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Home Is Where the Work Is: Domestic Workers Form National Alliance

By: 
Brent Perdue
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

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 in an effort to link their struggles and more effectively agitate for change. The domestic workers were able to carve out meeting times during the USSF to forge the national alliance that looks to be officially launched this fall. Domestic worker organizations across the country are on the rise and strengthening ties.

Stemming from the history of slavery, domestic workers are excluded from most basic labor protections US workers enjoy. The vast majority of the domestic workers are foreign-born, women of color, forced to migrate to the United States in search of viable employment opportunities.

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. The Occupational Safety and Health Act further 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 receives health insurance. As these women scrape by, nearly 60% are the primary income earners 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. One worker reported, “Many times around 11:00PM, Ms. Lemay would wake me up and she would ask me to clean the floor with Clorox Bleach...”

This May, a millionaire couple was arraigned in federal court on allegations 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. 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.

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.’“

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 in New York. Success in New York, for many domestic workers, would mean a strong precedent for nation-wide change. The New York Bill of Rights would mandate a livable wage, payment of overtime, and protections from human trafficking. As Campbell told one state legislator last year, “I will fight for my Bill of Rights until my last breath.”

While integrally important to DWU’s strategy, the Bill of Rights is just one component of their organizing. DWU represents a workforce of 200,000 hailing from 42 different countries. Much of their role is that of a workers’ center. DWU has recovered $300,000 in unpaid wages, offers an annual nanny training school, holds leadership development and political education sessions, and does extensive street-level outreach. The national domestic workers network that formed in Atlanta plans to do that work as well at the macro-level.

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.” As Celeste Escobar, an organizer with DWU stated, “All the behind doors work is sustaining the economy.” 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.”

At the close of the domestic workers network’s founding in Atlanta, a resounding call and challenge was made: “We intend to organize across the nation until we have one million domestic workers.” From the likes of the presence of domestic workers at the US Social Forum, they are up for it—as one domestic worker from Los Angeles declared, “We are workers in the house, but we are not domesticated!”

For more information or to contact DWU, please check out www.domesticworkersunited.org or email domesticworkersunited(at)gmail.com.