In 2010, Let’s Treat our Domestic Workers Better

The holidays can be stressful for overscheduled families. The kids are home from school and daycare. The in-laws visit. There are year-end deadlines to meet, awkward office holiday parties to attend, and self-inflicted New Year’s resolutions to conquer.

Here’s a suggestion for hundreds of thousands of families who count on the invaluable contributions of a nanny, housekeeper, or elder caregiver to cope with the overwhelming challenges of family responsibilities: Make a resolution that in 2010 you will treat your domestic workers with dignity.

The estimated two million women (and men) employed in the domestic worker industry are part of an almost-invisible workforce with few labor protections. And missing safeguards invite abuse. Long hours of backbreaking work at low wages are common, and only the very lucky have contracts and health insurance. Even fewer have sick leave or vacation pay. Retirement benefits and other “perks” common to white-collar jobs are almost unheard of.

A survey performed by Domestic Workers United and Datacenter revealed that domestic workers in New York City were earning poverty-level wages, working 50-60 hours per week without overtime or health insurance, and over 30 percent had experienced verbal or physical abuse on the job.

Domestic workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. Unlike workers in other sectors, they lack the right to organize for better working conditions. The isolated nature of the work exacerbates this problem. Domestic workers can spend up to 12 hours a day working inside the home, with no other co-workers or social interactions. Foreign-born workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse, as they have the added challenges of cultural integration, discrimination, and threats of deportation (even when they are “legal” immigrants).

Break the Chain Campaign is a direct service and advocacy project that aims to empower migrant working women who have been exploited. As its social worker, I provide services to domestic workers who have survived human trafficking. One worker, a 24-year-old nanny, was forced to sleep on the basement floor in freezing temperatures and beg for scraps of food from the family’s dinner table. Another, a 50-year-old housekeeper, worked for 10 years without pay and was never allowed to leave the home.

These extreme cases exemplify only the endpoint of a broad range of exploitation. The same conditions that lead to “wage and hour violations” can just as easily lead to modern-day slavery. This kind of abuse happens in homes all over the United States, not just overseas, and not just in brothels and street corners. Our country might have officially abolished slavery 154 years ago, but here, even in the nation’s capital, we are seeing more and more cases of human trafficking of domestic workers by U.S. citizens.

The National Domestic Worker Alliance, representing 30 domestic worker organizations around the country, is readying to address the lack of labor protection in the industry. Within the Department of Labor, a campaign to strengthen key regulations like work hours and fair deductions for room and board, is gaining traction. In both California and New York, domestic workers are lobbying for statewide legislation that includes basics like overtime and sick leave. On the international level, this alliance has partnered with the AFL-CIO to advocate for a Domestic Worker Convention at the International Labor Organization. The proposed Convention would define humane and fair working conditions for domestic workers all over the world.

Your loving nanny, your hardworking housekeeper, your elderly father’s caregiver, the women you see every week in the grocery store and at the playground: these people make it possible for you to go to work and support your own family, or just to cope with the crush of family responsibilities. They deserve the right and the ability to provide for themselves and their loved ones.

Tiffany Williams is the social worker and program manager at the Break the Chain Campaign, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies. www.ips-dc.org