There are many adjectives to describe New York City’s 200,000 nannies, housekeepers, and elderly care workers, but one that comes up a lot among them is “invisible.” Often paid under the table, they exist outside the formal economy. They work in homes, not interacting with other workers. Due to this isolation and to federal law, this group—predominantly immigrant women of color—does not have the right to collectively bargain.
The Bronx-based Domestic Workers United (DWU) members believe that they are working in conditions that are unacceptable in the 21st century. For the small but growing organization, fighting for decent working standards is one battle. Overcoming isolation is another.
DWU steering committee member Joycelyn Gill-Campbell came to New York 11 years ago from Barbados where she was a teacher and served in the national defense service. As a domestic worker caring for a child and a sick dog, Gill-Campbell earned $271 every two weeks, despite the fact that her employer was an investment banker. But it wasn’t only the low wages that got to her. “I felt alone,” she says.
In 2000 she learned about the DWU the same way many domestic workers find employment: through a friend. After learning about the plight of other domestic workers, she considered herself better off than most. “Home Is Where the Work Is,” a DWU survey, shows that 26 percent of domestic workers live below the poverty line, 65 percent do not receive overtime pay, and 90 percent don’t have employer-paid health benefits, while 36 percent reported having no access to healthcare.
Some have been physically abused on the job. Many depend on their employer for food and transportation as well as payment. They face the same occupational hazards as restaurant cooks (stove flames, sharp objects), nurses (communicable diseases) and janitors (chemicals, lower back injuries) without necessarily enjoying the same rights under the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Admini- stration.
As of now, only home-care providers receiving payments from the city government can form a union and the United Federation of Teachers, along with ACORN, are struggling to win an organizing campaign in the five boroughs. For domestic workers without the right to collectively bargain, DWU is pushing the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in the state legislature with the support of various politicians and labor groups. The legislation would establish standards concerning a living wage, vacation time, occupational safety, and overtime. While the bill has supporters in the state assembly, it has yet to find a sponsor in the Republican-controlled state senate.
While the DWU did win legislation that put certain regulations on domestic employment agencies, this barely changed the landscape and was mostly symbolic, since most domestic workers gain employment by word of mouth. Thus the state bill has become the centerpiece of the DWU’s agenda, which a delegation presented at the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in August.
Formed in 2000, DWU is not a labor union. It can’t file grievances, invoke Weingarten rights (that employees have a right to union representation at investigatory interviews), take disciplinary cases to arbitration, and it doesn’t collect membership dues. What it does aim to do, besides pushing for state regulation of their labor, is provide educational opportunities and a social network.
On September 30, DWU members gathered with City Council member Gale Brewer at the YWCA on West 56th Street in Manhattan to kick off English as a second language classes for domestic workers. DWU sees the classes as empowering, not only because they provide language tools for workers in their new country, but because the classes offer role playing, where domestic workers negotiate with employers. “It’s wonderful to watch a language develop when you’re talking about rights and something that’s very personal and something that you can use, not something that’s esoteric,” Brewer says. “This is just a piece of all the work that has to be done in terms of domestic worker rights. It’s a small piece, but I hope in the larger struggle it will help push the agenda.”
Now Gill-Campbell goes to playgrounds and anywhere domestic workers can be found to tell them about the opportunities at the DWU and how they can improve their standard of living. More than educational opportunities, DWU is a place for domestic workers to meet one another and to share common experiences, which might help them feel a little less invisible.
Ari Paul is a reporter for the NYC Chief- Leader newspaper and a frequent contributor to Z and other publications.