For more than two years, Irene, a Colombian woman in her mid-60s, slept in the sewage-filled basement of a house in the New York City area. Upstairs, she worked an average of 72 hours a week—cleaning, cooking, and caring for a disabled boy. Her wages: less than two dollars an hour.
When Irene (not her real name) was fired without notice or severance, she was distraught, despite the privations she’d endured. “[My boss] offered no explanation,” she says. “I asked her for permission to stay in the house that night. . . . I could not even sleep thinking about where I would go next.”
Her story would have remained unknown, her former employers unchallenged, had she not come upon Domestic Workers United (DWU), a New York City organization fighting for the rights of an estimated 200,000 housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers for the elderly. DWU demanded back pay and a public apology from Irene’s employers, and launched a boycott of the Italian restaurant they owned. It also led a public “shaming” outside the house where Irene had given so much for so little compensation.
In February 2009, after a four-year battle, Irene won a court settlement for an undisclosed amount. DWU, which has won about $500,000 in back wages for domestic workers through the 25-plus lawsuits it has brought against exploitative employers, continues to be at the vanguard of a growing, innovative global movement to organize private household workers. It’s not an easy task: Such workers are among the most challenging to find and talk to, let alone unionize. They labor in individual homes rather than larger workplaces, frequently change employers, speak a polyglot of languages, and are often undocumented, making them wary of outsiders.
They’re without an umbrella of labor protection as well. African American domestic workers organizing in the 1970s gained a few basic rights, such as minimum wage, but the sheer number of work sites, the power imbalance between employers and employees, and the fact that domestic workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act make enforcement difficult.
“This workforce is wired for abuse,” says DWU director Priscilla González. “Isolated workers have no leverage to bargain for something as simple as an afternoon off to receive a mammogram.” Nine out of ten domestic workers don’t receive health insurance from their employers, and just over one-quarter earn below the poverty line. Two-thirds of the domestic workers surveyed by DWU sometimes or never receive overtime, and one-third reported verbal or physical abuse.
Now DWU is pushing for legislation that would upend those statistics: a precedent-setting New York state Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that would guarantee household employees such basic rights as overtime pay, a day of rest, paid sick leave and holidays, and two months’ notice. If it passes, the bill’s impact could reverberate beyond the boundaries of New York state. As Assemblyman Keith Wright, sponsor of the bill, explains: “We are hoping that this legislation will become a model for similar laws throughout the country.”