On Tuesday night, I watched from the gallery of the New York State Senate as history was made: for the first time ever, the Senate passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. When the Senate clerk read the final vote count of 33-28, the group of domestic workers and advocates with whom I sat erupted into a thunderous applause in the usually soundless Senate chamber. It was a heartwarming moment that ended two hours of intense debate over the bill and paved the way for New York to be the first state in the nation to enact basic labor standards for domestic workers.
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that puts an end to a relic of the Jim Crow era. In the 1930s, as a compromise to appease Southern white Democrats, President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to exclude domestic and farm workers from federal labor laws. Now, more than 70 years later, New York is poised to finally correct this injustice by establishing basic labor standards for domestic workers, including an eight-hour work day; overtime pay; one day off a week; paid vacation, holidays and sick days; advance written notice of termination; and means to enforce these rights in court.
Much of the floor debate on Tuesday focused on immigration issues, with opponents of the bill arguing that it would benefit “illegal aliens.” In response, Sen. Kevin Parker, Democrat from Brooklyn, observed,
It’s interesting that no one is here saying ‘we should not be hiring people who are out of status.’ You’re saying, ‘we should still hire people who are out of status, [but] we just don’t want to give them any rights… we want to make sure we can keep them in the margins of society and not provide them with the kind of basic things that they ought to have in order to participate in this great democracy.’
Sen. Parker’s comments underscore the New York Civil Liberties Union’s (NYCLU) interest in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. All members of society — regardless of immigration status, race, gender or religion — are entitled to basic workplace protections. To deny domestic workers the rights and protections afforded other employees is a violation of universal human rights principles, which recognize that all persons are entitled to dignity in the workplace. The denial of these rights also perpetuates discrimination based on race, gender and immigration status: out of the estimated 200,000 domestic workers in New York today, 95 percent are people of color, 93 percent are women and 99 percent are foreign-born.
Over the course of the legislative session, the NYCLU and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project have lobbied proudly alongside Domestic Workers United, the primary advocacy force behind the bill. After many years of dashed hopes, it finally looks like this bill will become law. The Senate and Assembly will now have to reconcile their different bills, and lawmakers, including Senate sponsor Diane Savino, expect that Gov. David Paterson will sign the final bill into law.
New York is on the verge of setting an example for the rest of the country, leading the way to ensure that all workers are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of who they are or what they do. While the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights may not be the end of the journey, Tuesday night certainly marked a turning point.