Domestic Workers in New York Getting Closer to Having Their Own Bill of Rights
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Deloris Wright has been a nanny for twenty-one years. In the strange class warp of Manhattan's Upper East and West Sides, this places her squarely among the ranks of the invisible, a ministering ghost who is rarely seen and never heard. And yet, there she was on a startling spring Saturday, a 54-year-old Jamaican domestic worker standing at the edge of Central Park, demanding her rights.
"We take care of your children. We take them to school, to French classes, we clean your homes, do your laundry, and we care for your aging parents, right here in this neighborhood," she shouted into a microphone. "Now, with the economic crisis, we are thrown out into the street with no notice and no severance pay, no unemployment, no safety net, no nothing.... Some of our employers treat their pets with more humanity than they would treat us."
Before her, a crowd of several hundred supporters whooped and hollered. They were union leaders, young activists, sympathetic employers and, of course, domestic workers--women from a UN's worth of countries who understood Wright all too well. Patricia Francois, 50, a Trinidadian nanny, had recently been forced to leave her job after her male employer--a documentary filmmaker who lives opposite Carnegie Hall--allegedly punched, slapped and verbally abused her. Mona Lunot, a Filipina domestic worker, had spent her first nine months in the United States all but indentured to an employer who took her passport and denied her a single day off--a situation she endured until she finally escaped in the middle of the night.
Like many domestic workers, these women toiled in underpaid drudgery even during the best of times, members of a profession so devalued it is still excluded from many of the nation's labor laws. But as the economy collapsed, their lot grew even harder. So they headed to the Upper East Side--epicenter of the domestic trade, playground of Wall Street's bailout chiefs--to press their case for their own government rescue plan: the first ever Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights.
This bill, which has been battling its way through the New York State legislature for five years, aims to provide basic protections to many of the estimated 200,000 nannies, housekeepers and eldercare-givers who labor in New York State. Backed by a diverse coalition of labor and religious groups and even employers, it calls for severance and overtime pay, advance notice of termination, one day off a week, holidays, healthcare and annual cost of living increases, among other fundamental rights. By most accounts, it should have passed in June, but an epic power struggle in the State Senate halted all business for a month. Now domestic workers are hoping their bill will pass in September.
"We are fighting for the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights, for respect, for recognition, for justice," declared Wright, rousing the crowd before sending it marching past the pre-war palaces of Wall Street honchos like Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Morgan Stanley co-president Walid Chammah and former Treasury Secretary and ex-Citigroup director Robert Rubin. On normal days some of these women might have turned in to one of these buildings, unseen and uncounted, the real invisible hands of the market. But on this day they sang and chanted: "We're fired up! We won't take it no more!"
Throughout the long history of American domestic work, women have come together to demand rights, respect, a livable wage and, literally, a room of their own (domestic workers have all too frequently been banished to basements, laundry rooms and couches). In 1881, for instance, members of an Atlanta group called the Washing Society successfully organized washerwomen to strike for higher wages. The twentieth century saw at least two extended organizing episodes--one in the '30s and one led by the Household Technicians of America in the '70s--as Eileen Boris and Premilla Nadasen explained in the December 2008 issue of WorkingUSA.