Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Pramila Jayapal have teamed up with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) to introduce the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights in Congress. If passed, the legislation would grant domestic workers, who are primarily immigrants and women of color, basic labor protections on a federal level — for the first time ever.
The rights outlined in the bill include protections against harassment and discrimination, meal breaks, a guaranteed minimum wage, and overtime pay.
"For too long, our nation’s domestic workers have not been afforded the same rights and benefits as nearly every other worker, and we must change that," Sen. Harris said in a statement provided to Refinery29. "With this legislation, we have an opportunity to bring economic justice and empowerment to millions of domestic workers — particularly those who are immigrants and women of color."
Domestic workers — nannies, house-cleaners, and home-care workers — have long been excluded from federal protections, for which advocates and scholars credit domestic work’s origins in slavery and its associations with women's unpaid household labor. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave private-sector employees the right to collectively organize, but specifically excluded domestic workers from its definition of "employees."
Two job sectors, domestic workers and farm workers, were explicitly excluded as a result of "Southern lawmakers needing to be placated to be able to provide federal labor protections," NDWA’s political director Jess Morales Rocketto said in an interview with Refinery29. "That has meant that domestic workers are prohibited from organizing and from exercising their rights. One of the reasons that was even possible is because of who does this work — our workforce is women of color, immigrant women, it’s women." According to a report from DataCenter and Domestic Workers United, 93% of domestic workers in New York are women, while 99% are immigrants, 95% are people of color, and 76% are not U.S. citizens.
"Domestic workers do the work that makes all other work possible," Rocketto said. "They care for our children; they clean our homes; they care for our parents and elders. You have to really trust the folks who do that, and it will always need to be a person who is skilled, who has love and care to give." Rocketto said that by 2030, domestic work will be the largest job sector in our economy, given our aging population and the fact that this work cannot be automated.
Domestic Workers' Bills of Rights have been passed in eight states, with New York, Hawaii, and California leading the way. The first-ever Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights passed in New York state in 2010. Seattle was the first and only city to pass the legislation, which went into effect at the start of the month. Rep. Jayapal, who represents Washington state and is the first Indian-American woman to serve in the U.S. House, supported the Seattle bill. "Local laws make a huge difference, but the reality is that what we really need is standards for the entire sector to be raised up, and that’s difficult unless you have a federal law," Jayapal said in an interview with Refinery29.
We spoke with two domestic workers advocating for the bill, who shared their experiences of being harassed and exploited by previous employers.
Jacqui Orie is a naturalized citizen who immigrated to NYC from St. Lucia. When she arrived to the U.S. 20 years ago, she was undocumented and soon found work as a nanny for a family with three children. At the time, Orie said, she worked 14 to 15 hours a day for below minimum wage and would be forced to do extra errands and housework — including cleaning the floor on her hands and knees — without additional pay or overtime. "I was ignorant of my rights at that time. I felt like I was hidden. I felt like I didn’t have a voice. I was not respected," Orie told Refinery29. "When our dignity and our respect is taken away from us, when we are treated like we’re less than human, that hurts the most."
Things changed when Orie met fellow nanny Daniela Contreras, who told her about NDWA. Contreras and Orie are among the domestic workers and advocates who will travel to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to lobby lawmakers to support the bill.
Now a full-time organizer for NDWA, Contreras immigrated to New York from Mexico with her family in 1994, and is a DACA recipient. She began working as a nanny at 16 and has worked on-and-off as a domestic worker for 20 years. On top of never getting meal breaks, dealing with not being paid, and being exposed to harmful cleaning products, Contreras said she experienced sexual harassment at her first job when she was a teenager. The dad she nannied for took advantage of the fact that she was young, inexperienced, and didn’t speak any English, Contreras said. She quit her job after the incident.
"Other jobs have H.R., they have witnesses, they have coworkers. Whenever something happens in the job, at least they have someone who will believe them," Contreras told Refinery29.
"Now, workers are not going to be behind closed doors, they’re not going to be in the shadows, they’re not going to be without a voice, because now we have this huge bill," Orie said.
"After so many years, in 2019, we’re finally introducing laws that will protect domestic workers," Contreras said. "Now, as domestic workers, given that our work is so isolated, these protections will give us respaldo," which translates to "support" or "backing."
As two women of color in Congress, Sen. Harris and Rep. Jayapal are putting their weight behind the bill, and they hope that their fellow lawmakers will follow suit. "We are a country that doesn’t value low-wage workers, period. Of course there’s going to be pushback, because this regulates the industry," Rep. Jayapal said. "But pushback has never stopped the group of courageous, brave women of color across the country who are pushing for these changes, so we’re ready for that."