Domestic work is not just a “domestic issue”

According to ILO estimates, there are between 50 and 100 million domestic workers worldwide and many countries have traditionally excluded them from employee protection legislation.

According to ILO estimates, there are between 50 and 100 million domestic workers worldwide and many countries have traditionally excluded them from employee protection legislation. Ian Williams reports from the state of New York, which passed the first law in the United States establishing a social and legal safety net for domestic workers in August 2010.

The plight of domestic workers is not just a “domestic” issue. Domestic workers are mostly immigrants in developed countries, and many are undocumented. This is especially the situation in the United States.

Apart from occasional bursts of such publicity, domestic workers work alone, or in small groups in private homes, out of sight and out of mind. They are perennially vulnerable and more likely to be excluded from social and legal safety nets.

But there is hope now that things will change. The new ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) which received overwhelming support from delegates to the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference in June gives domestic workers the same rights as other workers. ILO Director-General Juan Somavia described the Convention as “a historic moment for the ILO, but particularly for domestic workers all over the world”.

A forerider in promoting the rights of domestic workers was the state of New York which anticipated the ILO Convention in August 2010 by passing its own Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The first such law in the United States, it guarantees time off and minimum pay levels, and promises enforcement of employment laws.

The groundbreaking Bill of Rights reflects the determination and organization of the state’s many domestic workers, who can draw support from its traditionally high level of labour organization and social concern. New York is home to several organizations vigorously campaigning for nannies and domestic workers. With support from the AFL-CIO, they and their counterparts in other US states sent representatives to Geneva for the ILO vote on the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011. Before, they had submitted detailed proposals for the final draft of the Convention based on their experience.

A quarter of nannies below poverty level

The need is great. Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) estimates that a quarter of the 200,000 nannies in New York state live below the poverty level. They are, she says, “overwhelmingly women, immigrants, women of colour, 59 per cent single mothers, and working poor who are primary income earners supporting families here and in their own country. Significant numbers of them are undocumented which gives another way for employers to take advantage of them and since many are employed part-time or casually without insurance or taxes.”

In common with many American workers, they rarely have health coverage, which means, she points out, “they have to go to work sick even when they are taking care of the most vulnerable, the elderly or children, because if they call in sick they risk losing their job”.

“The Convention is a historic moment for the ILO, particularly for domestic workers all over the world”

The NDWA represents 33 local organizations of domestic workers in 17 cities and 11 states around the United States, and those in New York lobbied intensively for the Bill of Rights. Ai-jen had just come from an orientation weekend, training domestic workers for the “ambassadors” campaign, which is “our drive to get the word out about the new Bill, its rights and protections. We train them as ambassadors, almost like shop stewards, to educate fellow workers and show them how to enforce their rights and negotiate better work conditions.” The training also professionalizes the workers, teaching skills such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and proper cleaning techniques, thus giving better returns to employers.

The organizations offer support to workers, she explains, “with campaigns against abusive employers: We’ll often file a lawsuit or organize public education and pressure around the cases; sometimes we will arrange public demonstrations outside the homes. We have an Employers for Justice Network that brings together employers who do the right thing.”

Enforcement of the law depends on government departments whose budgets are constrained, so officials are tempted to check only on larger worksites because that seems more efficient than chasing householders mistreating a nanny.

Ai-jen says, “Organizing has created a lot of public awareness and the passage of the State Bill of Rights has really put us in partnership with the Department of Labor to improve conditions. But even so, they will tell you that they can’t prioritize places with just one or two workers. So we are working with them so they understand strategic enforcement so that even in a small workplace it can still send a symbolic message – ‘to encourage the others’.”

“We can do it”

Some workers organize themselves in other ways. In particular the New York borough of Brooklyn is home to several related cooperatives such as Si Se Puede! We Can Do It! Inc. for cleaners and Beyond Care, for child-carers.

Vanessa Brunsburg, cooperative coordinator of the Brooklyn-based Center for Family Life which hosts the organizations, recalls that Si Se Puede’s original 15 founders were mostly women from Mexico’s Puebla province. Founded in 2006, the organization not only weathered the recent financial crisis, but also saw a major expansion this year. Fifteen newcomers are about to join after having completed a tough three-month training programme. They are still mostly from Puebla although they now also have a Bangladeshi cooperative. Beyond Care is more global, albeit mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The programmes combine training in both professional and organizational skills, so that the workers are equipped not only to negotiate and recruit others but also vocationally, learning the best ways to clean a house and which are the best and safest materials to use, and in essential techniques such as CPR. The result is that the members can offer better value for money to their employers, who are, after all, often struggling middle-class employees themselves, trying to raise families and work in a society with low levels of public child-care provision.

The cooperators began by distributing leaflets, particularly in Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop, a renowned and successful retail operation with 20,000 members. Now, says Brunsburg, they operate mostly by word of mouth. The cleaners earn from $20 to $22 an hour, she reports, which is relatively respectable for domestic workers. The Beyond Care cooperators earn from $12 for full-time to $16-18 part-time work. While the Center helps with office backup, Brunsburg points out that the women themselves are responsible for administering the cooperative. Si Se Puede meets every two weeks to discuss everything from bylaws to how best to organize personal finances. Their membership dues pay for a receptionist who fields the calls and does the paperwork.

So far the Center and the cooperatives have not had to sue employers. The fact that workers and their employers sign a contract now – whose terms reflect both the New York Bill of Rights and the ILO Convention – certainly plays a role in this context. Together, in organizations like the cooperatives and the NDWA, domestic workers have proven that indeed, “Yes they can!”