• Tuesday, July 22, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Slavery Casts a Long Shadow

    US domestic workers at a rally to demand justice.

    US domestic workers at a rally to demand justice.

    Hannah Rubenstein

    NEW YORK: Ayana rises before the sun. She bathes, dresses, and leaves the house before her daughters awake. Transferring from bus to train to taxi, she arrives at the high-rise apartment an hour later as the sky begins to lighten. She will prepare breakfast for the children, pack their lunches, see them off to school, clean the apartment, wash the laundry, pick the children up, take them to piano lessons and soccer practice, return to the apartment, bathe and dress them, prepare dinner, monitor homework, and wash the dishes.

    The sky will be dark again twelve hours later when Ayana boards the departing train. When she arrives home, her daughters will be in bed. She’ll kiss them goodnight and turn off the lights.

    In the next week, Ayana will spend upwards of 50 hours caring for children and a home that are not her own. For her effort, she will earn a low wage that hovers on the federal poverty line. She will not receive overtime wages, paid time off, or health insurance. She does not have a work contract. She will likely not be paid on time. With her paltry salary, she must support a household of four and send a portion of her earnings to her family back in Trinidad. She will be late on her rent payment. Again.

    Ayana’s situation is not an exception to the rule. She is a composite of domestic workers in the U.S., the majority of who are immigrant women of colour being exploited for poverty wages. She is the Average Domestic Worker – one of approximately 2.5 million living and working in the United States.

    Ayana is representative of the urban domestic workforce as a whole, defined as anyone employed to work in a private home by the head(s) of household, including nannies, housekeepers, elderly companions, cleaners, babysitters, baby nurses, and cooks.

    Estimates of the number of domestic workers in New York City range from 200,000 to 600,000, with speculation that the population is even greater. Jill Shenker, lead organiser of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), tells IPS that “one of the realities of this workforce across the world is that it isn’t very well understood or researched.” Currently, there is no comprehensive national data available, although NDWA is planning to launch a countrywide survey in 2011 aimed at gathering statistics on the workforce.

    What is known about the domestic workforce is that it is underpaid and overworked. A 2006 Domestic Workers United (DWU) report that has provided the most conclusive data on the workforce surveyed 547 domestic workers in New York from 42 countries, and found that 99 percent of domestic workers are foreign-born, 95 percent are of colour, and 93 percent are women. The majority of workers are from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines.

    Not surprisingly, the domestic work industry in the U.S. has roots in slavery. Following abolition, domestic work became a predominantly African-American, female occupation. After the Civil Rights movement of the 1970s expanded work options for African-American women, the domestic workforce began to swell with immigrant women of colour seeking to escape the poverty of their birthplaces.

    Because of its fraught history, domestic work – like farm work, the other traditional slave occupation in the United States – has never been subject to any legal protections. Domestic workers have been excluded from the National Labour Relations Act (NLRA), Fair Labour Standards Act (FLSA), Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), Civil Rights Law, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), either as  “casual employees” not protected by the law, as with FLSA, or as “a matter of policy,” in the case of OSHA.

    Groups like Domestic Workers United, and its umbrella organisation, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have been fighting for change. Recently, by a small margin of 33-28, the New York State Senate passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights ensuring workplace protection and standards for domestic workers, defeating opposition from legislators claiming that their constituents couldn’t afford to pay overtime and severance wages. The New York State Assembly passed a similar measure last year; once the bills are reconciled, Governor David Paterson has agreed to sign the measure into law.

    In other states in the U.S., such as California and Colorado, workers rights groups are campaigning for similar legislation. Shenker says the most beneficial step would be federal legislation ensuring workers rights. “Basic protections and a basic understanding of the household as a workplace for millions of people could help us move forward at a faster rate,” she tells IPS.

    The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights promises change. There are discrepancies between the Assembly and Senate versions of the bill, but both share a commitment to improving domestic work conditions.

    Under the Domestic Bill of Rights – which many activists hope will be the blueprint for federal legislation – Ayana would be paid for overtime, or time-and-a-half, for every hour worked above 40 hours per week. She would be guaranteed one day off per week. Depending on the final version of the bill, Ayana could earn a limited number of paid vacation, holiday, and sick days; a guarantee of severance pay; protection from workplace discrimination; and inclusion in collective bargaining and disability laws.

    “The bill provides basic labour standards, it recognises that domestic is real work, and should be respected – we hope this will transform the relationship between domestic workers and their employers to one that is more respectful and clear,” says Allison Julien Thompson of Domestic Workers United.

    Under federal legislation modelled on the New York bill, Ayana wouldn’t have to leave her home before dawn and return after nightfall. She could spend Sundays with her family. She could take a day off – to attend a parent-teacher conference, run errands, or go to the doctor. She could pay her rent on time. In short: she would be treated like a legal worker in the United States.

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