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Home Is Where the Heart Isn’t

Estelle N’Gambi came to New York from Zambia four years ago to take a position as a live-in nanny with a family in Yonkers. She labored 18 hours a day, seven days a week, earning only $250 a month — and she had to sleep on the floor.

N’Gambi’s story is an all too familiar one for domestic workers here in the land of opportunity. Promised paychecks that never materialize, abrupt and baseless firings, and duties that expand far beyond the job advertised are often the lot of the millions of women who mind our kids, do our laundry, mop our floors and make sure our grandparents eat and take their medicine.

On April 19, some 15 of these women from Africa, Asia, Latin American and the Caribbean will travel from New York City to Albany to press state legislators to help them win fundamental rights and basic respect for their labor. They will tell of bosses who took their passports and locked them in at night. They will recount how perfectly well-meaning employers became exploiters, paying low wages for high demands, simply because doing so has become the norm. And they will petition legislators to introduce a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights providing an hourly wage of $14, standard guidelines on overtime and paid holidays and vacations.

In an economic climate that presses on all but the wealthiest — and where the field of household labor remains unregulated — these women bear more of the brunt of our mean times than any other sector of the workforce. And as more and more families depend on two incomes, the demand for domestic workers will keep rising — as will the exploitation of their labor, unless their appeals are heeded.

The plight of domestic laborers is nothing less than a nation-wide crisis.

Government figures from March show 767,000 people working in private households, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics misses the high proportion of domestic work that is never reported. Often, the arrangement is informal, with workers finding positions through word of mouth, or even by assembling on an urban corner where prospective employers pick through them as if choosing a cantaloupe off a grocery store shelf. (Check out Marcy and Division Avenues in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn on a Monday morning.) Ai-Jen Poo, an organizer at the Domestic Workers United, a coalition representing some 600,000 household laborers in the New York area, puts the number of cooks, housekeepers, companions to the elderly and childcare givers at around 2 million nationwide.

Organizing them is not easy. They work in isolation and can be — and often have been — fired for objecting to unfair treatment. A nanny who expects to get off work at, say, 6:00 p.m. and rush home to her own kids doesn’t dare risk refusing when she gets a call from her employer at 5:45 p.m. asking her to stay an extra hour or two because the employer has to stay late at her own job. Workers who are undocumented often face threats that they will be reported to immigration authorities if they don’t do as they are told.

Nonetheless, a grassroots movement among these workers has been growing around the country. Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a Latina women’s group in San Francisco, has been sponsoring a community-based home health care education program that combines employment training with workers’ rights workshops. In the Baltimore area, the Casa de Maryland organizes women’s associations around shared labor or other concerns, through which the participants democratically develop political initiatives for improved conditions. For now, however, Domestic Workers United is the only industry-based organization, and the only one to have put forward — and won — local legislation.

Last May, the New York City Council approved a bill instigated by Domestic Workers United that requires employment agencies to inform domestic workers of their rights to a minimum wage, overtime pay and vacation, and that requires employers to sign a statement affirming that they understand these rights and to sign a contract spelling out the terms of employment. That was a huge victory — but since less than half of domestic workers find their jobs through employment agencies, its impact has not been all that substantial. The group is currently advocating that employers who don’t use agencies sign the contract voluntarily.

Like other contingent workers, domestics are exempt from federal laws that protect people designated as employees: workers compensation, the collective bargaining rights provided by the National Labor Relations Act, family and medical leave. These days, more and more professionals — graphic designers and university teachers, to name only two cases — are finding themselves thrown into the category of contingent workers. According to a recent report by the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, unlike any other period in American history, employers are responding to signs of economic recovery by relying more and more on temps and on assigning overtime to existing workers, rather than hiring new permanent workers or rehiring those they laid off, thus saving on health care costs, unemployment insurance and other benefits. In turn, the downsized manager, for instance, tries to save on household costs by sweating his domestic help.

In their book, “The Two-Income Trap,” Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi show how two-earner families have less discretionary income than the one-earner family of a generation ago, even though they make 75% more money. A significant reason is the enormous housing costs they incur to live in a neighborhood with good public schools, or the high tuitions they pay to send their kids to private ones. Once again, their nannies and housecleaners feel the squeeze.

Rather than passing the burden down the chain, though, employers of domestic workers need to join the demands for worker dignity and protection — and for a less privatized system. Decent public schools and national health coverage would go a long way toward short-circuiting the cycle of exploitation, and serve the basic human needs of nannies and investment analysts alike. In the meantime, the Domestic Workers United contract and the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights are a good place to start.

Alisa Solomon, a staff writer at the Village Voice, is a member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

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