Labor behind closed doors

By Michelle Chen May 01, 2009

The coalescence of May Day and Equal Pay Day this week was an apt moment to demand justice for some of the country’s most vulnerable and least visible workers. Domestic workers are isolated both physically and legally from labor protections. Household workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right to organize, and from various wage, civil rights and occupational safety regulations. They also typically work long hours in isolation, which constrains opportunities to expose harmful conditions or abuse. The demographics of the workforce track a historical continuum dating back to the slavery era and still prevalent around the globe: immigrant women of color shoulder the work of cleaning, caring for children, assisting the elderly and other essential services—in an environment that is both intimate and prone to exploitation. The testimony of Marina, an activist with the New York-based Domestic Workers United, described conditions that seem to belong to another era—a jarring contrast to the posh homes and wealthy neighborhoods where domestic workers often cluster:

“I slept in the basement, where the sewage often overflowed. I had to find cardboard in order to walk around and get out of the basement to go and perform my daily housework. I also had to pick up wood in addition to the cardboard in order to pass through and also to open the backdoor so I could step outside to the sun and for the stench to leave.”

This week, DWU, representing a workforce of more than 200,000 that is overwhelmingly immigrant women of color, rallied behind the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The proposed state legislation would mandate overtime pay, vacation time, support for health care, protection from discrimination, and a legal right to challenge employer abuses. According to research by DWU and DataCenter, a large portion of domestic workers are mired in poverty-level wages, sometimes working as many as 16 hours a day, and suffer high rates of abusive treatment. A 2006 study found that “One third of workers who face abuse identify race and immigration status as factors for their employers’ actions.” A report submitted to the United Nations by U.S. organizations outlined a number of international human rights violations that pervade the domestic work sector, including forced labor and human trafficking. More regulation won’t necessarily improve day-to-day working conditions; enforcement will still be a challenge due to the informal nature of the work and language and immigration-related barriers. Domestic workers are one of a few subclasses of the labor force whose unequal treatment is built into the country’s legal structure. A society that has refused to recognize their dignity for centuries won’t change its views easily, but the letter of the law is a good place to begin. Image: American Gothic (Gordon Parks, Library of Congress)