Laws to Protect Domestic Workers Move Forward

Editor’s note: Since publication Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In celebration of this victory for the labor movement and immigrant rights movement, we proudly revisit this piece by Gabriela Hybel, originally posted in July 2012. If you want to know the history behind the bill, give this thoughtful post a read.

A guest post by Gabriela Hybel

On November 29th, 2010 New York passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, making it the first state to enact laws specifically protecting those who provide cleaning and caring labor in the homes of others. A recent report by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment explains that this bill guarantees workers a maximum eight-hour work day, one day off per week, three paid days off per year, overtime pay, and temporary disability benefits provided by the employer. It also protects workers from discrimination, sexual harassment, and harassment based on gender, race, national origin, and religion.

While this bill is an important achievement in the fight for the rights of domestic workers, it is the only one of its kind, and in states across the country the absence of similar bills has significant implications for domestic workers. A resolution was recently passed in California that acknowledges the importance of the work done by domestic workers and the need for fair treatment and protection, yet this resolution has no power to enforce rules or to protect employees. The California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which passed the California senate and assembly, but is currently in the ‘suspense file,’ would allow for enforcement of workers’ rights and provide protection even beyond those of the New York bill. It would ensure annual living wage increases, paid vacations, and paid sick days. It would also require employers to give advanced notice or severance pay in cases of termination, and to pay employees for work canceled by the employer.

Activists fight for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Photo courtesy of the Excluded Workers Congress Report, 2010.

These bills in New York and California, and other states across the country, are necessary because of the insufficient laws in place to protect the estimated two million domestic workers employed nationally. While workers and activists have advocated for years, and have made significant advancements, workers are still denied many of the rights guaranteed to others through the key labor protection laws in the United States. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 ensures minimum labor standards for workers across the country and was a huge success for labor activists at the time. Yet, it only received the necessary approval of conservative southern democrats once agricultural and domestic workers were excluded, thus denying them important protections that most other workers enjoy.

Fortunately, progress has been made over the last few decades. In her book, Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence,sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo explains that in 1974, the Household Technicians of American and the National Committee on Household Employment fought for domestic workers rights and their inclusion in the FLSA. Because of the gendered aspect of domestic work, activists faced significant opposition from male politicians who feared that by granting rights to domestic workers they would be legitimizing the work typically left to women within the home. At the time, Senator Pete Dominick argued, “We have to be very careful unless we are ready to do dishes” (as cited by Premilla Nadasen in the Journal of Policy History).

Statistics from the HWRC study show disturbing trends.

Despite opposition, as Nadasen reports, the 1974 congressional Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage for domestic workers who spend at least 20 percent of their time on housekeeping. While this progress is important, it is not enough as it only covers certain workers. The Excluded Worker Congress pointed out in a 2010 report that improvements to the FLSA do not ensure overtime pay for live-in domestic workers, nor do they guarantee the minimum wage or overtime pay for home health care workers. Furthermore, even in cases where domestic workers are legally entitled to certain standards of pay, these are frequently violated. Findings from the 2007 Household Worker Rights Coalition (HWRC) Surveydone by Mujeres Unidas y Activas, Day Labor Program Women’s Collective of La Raza Centro Legal, and The Data Center, reflect prevalent exploitation in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Of the 240 domestic workers surveyed, 90 percent were denied overtime pay, and less than 20 percent were paid a livable wage.

Furthermore, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), intended to ensure that employees work in safe environments free of hazards, does little to protect domestic workers. Employers with ten or fewer employees are not required to keep OSHA records, and there are rarely inspections of the informal sector. Yet, inspections are necessary as unsafe working conditions are common. The HWRC study cited above also found that 63 percent of domestic workers surveyed in San Francisco considered their work to be dangerous or hazardous, 75 percent did not receive safety equipment, and 86 percent did not receive job safety training. And, when workers are injured on the job, they often do not receive assistance, as only half of all states require employers to provide injury compensation for domestic workers.

Trends in wages, from the HWRC report.

Apart from low pay and safety violations, domestic workers often face other forms of exploitation and abuse, including 12 to 14 hour workdays, no health benefits, verbal and physical abuse, and being forced to eat expired or leftover food. In interviews she conducted with domestic workers, Hondagneu-Sotelo found that workers were required to sleep in the bedrooms of the children they cared for on a nightly basis, and that many never had a moment truly to themselves because they work at the beck and call of their employers and their charges 24 hours a day. Many live-in workers described constantly feeling confined, imprisoned and socially isolated. One worker, Maribel, explained that she “could never feel at home, never. Never, never, never! There’s always something invisible that tells you this is not your house, you just work here.”

