Advocates for US domestic workers bill stay stubborn and strong for equal rights

Jessica Buchleitner – WNN Features

Mexican immigrant domestic workers protest on the streets
Mexican immigrant domestic workers protest on the streets of San Francisco, California in 2011. As they march, they plea for equality under law mandates for work entitlements and protection. Even though the AB889, known as The California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, has been shelved for now by legislators, the needs for domestic workers continue. Image: CA Domestic Workers Coalition and Mujeres Unidas y Activas

(WNN) San Francisco, CALIFORNIA, U.S.: While employed as a “home-care worker,” Teresa, a Mexican national, often returned to her own home after a day of work demeaned and discouraged. She didn’t talk about it at first, but often witnessed abuse in the house where she worked, watching the disabled woman she cared for each day being torn down by a constant stream of verbal and psychological abuse that came from a domineering mother, a mother who was also Teresa’s heavy handed employer.

For minority immigrant women, domestic service occupations in the United States generally do not provide any bridge or transition to other, better jobs. These jobs are often referred to as an ‘occupational ghetto’ since many of the women end up working for decades in ‘locked-down’ professions.

The 2007 report, Behind Closed Doors: Working Conditions of California Household Workers, conducted intensive research on household workers in California showing that the job primarily consists of female immigrants. It also shows a large disparity between many employers and their employees.

“She made me feel horrible,” explained Teresa describing her abusive employer in a public report made to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “…and [she] told me I was stupid and I wasn’t worth anything.”

Living in public housing in a San Francisco (California USA) southeastern neighborhood, Teresa has lived her life as a single mother with five children. Many days as her children grew up without her they waited late for their mother to come home. In Mexico Teresa worked in the fields and the factories, but after immigrating to San Francisco she began cleaning homes and caring for children and people with disabilities, a caring that has now lasted for over 20 years.

Findings show household workers often work in substandard and exploitative conditions earning poverty wages many times too low to support their own families. They also lack access to optimum health care. Many are ‘unaffiliated’ workers who work as independents with few opportunities for work in other fields. They are also many times kept away from receiving career training or advancement because of the intensity of their day-today work.

Fear of Deportation

If Teresa didn’t work long hours, if she took time off to care for a sick child at home or took “too long” with employer-based-errands she could be threatened by employers with something she fears the very most – the status of her immigration.

Threats of police escorted deportation can be used at any moment, at any time, in order to keep nannies and homecare workers ‘in-line.’ It is this fear of deportation that makes these women the most vulnerable to danger while working.

Knowing Teresa’s fears, her employer demands didn’t just include a list of long work hours. Another (male) employer demanded sex from Teresa as well. At one point the demanding happened so often Teresa was forced to quit her job to prevent the ongoing, and torturous, harassment.

In spite of these conditions Teresa has genuinely cared and had deep concern for the children and families of those she has worked for. “I do this work because there are people who need my attention, my patience, and the services I provide,” she shares.

Unlike most Americans Teresa has never had a vacation. She has also never been granted a sick day. Some of her employers have at times even rejected her requests for food or her attempts to take a simple rest break.

While the numbers are hard to track, the California Domestic Workers Coalition says Latina domestic workers currently number approximately 200,000 in the State. Although this number is hard to officially quantify without IRS documentation, many immigrant women are known to be the primary income earners for their families. At the same time many women are denied the same fundamental labor protections granted to countless other California workers.

De-valuing the work of Immigrants

“They have been forced to sleep in rooms without heat, on hard floors, or in moldy basements. At times they use hazardous materials without any safety warnings,” says a 2006 report on Domestic Workers Rights in the United States prepared by the University of North Carolina School of Law Human Rights Policy Clinic for the United Nations Human Rights Committee that is part of the OCHR – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Domestic workers are often severely underpaid and without overtime wages,” continues the report. Unfortunately, U.S. laws are inadequate and their enforcement is insufficient…,” stressed the Committee.

A general lack of language skills, coupled with limited understanding of human rights and knowledge of U.S. labor laws, has left most immigrant women workers unable to negotiate or assert better wages or work conditions from employers who may be unethical. Those who are undocumented, or have visas with time limitations like numerous Latina domestic workers, live in constant fear of being deported. This is a vulnerability that leaves them unprotected under conditions of employment that may be critical to their safety.

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