Domestic Workers Organizing, Suing to Win Workplace Benefits

June 6, 2008

She says she crossed the border from Mexico and found work as a live-in housekeeper for a family that never let her out of their sight.

At first, her employers paid her $200 a month for cooking, cleaning and care-taking from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Then they stopped paying the woman, who did not want her name used because she is in the country illegally.

Still, she stayed. She had nowhere else to go. She said her bosses told her that if she left, she could be arrested and thrown back to Mexico, where her family had no means of support.

“What did I know?” she said at a domestic workers’ support group at La Raza Centro Legal, an immigrants’ rights center in San Francisco. The organization also has a labor center that the woman used to find new employment.

Domestic workers have no right to overtime, sick time, vacation, health care and workers’ compensation in most states, and the immigrants among them often have it even worse.

But many domestic workers are finding their voices. They are suing employers who abuse them, organizing cooperatives to demand fair wages and lobbying politicians to change laws that exclude household workers from labor protections most employees take for granted.

Last June, immigrant household workers at the United States Social Forum in Atlanta — a gathering of social activists — formed the National Domestic Worker Alliance to campaign for state and federal laws guaranteeing basic labor rights.

The alliance, made up of 20 organizations from across the country, is holding the first ever national convention for domestic workers from Thursday through Sunday in New York City, where the host organization, Domestic Workers United, is pushing state lawmakers to sign a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.

That legislation, which would be the first of its kind in the country, would require that domestic workers receive such rights as one day of rest per week and advance notice of termination — standard practice for most other workers.

“The law has always treated this sector differently and less than equal to others,” said Ai-Jen Poo, an organizer for Domestic Workers United, which describes itself as an organization of Caribbean, Latin American and African workers.

“What this bill of rights does is put into place a few basic things,” Poo added. “The way we talk about it, this is really about respect.”

The Census Bureau estimates that there are 1.5 million domestic workers across the country. A definitive count is nearly impossible since many of the workers are in the country illegally, and many collect income that goes unreported on taxes.

By far, the most exploited are the most hidden: the live-in housekeeper/nannies who may be new to this country, probably alone and thus most easily abused, said Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who has written a book about domestic workers.

“The employers may take away her passport,” Hondagneu-Sotelo said. “And she may not know anyone else in this country. She is not familiar with labor laws here, and even her employer may not be familiar with them. So it creates a very ripe situation for abuse.”

Organizers of the national domestic workers conference hope that it will create greater awareness of the workers’ plight and support for their cause.

“The issues are on the table in a way that they haven’t been since the 1960s, when domestic workers finally got the right to a minimum wage,” said Jill Shenker, an organizer for La Raza Centro Legal.

The group operates a labor center where employers can call when they need help. The workers are assured hourly wages of at least $11 to $17 an hour, with a 3-hour, $42 minimum. They also get the legal support from the women’s collective should the employer fail to treat them fairly.

But more than a labor pool, the collective, with about 75 members, has become the backbone of the women’s lives. Women from Mexico, South and Central America, who were once scared, powerless, and limited in their English language skills, now organize marches, bring speakers who discuss their legal rights, and talk about change.

In March, dozens of the women marched through the streets of Atherton, home to Silicon Valley billionaires, in support of a worker who is suing a couple who had employed her for four years.

Vilma Serralta, 68, claims her former employers made her work 14 hours a day, six days a week as a nanny, cook and housekeeper for their $17.9 million, 9,300-square-foot (865-square-meter) home, for less than minimum wage. She said she received no breaks or overtime.

Serralta, a U.S. citizen, said she was fired when her employer threw a tantrum after finding chicken bones left in an otherwise empty trash can overnight. The couple, in a statement, denied Serralta’s charges.

Advocates for domestic workers say cases like Serralta’s are common.

One 39-year-old woman, who is now a leader among the workers at La Raza Centro Legal, came to San Francisco to be a caregiver for a family from her hometown in southern Mexico. The family paid her way to enter the country illegally, then kept her in a house for a year, where she cared for a 78-year-old woman in a wheelchair.

They paid her $300 a month but sent her check directly to her family so she never had any money.

The woman, who wanted only her first name, Maria, used because she is still trying to secure legal residency, said she used to be embarrassed to talk about her first year here.

“Now,” she said, “I know that it is the real story of so many women.”

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