New York Domestic Workers Fight to Pass Bill of Rights

Via Equal Writes, the BBC has recently reported on the struggle of domestic workers in New York state to pass a bill of rights for those in their line of work. In this context, the term domestic workers refers to nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers, of which there are over 200,000 in NY alone. Domestic workers are overwhelmingly women — they are also very disproportionately low-income, women of color, and immigrants. And under U.S. law, they have very few legal rights and are subjected to all kinds of heinous abuse by unscrupulous employers.

For 17 years, Barbara Young from Barbados has worked as a nanny in New York, arriving at 0700 to care for the children of high-flying parents, often working through the night to care for newborn babies.

Because domestic workers are specifically excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of the 1930s, nannies operate in the shadows, their pay and conditions determined by their employers.

Ms Young has had to endure a lot over the years.

She told me how one employer paid her the bare minimum for her daily nannying work, and then expected her to sleep in a room with an infant, and feed that baby overnight, all for no extra pay.

“Because you work in the home, people don’t see you as an employee. It’s seen as women’s work, not proper work,” says Ms Young.

Ms Young believes the bill would make a huge difference to her.

“It would require notice of termination, paid sick leave, paid holidays, the right to a day off, and it would recognise domestic work as real work.”

The bill would also give nannies the right to organise collectively.

Because domestic workers are frequently economically vulnerable, vulnerable to deportation, and/or likely to face racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and other prejudices, it’s usually not so easy as “just quit.” Abusive employers, of course, know this and use it to their advantage. And legal action is rarely an option.

The Bill of Rights was drafted by the members of Domestic Workers United, a New York organization of Caribbean, Latina and African domestic workers. They provide the following information on the plight of NY domestic workers:

– Domestic workers work long hours, often upwards of 10 hours per day and sometimes as much as 16 hours per day. The vast majority receive no overtime pay, health insurance, or regular vacations. Many are fired without notice or severance after years of service, without recourse.

Currently, there is no safety net for domestic workers. If a domestic worker should suddenly fall ill or suffer injury, the vast majority will not qualify for existing social safety nets such as unemployment or disability benefits.

– Domestic workers are excluded from labor laws that protect other workers, including protection from discrimination and the right to bargain collectively.

– The protections that do exist for domestic workers in state laws are often not enforced. Employers violate the law knowing that there is little risk of being caught.

– Domestic workers are isolated working inside individual homes, so it is difficult for them to organize collectively to improve working conditions, as is possible in most other industries. In addition, the law does not protect their right to organize.

According to DWU, the bill “amends New York State labor law to guarantee basic work standards and protections: time-and-a-half for every hour over 40 hours per week; one day off per 7-day calendar week; a limited number of paid vacation days, holidays, and sick days; protection from employment discrimination; and advance notice of termination. The bill provides a means of enforcing these standards in court.”

Much more information on the Bill of Rights can be found here (pdf). As that document notes, the passage of this bill would not end the abuse and poor working conditions of many domestic workers on its own. Action still needs to be taken on enormous issues like the physical and sexual violence too frequently inflicted on domestic workers by their employers. But passage of the bill certainly would be an important step.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights has already passed the New York State Assembly. If you are a New York resident, please contact your state senators and urge them to support the bill. And for those of you in New York City, there is a town hall meeting on Thursday April 22, featuring Gloria Steinem, civil rights activist Esther Cooper Jackson, State Senator Diane Savino, and more. For a lot more information on the bill, check out both Laura’s post at Equal Writes and the Domestic Workers United website.

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5 comments for “New York Domestic Workers Fight to Pass Bill of Rights

  1. RD
    April 12, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Good post, this is a very important issue.

  2. Chocolate Tort
    April 12, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I actually just read a student paper and heard a presentation on this topic, so it’s been on my mind. Where I’m from in the Midwest, daycare is the norm and not nannies, so this issue is pretty new to me. The current system strikes me as very problematic, as does a lot of the discussion around it (see: Caitlin Flanagan). I really hope this bill passes; it looks like it would be a significant step toward recognizing the importance of this work and toward respecting the basic labor rights (which are afforded by law to citizens, legal residents, AND undocumented workers), not to mention human rights, of the people who provide this service.

  3. Maud
    April 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    It’s good to see coverage of this issue here; thanks.

  4. Z S
    April 13, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you for raising the profile of this issue.

    I am a British person living in the US and I feel frankly sick when I think about the way American domestic workers are treated. If one of my domestic-employee-having British friends treated said employee the way most of my comparable American friends do – not knowing their last name or their legal status, not caring if they get sick, paying a slave wage – they would be subject to massive social opprobrium and even exclusion.

    I think it is partly a holdover from slavery – the mindset that it’s OK to treat people like that if they’re not really people, due to lamentable flaws such as being brown or female – and partly a nasty byproduct of the whole rugged individualism thing (commendable in its other manifestations, the American dream) – the mindset that anyone can make it, hence any person who has not bettered themselves deserves whatever they get, because obviously, the dice aren’t loaded by factors like education, race, gender, poverty etc, and if they weren’t so lazy and/or dumb they’d work really hard, and be a successful homeowning businesswoman by age 26 and THEN we would rightly be respectful toward them, but they aren’t, so we the Privileged (TM) get to treat them like dogs.

    Actually, most of my British friends wouldn’t even treat their dogs that way.

  5. Tlönista
    April 14, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this; it’s great news! Domestic workers are an extremely vulnerable group for so many reasons, and I have to say, employers can only be counted on to provide the absolute minimum work standard required by law—so it’s crucial to require a minimum work standard that’s actually fair.

    In my province, domestic workers are covered under the ESA (Employment Standards Act). There’s a domestic workers’ rights group here in Toronto called INTERCEDE—their web page seems to be down right now, though.

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