“Domestic work is big work,” said Christine Lewis from Trinidad & Tobago as she sat a desk at the Brooklyn Public Library, located at 22 Linden Avenue in Brooklyn.
A hundred years ago, domestic work accounted for more than two-thirds of all non-agricultural female wage earners who were mostly European immigrants and native-born blacks. In this century, ninety-nine percent of domestic workers are foreign-born, and ninety-five percent of them are women of color.
Lewis is a nanny and worker-leader. She is the secretary of Domestic Workers United (DWU), an organization of Caribbean, Latina, and African domestic workers in New York. Founded in 2000, DWU represents over 200,000 domestic workers, and Lewis has been with DWU since 2001. “The organization offers CPR classes, Know Your Rights Training, Nannies’ Training courses, and art. There is also a legal clinic, where women who feel that their wages have been stiffed can go to visit lawyers who take their cases. It has been very successful, retrieving half a million dollars in funds over the years,” Lewis told me.
Since many workers in the industry are immigrants from other countries,Lewis says, “the women who do this productive work are skilled, and they work in the shadows. The work is not compensated in the way it should be,” she said. Those in this field are “nannies, housekeepers, or in elder care,” Lewis said. The work is unregulated, there are few guidelines.
In the years she has worked with DWU, they have seen cases such as the following:
“If a Caribbean woman worked for twenty-four hours, she would only get paid for twelve or thirteen hours,” Lewis said. A worker living out of her employer’s home would work more than fifty hours a week, in which working more than forty hours a week would be considered overtime. For a worker living out of her employer’s home, working more than forty-four hours would be considered overtime.
The workers would not get paid for overtime in these cases, but it all depends on the relationship between them and their employers. “Some may get paid at the beginning of the week, some at the end of the week,” Lewis said.
This is just one of many issues that they face.
When did the movement of workers organizing start?
The movement of workers organizing started when women were tired of dealing with the emotional difficulties, such as racism, terror, and exploitation. They did not like dealing with the struggle of not having stable living and working conditions, so they decided to take advantage of the opportunity to establish their rights.
Protections under New York State Labor Law, which includes the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in 2010, require employers to give their employees one day of rest per week, at least three paid days off after one year of work for them; they must also not take money from their employee’s wages for breakage or other reasons, and they must also not keep detailed payroll and time records of the hours their employee works, their wages, and any deductions from those wages.
“Prior to joining worker cooperatives, many domestic workers face extensive exploitation and abuse at work. This can include physical, verbal or sexual abuse; wage theft or withholding of wages; low pay; no time off including vacation or sick leave; retaliation for taking time off; dangerous and abusive working conditions including toxic chemicals, force of working on their knees; long hours without overtime, and more,” said Rachel Isreeli, who has been a worker cooperative developer at the Center for Family Life (CFL) for four and a half years now.
The neighborhood group Park Slope Parents conducted a survey in November 2011. “The study found that only 15 percent of more than 1000 respondents reported paying their nannies at least 1.5 times their official rate when they worked more than 40 hours a week, as the new law requires, and that 44 percent didn’t pay any overtime at all. The group found that nannies are paid an average of between $14.22 and $16.32 per hour, depending on the number of children they care for,” according to the article written by Sharon Lerner for The Nation that was published in June 2012.
Based in Sunset Park, CFL’s Cooperative Development Program organizes community members and partners with them to create worker-owned cooperative businesses with the mission of economic and social justice.
“Worker cooperatives are businesses that are owned and controlled by the workers – they control the business democratically (one worker one vote) and they all participate in managing the entity. We train and coach cooperative members and community organizations in cooperative work (shared principles, group work, communication, political education, democratic decision-making and governance), as well as business support (finance, office, marketing, industry expertise, management). We partner with amazing individuals, organizations and networks to strengthen our work and the cooperative movement,” Isreeli said.
One of the most critical issues that they have been, and are still facing, is immigration. “Immigration happens every day. Some are undocumented, some are documented, some are trafficked,” said Lewis.
“Many of them take care of their families here, as well as their families in their home country.” She calls it “working for the Yankee dollar.”
The fact that immigrants have been and are still facing “racism, terror, and exploitation,” Isreeli said, “has always been the case.” “Our country exploits other countries, forcing migration, and then turning our backs on the migrants,” said Isreeli. This sentiment of xenophobia is consistently echoed by President Trump, who over his last year in office, has proven to be more outwardly racist than previous presidents.
New York City attempted to pass measures that aimed to ensure higher labor standards in private businesses last year, “including the expanded Paid Safe and Sick Leave Law in 2018, and the Fair Workweek Law in 2018.”
The written testimonies and hearing transcripts of testimonies by workers from July 17, 2018 exposes the lack of awareness of rights that exists for workers, as well as the retaliation threats by their employers, preventing them from exercising those new rights, according to the report on the State of Workers’ Rights released by the NYC Dept. of Consumer Affairs in January.
Lewis referred to domestic work as a “labor of love and caring,” saying that it goes “beyond the call of pay.” Lewis used to take care of a kid who didn’t want to go to school. She used to go to the school and stay there all day until the kid was ready and then they would go to his parents’ home together, and she received no extra pay.
She had limited time to spend with her young daughter at the time, usually weekends. Lewis eventually sent her daughter to Canada to live with her dad at the age of fourteen, and the good thing was that she was advancing her education while she was there, and now she is “a strong, progressive woman,” Lewis says.
Shirland is another DWU member from Trinidad & Tobago who works in child care. She works five days a week for nine hours each day. She said, “When I have something to do at DWU, I apply for the time, and my employers usually grant it.”
Before DWU, she used to work twelve to twelve and a half hours a day. Her kids were in school in Trinidad & Tobago at the time, so their dad was the parent for them. She sent money there all the time, in a period of ten years.
Lisette is a DWU member who is a full time nanny and part time housekeeper. She said that she keeps her work life and private life separate. The job is the job, weekends and vacations don’t count. She said that she is very lucky, because she never got sick. “When you are sick, you’re not useful,” she said.
“We make all work possible – leisure, play, and work,” said Lewis. CFL supports a worker cooperative “owned and controlled by Filipina migrant women, of whom the majority are labor trafficking survivors. Now, these women have gone from this experience to being owners of their own business, controlling their wages, the hours they work, building solidarity and community, and becoming president and secretary of their cooperative,” said Isreeli.
There is also a Leadership Institute offered at CFL for cooperative members who are interested in building not just skills that focus on coordination and management, but also their “social justice analysis and community building skills. In the last three years, six of the participants in this initiative have been elected to the Advocacy Council of the NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives (NYC NoWC): In this role, they are impacting city and state policy about worker cooperative and the solidarity economy, prioritizing immigrant justice,” Isreeli said.
Lewis said, “The goal for worker cooperatives is to educate, enlighten, and empower members.” The point in telling these experiences is to show how the domestic labor market is difficult to regulate and open to abuse, as well as how it led to women organizing in coops and pushing for better wages and working conditions.