Women’s History Month: Domestic Workers Demand Workplace Rights

As Women’s History Month continues, it’s important to highlight the often unsung heroes—or heroines—doing great work that continues to push the union movement forward, like domestic workers and groups advocating on their behalf. For many of us, domestic workers are the backbone of our household, providing general family care, housekeeping and home health care. They are responsible for some of the most vital and intimate work in our nation, and yet the law does not guarantee them the same protections they guarantee our families.

When the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in 1938, domestic workers were deliberately excluded from any deal and protection under the NLRA– a concession to southern lawmakers who were essentially content with making slavery-era working conditions a legal reality. Without access to basic labor rights such as minimum wages and paid overtime, domestic workers remain one of the most vulnerable groups working in today’s economy. As more and more domestic workers come together and share their stories of the rampant exploitation in the industry, hundreds of brave women are standing up to let their voices be heard with the help of different advocacy organizations.

Sylvia Lopez came from Mexico 15 years ago and is now living in Oakland, Calif., where she works cleaning houses. On the job, Sylvia has many examples of employer abuses.

I was once asked over the phone to clean an apartment in four hours. When I got there, I was greeted by a strong, terrible smell. There were three dogs inside that weren’t allowed to go outside. It seems that the owner didn’t like to open windows and there was no ventilation. There was decomposing food all over the apartment, there were cigarette butts all over—the owner smoked a lot. There was dog hair all over, which I had to remove using a leaf rake because a vacuum cleaner wasn’t enough. There were mice all over the apartment, even inside the refrigerator. All in all I filled 10 bags with trash, and it took me 10 hours to clean this apartment.

During that time, Sylvia was not offered water or food and received no breaks. Furthermore, even though she told the owner before she started, that the job would take far longer than four hours, he outright refused to pay her for all her time.

Though Sylvia did eventually get all she was owed because the owner’s mother was far more sympathetic, Sylvia’s story is not unique and often these women do not feel like they have a place to speak up on the job. As hardworking individuals contributing to the economy, being protect should be a right. Sylvia says:

It’s hard, because I have to survive; I have to work because I don’t want to depend on the government. I’m not in this country to take away from others. I’m here to contribute. As a single mother, I needed that money to take care of my two daughters.

In California alone, some 200,000 immigrant women work as nannies, housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly and about half of them are undocumented, which only compounds their vulnerability, making them more at risk to exploitation and abuse. Organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), however, have been fighting for years now and are continuing to make huge strides on the issues of domestic workers’ rights on both the national level and the individual level. They continue to empower hundreds of women by encouraging them to take control of their own lives.

As a domestic worker for 24 years, Andrea Guadarrama also had seen her fair share of abuse on the job. While working in El Paso 18 years ago for four years, she earned $10 daily and $50 weekly:

I was taken advantage of and I was overworked. There were no breaks, no lunch breaks. They took advantage of me. I wouldn’t defend myself or say anything because. Nowadays, I have very good employers, so the fight now is no longer for me but for those who can’t speak up.

Sylvia and Andrea have both been involved with Organización de Mujeres Unidas y Activas and CHIRLA for several years, and have participated in three campaigns in the past 10 years to have a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights signed into law in California. Currently New York is the only state that has signed and ratified this landmark piece of legislation that gives domestic workers the right to overtime pay, meal breaks, paid days of rest and protection against sexual and racial harassment.

Last Thursday, nearly 200 people from New York; Houston; Massachusetts; San Francisco; Oakland, Calif.; and Arizona went to strike outside Gov. Jerry Brown’s office. Three unions, CHIRLA and Mujeres Unidas de San Francisco were all represented as members banged pots and pans demanding that Brown adopt the bill that has already been vetoed three times before. Andrea explains:

We are demanding, not asking, the governor to see us as human beings and that he sign this bill of rights, ABC 241, into law. We’re not asking for anything out of this world: We are asking for an eight-hour rest period, for the ability to cook our meals in our employer’s kitchen. We’re not asking for free meals, we’re asking for the ability to cook our own meals. We’re asking to be partially remunerated for days when we’re turned away by homeowners at the very last minute. Many times, a domestic worker will report to her employer’s home ready to work only to find out, at the very last minute, that the employer doesn’t require her services that day, but by then the domestic worker has already spent time traveling to the employer’s home and, in many cases, she has already paid a babysitter to take care of her children for that day. We’re also asking for some kind of insurance in case we get sick.

There is a long road ahead before the law is passed, but domestic workers are seeing the impact of their involvement in these groups on their personal lives. Andrea shares that CHIRLA has shown her the power of what can be accomplished through united women working as a team. Sylvia agrees:

I didn’t know that I could have a voice on the job, that I could speak out in case of abuse. They taught [us] how to defend ourselves, to demand that our right be respected.

As the number of people who need long-term care increases over the next few decades, it is important that caregiving jobs become a more dignified and a true means of upward mobility. Many of us have had household help at one time or another, so this is a fight that we all have a stake in. It’s all about families supporting families, not just economically, but personally, and collectively we can work to change the stories that domestic workers are telling. Their work is just as essential and skilled as anyone else’s—it’s time we recognized this and celebrated the ongoing achievements of this hardworking group of women.