Courtney Martin writes that this International Women's Day, we should look at gender inequality in our own communities. Each day this week on TAPPED we will run a profile of an organization doing exactly that.
To get centrist Southern Democrats on board with New Deal-era labor protections, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration compromised and specifically excluded farm and domestic laborers who, in the South at the time, were mostly African American. The results of that racism and sexism linger today: nannies, housekeepers, and other domestic workers are not guaranteed a minimum wage, sick leave, or a 40-hour work week. "We often think of the industry as the wild wild west," says Priscilla Gonzalez, director of Domestic Workers United, a New York City group working to change that.
Domestic Workers United's current project is advocating for a Domestic Worker's Bill of Rights in New York state. "The bill is actually moving pretty quickly through the New York state Senate, slated to be on the floor in a matter of weeks," Gonzalez says. "We're going to push for the same bill to be passed in the assembly and for the governor to sign it." There are no standards at all now, Gonzalez says. "We're talking about a crisis, a crisis that has only gotten worse in the economic crisis ... because now workers are getting laid off from one day to the next without any severance, without any notice, without any safety net. Hours are being cut, they're being expected to work more for either the same pay or less or even expected to work for another family." The legislation would be the first of its kind in the country.
It would be a big victory for the 10-year-old group, which was founded by organizers and domestic workers. They have already helped pass legislation in New York City requiring local agencies to inform those who hire workers for their homes of their basic responsibilities as employers. Gonzalez says problems facing the domestic work force are many: They're decentralized, so they can't organize in the same ways as other workers. Many labor laws don't address them, so they lack a legal route to seek redress if their employer mistreats them. In the New York metro area, the roughly 200,000 households that employ domestic workers are varied and often uninformed of the rules. Ninety-nine percent of the work force is female, and 95 percent are immigrants, an oft-exploited group doing work that's already devalued because it's domestic. And 60 percent of domestic workers are heads of households, so problems the women face reverberate through their own households and their communities.
One of the biggest problems, though, is that workplace conditions and abuses take place in people's homes, behind closed doors. "Even when the relationships are good there are a lot of blurring of boundaries," Gonzalez says. That leads to employers feeling that domestic workers are part of the family, and even well-meaning ones might take advantage when they're, for example, running late home from work, requiring an extra 20 minutes or so from their employees without overtime pay. That can add up. Some of those boundary issues might explain why some employers support the bill as well, Gonzalez says. "There isn't a sense of what your obligations are as an employer. And the fact that you have a good rapport and a relationship that has this level of intimacy has made it much more difficult to clarify."
Gonzalez, who is 32, joined the organization while she was looking for support for her mother, who has worked as a nanny and a housekeeper. She says the bill, if passed, would establish fair labor standards in domestic workplaces and give workers legal recourse if they have a complaint. And it would address a generations-old grievance. "The legacy of slavery is very much present ... and to this day it still hasn't been remedied," she says. "A lot of workers will talk about how the conditions and dynamics have not changed significantly since that period of time."
-- Monica Potts
Previously: GEMS: Helping girls get out of prostitution
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