Nannies and Housekeepers on Brink of Getting Basic Rights

Nannies and Housekeepers on Brink of Getting Basic Rights

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Maria Tupas worked for an elderly woman in Hercules, Calif. who told her she would have to be on duty 24/7.

Maria Fernandez, provided in-home care for a disabled woman in the Bay Area, but said she was never given any breaks and never allowed to step out of the house.

Without being given any protective gear, Lourdes Perez was forced to clean about seven homes each day using harsh chemicals that often made her choke.

Another woman said she worked for an elderly man who slept during the day and chased her around the house at night.

The women, all immigrants in the Bay Area, and some of them undocumented, testified May 27 before a high-powered four-member Domestic Workers Human Rights Tribunal here at the Hiram W. Johnston State Office Building about the suffering they had to endure for years at the hands of their employers as nannies, caregivers for the elderly and housekeepers.

“These workers lack so many basic rights and experience high levels of abuse – verbal, physical and sexual – on their jobs,” said Juana Flores, co-director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a grassroots organization of Latina immigrant women that advocates for social and economic justice.

Flores, an immigrant from Mexico, said she was herself abused by her employer at her first job in the United States as an undocumented nanny.

Numbering around 200,000 in California alone, domestic workers are especially hard hit because they are a largely immigrant and female work force who toil out of public view in private homes.

The state is on the verge of getting a law passed that will give them basic workplace protections, including vacation days, the right to overtime pay, redress for workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, and the right to at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.

The California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (AB 889), authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, sailed through the State Assembly June 2 and is expected to go before the Senate some time next week.

In recent years, California’s domestic workers, most of them immigrants from Latin America, have formed a collective to demand workplace protections.

Emboldened by the state of New York’s passage last year of a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, California workers have pushed for similar legislation through rallies and protests.

Even though much of what they demanded has been included in Ammiano’s bill, such vital provisions as paid sick leave, 21-day notice before termination, protections under Cal OSHA and annual cost of living allowance have been gutted from the bill.

Mecke Quintin, communications director for Ammiano’s office, maintained that compromises had to be made because the bill had a “fiscal cost, as well as opposition.”

Most bills, he said, that had “a cost even lower than AB 889” never made it out of committee.

“The fact that we were able to pass AB 889 through the Assembly despite those challenges is a victory for all involved, especially the workers,” Mecke said.

Massachusetts and Colorado are considering similar bills.

Domestic workers, like farm laborers, have been excluded from labor protections drafted in the 1930s in the New Deal, making these workers highly vulnerable to exploitation, noted Marci Seville, a law professor at Golden Gate University and director of the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic.

Among other deprivations, “Live-in domestic workers have no right to overtime and federal minimum wage,” Seville said.

The exclusions stem from “the stereotypical belief that the work they do is not real work,” she said.

After about 10 domestic workers testified last week in Spanish, members of the tribunal – Erika Guevara Rosas, regional director for the Americas at the Global Fund for Women, Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, Anne Hipshman, an industrial counsel in the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, Office of the Labor Commissioner, and Tho Thi Do, general vice president for Immigration, Diversity and Civil Rights of UNITE HERE, deliberated in seclusion for about a half hour and came up with a declaration that will be submitted to the United Nations this week.

On June 17, the International Labor Organization is set to vote on global standards for domestic workers.

“There are more than 50 million domestic workers (worldwide) fighting at this moment for their rights,” 10 million of them in the Americas, noted Guevara.

If passed, the ILO vote “will give women all over the world the right to work in dignity,” said Flores, who will be in Geneva during deliberations.