Employers sometimes further isolate domestic workers by prohibiting them from speaking on the phone with friends, seeing their partners, or attending ESL classes in the evening. In the most extreme situations, some workers find themselves enslaved, made possible by the private nature of the work, and the lack of awareness by society at large. Fighting against these injustices is made difficult by the exclusion of domestic workers from the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right to collective bargaining and trade unions.

This exclusion, abuse, and neglect are largely a result of the social hierarchies that place domestic workers in easily exploitable positions. According to an Excluded Worker Congress report, 95 percent of domestic workers are female, foreign born, and/or persons of color. That they are women has significant implications, because, as professor of women’s studies Doreen J. Mattingly reported in her 2010 study, the work that they do is typically viewed as a woman’s natural role within the home. This labor produces no tangible goods, and thus is not valued in the same way as other kinds of labor. As a result, domestic work is rarely seen as “real work.” Instead, as Hondagneu-Sotelo wrote, domestic work is viewed as caring labor–something that women do simply because of their love for others–and not as a means of supporting themselves.

This misperception is further supported by the racialized stereotypes through which employers see, and interact with, their employees. The HWRC survey found that 99 percent of domestic workers in San Francisco are foreign-born and 94 percent are Latina. Just as society has historically assumed that women are suited for work within the home due to a supposed loving, warm, and nurturing nature, employers recreate a similar myth for the mostly Latina women who work in today’s homes. A similar stereotype was used to justify the enslavement and poor treatment of black domestic workers prior to their departure from the domestic work sector during the Civil Rights movement. This “mammy” image depicted black women as maternal, non-threatening, and desexualized, and thus well suited to serve the white family and care for white children. In addition today, the nationality and citizenship status of many domestic workers places them in even more vulnerable positions because they feel pressured to take poor-paying and insecure live-in jobs as a way to avoid factory raids by ICE and deportation.

These gender, race, nationality and class inequalities foster uncomfortable dynamics between employers and employees, which sometimes prevents employers from having important conversations about pay, treatment, and work expectations. This situation leaves workers feeling alienated, and ultimately, without rights. Yet, employers justify their actions by simultaneously viewing the employee as someone who both “works for the family” and is “part of the family.” The former logic allows the employer to remain the superior in the relationship–to hold power–and the latter allows the employer to avoid responsibilities that are standard in other workplace environments.

Problematically, Hondagneu-Sotelo found through conversations with employers of domestic workers that few see their relationship as an employer-employee one. Some even take on a maternal approach, fancying themselves benevolent altruists who provide a form of charity and guidance to a woman they believe is in need of help. Yet this “altruism” is generally degrading, and does more to ease the conscience of the employer than to improve the work situation of the employee. Others simply ignore the worker, creating a barrier in order to pretend that she does not exist.

These problems persist today because, unlike employers in the formal sector, employers of domestic workers have little outside incentive to treat their workers fairly and respectfully. With the increasing focus on ethical consumption and investigations into how products are made, companies face the threat of bad publicity or boycotts if they do not follow at least minimal labor standards. Employers of domestic workers face no such threat, because they employ workers who provide a private service. It is the combination of ignorance, discomfort, and a lack of incentives and oversight that allows for the continued abuse of domestic workers within our nation.

The film “The Help” debuted in 2011. Its depiction of the struggle for the rights of domestic workers appealed to many.

The bill passed in New York and the one proposed in California respond to a desperate need for increased and improved legislation for the rights of domestic workers. However, these bills alone are not enough. We cannot leave the entire responsibility of protection for workers in the hands of the law, as the private nature of domestic labor calls for another kind of change. As a society we must change the way that we view domestic workers, the importance of the work they do, and the rights they deserve. For many families they offer an essential service, taking care of homes and children so that others can work outside the home. We enjoy seeing them on film, like in The Help, The Nanny Diaries, and Spanglish, and yet, when it comes to the real world, we prefer to ignore them and their work.

This must change. Employers in particular must see themselves as employers, not consumers or pseudo-family members, and accept the responsibility that comes with this role. While many organizations consisting of domestic workers and allies are doing excellent work to advocate for change, one organization is specifically working with employers to help them realize their obligations and what they can do to improve the situation. Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association provides resources and suggestions for how to ensure open communication, fair wages, and just treatment of employees. Employers must ask themselves whether they are treating the domestic worker they employ as a dignified human being who provides an essential service, or if they are buying into a fiction that oppresses workers and fuels inequality.

Gabriela Hybel graduated from Pomona College with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in May 2013, where she wrote her senior thesis on the household worker rights movement in California. She is currently WWOOFING around the world. Originally from Mystic, Connecticut, she loves to travel and hopes to never live in one place for too long. Her studies have focused on inequality, social justice, poverty alleviation, and she loves to cook and read. Click here to send her an email.


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