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First Ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Becomes Law

Rahul Saksena,
New York Civil Liberties Union
Selene Kaye,
Director, Liberty Division,
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August 31, 2010

Earlier today, New York Gov. David Paterson signed the first law ever in the United States to give domestic workers the same protections that most other workers have enjoyed for decades. The enactment of the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights means that the over 200,000 nannies, in-home caregivers, housekeepers, and other domestic laborers throughout New York State will now finally be guaranteed an eight-hour work day, overtime pay, one day of rest each week, paid vacation days, protection against workplace sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and temporary disability benefits.

This is a remarkable victory for domestic workers and advocates. The New York Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project were proud to actively support this bill and lobby alongside Domestic Workers United, a coalition of domestic workers and advocates, which for years has been the powerful and effective driving force behind the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

But perhaps even more remarkable is that it has taken us this long to grant these most basic protections to the hardworking women and men whose labor forms the backbone of our economy. At a panel event in March, domestic workers and advocates, Linda Oalican, Barbara Young, and Nahar Alam, shared their personal stories and spoke about the exploitation, abuse, and indignities they experienced as domestic workers after migrating to the U.S.

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Stories like these are not isolated. Nor are they an accident. Rather, they are a result of a very deliberate decision in the 1930s to exclude domestic workers and farm workers (the occupations held by the majority of African-Americans at the time — a legacy of slavery) from federal labor laws, as a concession to staunch segregationists in Congress. In New York, 93 percent of domestic workers are women, 95 percent are people of color, and 99 percent are immigrants (see Home Is Where the Work Is), making clear that the exploitation, abuse, and enslavement of domestic workers is directly related to discrimination based on sex, race, class, and immigration status.

Today marks a major turning point in domestic workers’ struggle to overcome discrimination and to achieve human rights and dignity. This is cause for celebration, but also for rededication to the ongoing fight, which is far from over. Getting a law on the books is just the first step; there is a long road ahead towards ensuring that these rights are enforced, and that further protections — including notice of termination and collective bargaining rights — are realized.

We hope that soon other states, as well as the federal government, will follow New York’s example in granting domestic workers these long overdue rights. And we hope that here in New York, the spirit of fairness and justice that was exhibited in the signing of this historic new law, will soon be extended to farm workers as well.

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