US Social Forum Kicks Off With Domestic Workers Coming Out of the Shadows

Thursday, 24 June 2010 11:58 By Yana Kunichoff, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

US Social Forum Kicks Off With Domestic Workers Coming Out of the Shadows
(Photo: Sasha Y. Kimel)

Joycelyn Gill-Campbell did everything her duty as a housekeeper and nanny for her employers, a couple and their one child in New York, demanded. She wore the traditional white maid's uniform. She walked the dog, in the white uniform. And when the dog got cancer and her employers bought a double stroller, she pushed both the dog and the couple's child in it along the streets of Manhattan - in her white uniform. For these and other services Gill-Campbell, who came to New York from Barbados 14 years ago, earned about $3 an hour - $270 for a 50-60 hour week. The white uniform was free.

As shocking as her story may be, it was one of the less painful in the stories of abuse and exclusion told by former domestic workers on the first day of the US Social Forum at the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights Campaign workshop. Led by Domestic Workers United (DWU), it related the struggle of DWU to pass the first-ever domestic workers' labor protection law in New York state, and the continuing work by domestic workers themselves to help others all over the country who have fallen through the cracks in labor law.

"Domestic workers are one of only two workforces that have been excluded from the right to collectively bargain," said Ai-Jen Poo, lead organizer and founder of DWU, which covers those working as housekeepers, nannies, elderly caretakers and cooks. "Whether it's because this work is traditionally seen as woman's work or whether it's because this work has historically been done by immigrant women or women of color, it's somehow been okay to exclude domestic workers from every major labor protection to date."

Poo is also the director of a coalition of national domestic workers' rights organizations, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, that was formed during the 2007 Social Forum.

In 2002, DWU successfully petitioned for legislation in New York City which would make employment agencies responsible for informing both employers and workers of employee rights. Then, in March 2005, their work led to the introduction of a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights in the New York State legislature, which calls for a living wage, health care and basic benefits for all domestic workers - it was being debated in the legislature the morning of the workshop. If passed, it will be the first bill to offer basic labor protections to domestic workers.

Gill-Campbell, through her work with DWU, now earns a living wage as a full-time organizer. At the panel, she spoke about the empowerment of her move from being an underpaid worker who knows "what it is to be treated less than human" to being a pivotal part of the struggle to win protection for the more than 200,000 domestic workers in the New York City metropolitan area.

The slogan the women use for their campaign in the Big Apple is "great campaigns are like great love affairs" in the way they affect a person - "you get consumed, you can't think about anything else," said Poo. "All of the sudden time and space opens up and you get a new lease on life in some ways."

The fact that the struggle is led by the very women it affects helps to subvert "the exclusion from the labor law [which] has been such a symbol and source of disenfranchisement" for women in the industry.

"Too often, the people doing policy advocacy are not the people most directly impacted by the policies themselves," Poo noted. "But we feel it's important that the people who are most directly impacted are at the table at all times.

Premilla Nadasen, an associate professor of African-American history at Queens College, says that workers rights movements for domestic labor have historically been under the radar, both in terms of the law and mainstream organizing.

"Domestic work has been a kind of invisible work on many levels. It is work that takes place in the private household and its work that women have employed for generations without pay." said Nadasen, who worked with the campaign in New York. "Even when someone is hired to do the work and it takes place in the privacy of the home, its not recognized the way other labor is."

However, Nadasen points out, poor and marginalized women organizing is not unprecedented. "The earliest incident we know of was in the 1880's, in Atlanta, a washerwomen strike. Mainly African-American women came together to try to raise their rates of washing and they were very successful in that," she said. "In the 30s, during the Great Depression, in New York in particular many domestic workers turned to day labor and employers would come and try to negotiate the lowest wage ... so in response to those conditions, domestic unions formed in New York City."

"I think the domestic workers rights movement is really sort of an alternative to how we think about labor organizing in a number of different ways," said Nadasen. "The premise of most labor organizing has been [previously] tied to the manufacturing sector."

To minimize the exploitation of domestic workers until a comprehensive bill is passed, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREC) have been working to educate and organize employers themselves in the New York area. Working with their program Shalom-Bayit, peace in the home, JFREC works to "get people to admit they're a boss in their own home" through Jewish community organized events and living room gatherings. Once employers take responsibility for their positions, says Lane Levin, a member and organizer, "their political analysis moves to the left" and they start using words like race and class - and following fair labor practices such as overtime pay, a rarity in the domestic work industry.

The six immigrant women on the panel spoke in colorful accents, some in Spanish, about what they had variously endured during their time as domestic workers - months of work for which they never received any pay, severe restrictions on leaving the house of their employer, psychological intimidation and verbal abuse.

They are now organizers on Long Island, in Maryland and California, who hail originally from Nepal, Mexico and Barbados.

In her work with DWU, Nadasen has found bonds stretching across cultures particularly impressive. "Culture acts as a bond to exchange knowledge with one another," said Nadasen. "I think there is a way in which we can think of organizing efforts that subsume culture or subsume race. And what I've seen in Domestic Workers United is really a way in which they integrate their cultural and their racial background." DWU organizing meetings, like the workshop, always have a number of translators on hand and work officially in English, French and Spanish.

The importance of inclusion means that undocumented workers would also be protected in the legislation for which DWU is fighting. Because of the contradictions in labor law, even people who are technically not allowed to work are protected by labor laws once employed, Poo said. Technically, the bill of rights would cover all domestic workers regardless of status, though this does not deal with the issue of fear. "I always tell our undocumented workers, if you are not organized, you are vulnerable in isolation."

The Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights campaign, says Nadasen, is even having an effect beyond the people it's organizing for. "I think that domestic workers are really reshaping the meaning of domestic labor in this country. The concept of labor particularly in this day and age needs to be rethought, that model of somebody working in the manufacturing sector is no longer the model for most workers, who work in multiple jobs and move frequently from place to place. Because of that the thinking of how to organize workers needs to be rethought; what does it mean to organize workers in the 21st century?"

And DWU "has done a phenomenal job of demonstrating how this sector can organize across racial and ethnic lines - they have blown me away."

For Gill-Campbell and the other women, who continue to scour parks and laundromats in their adopted hometowns looking for the signs of a domestic worker in an abusive situation, saying enough is enough has been long overdue. But they will continue to say it until they are heard - "we will not take this anymore."

Yana Kunichoff

Yana Kunichoff is an assistant editor at Truthout.

Last modified on Thursday, 01 July 2010 01:10