Nationwide, millions of domestic workers — largely immigrant women — labor long hours cleaning, cooking, taking care of other people’s children and otherwise performing necessary tasks for wealthier people whose own jobs or lifestyles don’t leave them time or energy for this work.
The work is frequently off-the-books and rarely covered by binding labor agreements or even individual contracts. They are not included under the National Labor Relations Act. There are ample horror stories of domestic workers being abused or even held captive by their employers.
On Tuesday, May 10, the AFL-CIO formally recognized domestic workers as members of organized labor, as an agreement was made between the AFL-CIO and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which includes 33 groups representing about 2.5 million domestic workers in 11 states and 17 major cities.
The NDWA has long been pushing for the strengthening of labor rights nationally for domestic workers and domestic workers bills of rights in individual states, including California. They claimed an historic victory last summer when New York passed a law granting domestic workers formal labor rights. The alliance is also calling for a convention on domestic workers’ rights under the International Labor Organization, which is part of the United Nations.
The agreement between the AFL-CIO and the NDWA says:
Through explicit and implicit exclusion of domestic workers from most labor and employment laws, domestic workers’ contributions to our nation’s and individual families’ household economies have gone hidden, devalued, and little understood.
This history of exclusion can be traced to the specifics of the industry and race politics. Primarily working in isolation in private homes, domestic workers who were predominantly African-American women were subjected to discrimination, unsafe working conditions, stolen wages, intimidation, and a long list of other abuses.
Although the demographics of domestic workers have changed to a mostly immigrant women workforce, the working conditions in the industry have changed very little.
Some of the rights sought by the NDWA are things so seemingly basic that they are not even an issue for almost every other profession — for example, the right to five hours of uninterrupted sleep per night and the right to cook their own food. The Alliance’s website says:
Domestic workers often labor around the clock, placing themselves and the people they care for at risk of sickness and unintentional mistakes caused by exhaustion.
The alliance also seeks — and in New York has obtained — the same things that workers are either guaranteed or seeking in other fields: paid sick days and paid vacation days, overtime, workers compensation.
The partnership could help further these goals on multiple levels, emphasizing that domestic workers are indeed “workers” entitled to the same rights as people in other jobs; and the aforementioned rights are things that all people should have access to. (People in other professions — including restaurant work, farm work and construction — are, of course, also typically denied paid sick days, vacation days and overtime.)
The partnership’s goals, as spelled out in the agreement, are:
—Local City and county level campaigns to enact ordinances or laws to expand protections and promote the rights of domestic workers;
—Statewide campaigns to establish labor standards for domestic workers;
—Campaigns to create administrative and regulatory changes at state and federal Departments of Labor;
National campaigns to establish labor standards, expand collective bargaining rights, create dignified jobs and support quality care for all, such as the Caring Across Generations campaign;
—International collaboration to bring visibility and dignity to the global domestic workforce, including the Decent Work for Domestic Workers Convention at the International Labor Organization.
The AFL-CIO and the domestic workers groups plan to accomplish these goals and generally increase the diversity and strength of the labor movement by fostering cooperation between state federations and local labor councils and domestic workers’ groups, in furtherance of both specific campaigns and general labor rights. This is part of a larger move to widen the scope of “organized labor” to include workers not traditionally represented by unions.
The agreement says:
Until these communities know each other, work with each other, and have an institutional connection to each other, it will be much more difficult to plan and strategize together, and to build a level of trust necessary to work effectively together in pursuit of our common goals and objectives.
The agreement also describes how domestic workers groups can affiliate with a local union, in keeping with the AFL-CIO’s National Worker Center program launched in 2006. The agreement also stipulates that the AFL-CIO and members of NDWA won’t compete with each other in situations where unions or domestic worker groups are organizing, and won’t undermine each other’s efforts.
While the agreement could have great concrete and symbolic effects for millions of domestic workers, it is limited to workers who are connected with domestic workers organizations. That means scores of domestic workers won’t be part of the partnership, likely including the most vulnerable workers in rural areas and/or in situations where they are highly isolated or exploited by their employers.
Hence continued outreach and organizing among domestic workers, continued strengthening and enforcement of labor laws, and even basic human rights protections — plus comprehensive immigration reform, as Michelle Chen noted yesterday—will be key to making sure domestic workers nationwide are truly empowered and protected.
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.