Domestic Worker Rights Movement Gains Traction in California and Geneva

Domestic workers rally in Sacramento. Photo courtesy of Jobs with Justice

Domestic workers rally in Sacramento. Photo courtesy of Jobs with Justice

This week, a delegation of domestic workers from the National Domestic Workers Alliance left for Geneva, Switzerland to attend the annual International Labor Conference held at the International Labor Organization (ILO) every summer. Last June, member countries voted to have a convention (instead of the weaker option, a recommendation) on “Decent Work for Domestic Workers,” and on June 16 they will vote on its passage. NDWA members are representing the United States as the labor arm of the tripartite system of the ILO (labor, employers, and governments), thanks to an historic partnership with the AFL-CIO (who are usually at the table representing US labor). The AFL-CIO has opened up seats in the delegation so that domestic workers can share their own testimony and experiences, and have a vote.

The convention would provide minimum protections for domestic workers around the world — including provisions related to contracts, payment, sleeping and living conditions, and even withholding of passports and other protections aimed at addressing the inherent danger of exploitation faced by domestic workers in many countries, including the United States.

Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail I just received from Jill Shenker, the NDWA field director:

We will write more soon, but tonight, at 9:14 pm, the governments, employers, and workers at the ILO adopted the 19 articles of the International Labor Convention for Decent Work for Domestic Workers. It was an amazing negotiation process and the text sets forth fundamental labor standards for domestic workers — a huge step forward in our struggle to win human rights for domestic work, recognition that we deserve labor protections like any other worker, and respect for the fact that domestic workers are a force to be reckoned with! At the end of the session tonight, the domestic workers from around the world burst into song — first a song from our domestic worker sisters in South Africa, and then “Solidarity Forever,” and you could feel not only the tremendous victory for domestic workers, but also the injection of spirit for the trade unionists, governments, and ILO staff

This year, the NDWA delegation, and its sister organizations from around the world, has been busy educating themselves and their fellow domestic workers on the ILO process, the rights outlined in the draft Convention, and even the next steps they will need to take to push for widespread ratification of the Convention. While the US government has been very supportive of the Convention and has provided very progressive responses to the questionnaire that is used to help the ILO develop the Convention, whether the United States will ratify the Convention remains to be seen. What we do know is that the more rights domestic workers gain in the United States, the closer the US will be to being able to reconcile U.S. laws with the international law proposed (a necessary factor for ratification).

To that end, domestic workers in California had a huge victory this week as the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (closely modeled on New York State’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that was signed into law last August) was passed out of the Assembly.

For centuries, domestic work (including housekeeping, childcare, and caring for individuals with disabilities and seniors), has been undervalued despite its enormous importance to families. It is, as many workers, economists, and advocates have observed, “the work that makes all other work possible.” In the United States, this workforce is comprised largely of immigrant women of color — so in addition to the work itself not being considered “real” work, the individuals are vulnerable to gender and racial discrimination that makes organizing for rights an even harder task. Our labor laws do little to ameliorate this problem, specifically excluding domestic workers from many fundamental labor protections, including the right to organize and in some cases even the right to minimum wage and overtime compensation. The link between our country’s history of slavery in agriculture and domestic work, and the fact that these two industries remain among the least protected, isn’t a coincidence.

I’m happy to have played my part in the struggle for justice and recognition of domestic workers, as a social worker, writer, researcher, facilitator, note-taker, food orderer, and friend. As an ally, I know my role, and it is powerful to know that this movement for domestic worker rights is being LED by domestic workers themselves. In countries around the world, they have challenged discrimination, challenged exploitation, and challenged the idea of others speaking for them. In their organizing, domestic workers speak to more than just abuse, they also share personal stories of affection and bonding with the employing families. Most tell me they really enjoy and love the work of care, and only wish to be granted the same rights and respect that other workers receive. The victories in New York and California and this new ILO convention are only the beginning of what we hope will be a transformation in this industry.