Domestic Workers Reform News
By MOLLY KNEFEL
It’s not all fun and games
If you live in New York City and have ever walked past a playground, you may have noticed the park benches are lined with women of color watching, feeding, changing, cleaning, and playing with children who are not their own. I should specify that this phenomenon is unique to certain neighborhoods– much of Manhattan, and the wealthy neighborhoods in Brooklyn. In the lower income neighborhoods of NYC, of course, you see the playgrounds filled with children, but they are being taken care of by older siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins. But in the wealthier, predominantly whiter parts of the city, if you look closely, you’ll notice an incredible phenomenon– a city full of children who are being raised by people who aren’t their parents.
Ah, nannies. What would we do without them? Seeing women of color walking around the West Village or the Upper East Side pushing strollers with little white babies whose clothes are more expensive than mine is such a common sight in this city that most people hardly notice. Amongst those who have money, it’s an equally normal thing to have a few other people who help you, too– women who clean your house once or twice a week, women who do your laundry, men who drop off your groceries for you, and men who open the door for you (although, pretty soon, people may have to start opening their own doors). But I digress– I mean to talk not about groceries or opening doors, but about domestic workers.
According to Domestic Workers United, there are 200,000 domestic workers in New York City, and 93% of them are women of color. Domestic workers have historically been denied equal labor rights– something I discovered firsthand when, last year, I was a nanny working 50 hours a week and was told that domestic workers don’t qualify for overtime. It’s pretty shocking that a group of people so large (not to mention so incredibly important) can be blatantly denied basic labor rights. According to a video posted by Feministing, half of domestic workers work more than 60 hours a week and 67% don’t receive overtime.
This is so frustrating, not only to see such a large group of workers get so little respect, but to think about what would happen without them. Can you imagine Manhattan without nannies, cleaning women or home health aides? The city would grind to a halt. I imagine million dollar apartments buried in grime and dirty laundry and well-dressed children freely roaming the streets, starting stylish little street gangs. It’s a really complicated issue, and I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong with families who depend on domestic work (although, growing up in the Midwest, the concept of a “nanny” doesn’t exist– instead, daycare exists, where one frazzled grown-up is responsible for an unruly gang of children). But the fact is, domestic work as it exists today relies heavily on institutionalized racism and exploitation of women of color. The NYCLU has adapted this video from a longer piece, “Behind Closed Doors,” which talks about the historic roots of domestic work:
The video explains that domestic work is a “legacy rooted in the aftermath of American slavery.” When fair labor laws were developed in the 30s, domestic workers– the majority of whom, at the time, were African American– were categorically denied protection. As the ACLU Human Rights Attorney in the video, Chandra Bhatnager says:
We’re dealing with historic and contemporary racism, at its root.
The video also includes this shocking information: domestic workers are excluded from anti-discrimination laws, the National Labor Relations Act (which protects the rights of workers to organize), the Fair Labor Standards Act (which sets minimum wage, maximum work hours, and overtime), and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
The good news is that the NYCLU is supporting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which would
reform New York State law to guarantee domestic workers basic labor standards and protections, such as overtime pay, a limited number of paid sick days, vacation days and holidays per year, and notice of termination.
There is an event this Thursday in New York, at the Riverside Church, to spread awareness about the bill. Read about the event here. The amazing feminist Gloria Steinem will be there! This is something that is incredibly important for people living in New York City– I had a positive experience with my time as a nanny and my employers treated me well, but it gave me a glimpse of an entire aspect of life in the city that’s easy for people with privilege to ignore. An enormous group of people, primarily women of color, are being discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens, while doing their damndest to raise the children, clean the houses, and take care of the old people of this city! This is unacceptable, and I challenge people in New York (and anywhere else where domestic workers are relied upon but exploited) to refuse to participate in such a system and get active to make it better.