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Trouble at Home: Domestic Workers Speak Out Against Exploitation and Abuse

Aliya Hussain,
Women's Rights Project
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April 1, 2010

The work of nannies, in-home caregivers, housekeepers, and other domestic laborers is amongst the most undervalued and under-regulated industries in the United States — a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the undervaluation of “women’s work.” In the contemporary context, domestic workers (who are almost all immigrant women of color) routinely face low pay and long hours, and are denied health care and sick leave. Too often they endure racial/ethnic discrimination, physical and other forms of abuse, and many find themselves the victims of human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

Fifteen years ago, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted by the governments of 189 countries around the world, universally recognizing that women’s rights are human rights. During the first two weeks of March, the 54th Session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) undertook its review of the platform’s implementation.

We felt this was a crucial moment to call attention to the failure of the U.S. and other governments to comply with their obligations under international human rights law to address the abuse, exploitation, and enslavement of domestic workers, one of the most critical women’s human rights issues we face today. On March 11, the ACLU and partner organizations, Domestic Workers United (DWU); Andolan: Organizing South Asian Workers; the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA); DAMAYAN Migrant Workers Association; and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), sponsored a documentary screening and panel discussion about the human rights abuses that domestic workers face. Behind Closed Doors, produced by filmmakers and activists Pracheta Sharma and Jessica Hopper, provided a captivating picture of the vulnerability and ill treatment that South Asian domestic workers experience in New York.

(From left to right) Selene Kaye, Araceli Martínez-Olguín, Linda Oalican, Barbara Young, Priscilla Gonzalez, Ivy Suriyopas, Nahar Alam, Jessica Hopper, Pracheta Sharma

After the film, several panelists shared their personal stories, which were exceptionally powerful. The testimonies were at once unique and part of a shared experience. Barbara Young, a nanny from Barbados and member of DWU’s Steering Committee, Linda Oalican, a domestic worker from the Philippines and founding member of DAMAYAN, and Nahar Alam, a former domestic worker from Bangladesh and executive director of Andolan, remarked on the indignities they bore as domestic workers after migrating to the U.S.

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Alam stated,

I had always thought that the United States was a place where anyone could get a job and be safe, but I think that depends on who you are. I am a woman, an immigrant, a Muslim, and when I came to this country I didn’t speak enough English… and that’s a problem. I worked at a garment factory and then I worked as a domestic worker…. I suffered with both jobs. No getting paid properly and being abused.

The speakers also emphasized the crucial role domestic workers play in creating employment opportunities for others. Oalican explained,

Amid the global recession, New York City continues to be the center of the world economy, but it cannot be without the labor of women domestic workers. We perform the necessary labor to make other work possible for American businesses and professionals. We do the very basic and vital work for any economy — taking care of the next generation, the elderly, the homes, cooking food and doing the laundry. But even in New York, our labor remains unrecognized, unprotected, and devalued.

Worldwide there are tens of millions of women and girls employed as domestic workers. In the New York metro area alone, there are more than 200,000 domestic workers; 93 percent are women, 95 percent are people of color, and 99 percent are immigrants (see Home Is Where the Work Is.). These statistics reinforce the fact that the exploitation, abuse, and enslavement of domestic workers is directly related to discrimination based on sex, race, class, and immigration status. As Young explained, “Domestic work is rooted in slavery” and the devaluation of domestic work in the U.S. is a direct result of that history and of deliberate decisions “when [federal labor] laws were made, [to] exclude domestic workers.”

Furthermore, the isolated and often informal nature of domestic employment makes workers particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses. The most extreme form of abuse, human trafficking, is an unfortunate reality for some domestic workers in the U.S. Ivy Suriyopas, a staff attorney with AALDEF, and Araceli Martínez-Olguín, a staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, shed light on the particular vulnerability of domestic workers who are trafficked to the U.S. by foreign diplomats. Diplomatic immunity bars these workers from claiming their legal rights in court and, as a result, gives diplomats a free pass to mistreat them deliberately and without penalty. Suriyopas and Martínez-Olguín also highlighted policy, advocacy, and litigation efforts to combat trafficking by diplomats, including the creation of a pamphlet to inform workers of their legal rights and protections before they even come to the U.S., and an amicus brief submitted by the ACLU and AALDEF in support of a domestic worker who was trafficked to the U.S. by a Kuwaiti diplomat.

Priscilla Gonzalez, Director of Domestic Workers United, ended the panel on a hopeful and galvanizing note:

Domestic workers have been organizing and the domestic workers movement is building momentum and it’s becoming a force to be reckoned with, which is great news and a long time coming.

DWU, Damayan, Andolan, and NDWA are at the forefront of the movement to pro­tect the human rights of domestic workers and revalue their labor, which is rapidly gaining momentum with the proposed Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York and similar legislation in California. NDWA is also advocating for the federal Department of Labor to update its regulations to respond to the particular conditions that domestic workers face, and working to get the International Labour Organization to pass international standards for domestic workers across the world. If successful, these efforts will finally guarantee domestic workers the rights, dignity, respect, and recognition that they have been denied for too long. As Gonzalez told the audience, it’s time to “bring the sector out of the shadows.”

If you missed this event, you can check out video clips and a photo slideshow from the event, and watch footage of the entire roundtable discussion on YouTube.

Aliya Hussain and Aron Cobbs

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