was found, officials searched the millionaires' home and found another woman huddled in a 3-by-3 foot closet.

Many dismiss cases such as this as mere bad apples. But, domestic worker organizations maintain that slavery in the extreme manifestation of daily exploitative conditions that provide fertile ground for slavery to take root. DWU and other anti-slavery organizations, know that slavery's longevity lies with the imbalance of power in the workplace.

Joyce Campbell now organizes with DWU to make sure fellow workers know their rights and do not fall into such situations. Campbell said during the Forum, “Whether you are documented or not in this whole-wide world there are human rights. And once you know this, no employer can bullshit you. If you don't walk that dog, if you don't shovel that snow, and they say they will call immigration. Look them in the eye and tell them, 'I'm not afraid of you. I'm not an alien. I'm a human being.”

Tell Dem Slavery Done

To combat such abuses, grassroots domestic worker organizations are pushing for Bill of Rights legislation from California to Maryland. This upcoming legislative session DWU is planning for a major push and hopes for the Bill of Rights passage. Success in New York, for many domestic workers, means a strong precedent for nation-wide change.

In 2003, the New York City Council did pass the “Nanny Bill.” The bill requires that household worker employment agencies provide employers a “code of conduct” detailing existing labor laws. Employers are required to sign the code and agencies keep the records on file for three years. Individual employers may sign a largely symbolic code of conduct, but a industry-wide change is still lacking.

And for that reason, DWU is pushing for the Bill of Rights that would mandate a livable wage, payment of overtime, and protections from human trafficking. What it comes down to for DWU is that domestic work be “recognized, respected, and protected” just as any another job would be. Last year Campbell told one state legislator, "I will fight for my Bill of Rights until my last breath."

Base Work

While integrally important in DWU's view, the Bill of Rights is just one set of their organizing. DWU represents a workforce of 200,000 hailing from 42 different countries. Essentially, they do the day-to-day work of a workers' center or an independent union. DWU has recovered $300,000 in unpaid wages, offers an annual nanny training school, holds leadership develop and political education sessions, and does extensive street-level outreach and base-building.

DWU also will take to the streets to fight for their rights. One such fight occurred when one domestic worker was repeatedly locked in a basement during her shift. She complained to her employer about her treatment and unpaid wages to which the employer replied, “I could have let you die in there because no one knew you were here.” DWU reacted, organizing fifty workers who marched on the uber-rich town of Southampton demanding respect and the back wages. The employer was shamed into paying her employee.

One worker in Atlanta commented that through her involved and DWU's popular education programs she now knows, “I have rights. Before, I didn't know that.” It may seem like a small step. But, as Barbara from DWU explains, “This is what we mean by power—the more people know, the more they fight." The national network that formed in Atlanta plans to do that work, as well, at the macro-level. Domestic worker organizations across the country are on the rise and strengthening ties.

We Built This City

During a march through New York City this June, DWU members carried cardboard cut-offs of the City sky-line on their backs with the phrase, “We Built This City.”

"All the behind doors work is sustaining the economy…," stated Escobar. The lawyers, Wall Street suits, and managers rely on the labor of household workers to maintain their families, have a social life, and work outside the home. Indeed, domestic work is one of the “fluids that keeps this economy running" as work that “enables other work to happen.”

A LA-based domestic workers' rights organization relayed such a recent story about a Filipina worker. One day she got into an argument with her employer's wife, who solved the disagreement by taking a glass bottle to her head. The employer was the Vice President of Legal Affairs for Sony. During the domestic workers' workshop, the Maryland-based group elaborated how they had physically rescued three workers from abusive situations in the last three months. All three rescues were from homes of diplomats.

These stories may seem outrageous. But, as Ai-jen Poo, organizer for DWU, explains, “"It isn't unique. In fact, it is common, which is why we are organizing. And even though its often said it is impossible, we are doing it."

At the close of the domestic workers network's founding, a resounding call and challenge was made: "We intend to organize across the nation until we have one million domestic workers." And from the likes of the presence of domestic workers at the US Social Forum, they are up for it. After all, as one domestic worker from LA declared, "We are workers in the house, but we are not domesticated!"

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kateg said...

This seems great! Its the first I've heard of it. Are there any union backers, or are they the ones saying this kind of organizing is impossible?

I hope theres a follow up her or in LT.

max said...

I know that Domestic Workers United [DWU], the main grouping, started as a project within CAAAV and outside of the larger labor movement.

Not sure if over the past year Union support has come in to help their organizing or if they still see it as something "outside their domain".

We will be doing a follow up in the fall issue of Left Turn (#26) and will be following the developments of this newly formed alliance closely. It is definitely one of then more exciting concrete things to come out of the USSF so far.

Anonymous said...

How would you describe the role played by CAAAV in this grouping?

Does the world, or even domestic workers, really need another advocacy organization?

Is that what the times call for? More constituency advocacy?

Aren't there hundreds of groups like this, more or less scrambling for minor reforms that don't even dent the basic structural inequalities?