Assembly to vote on including domestic workers in labor laws
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Domestic workers in California may be next in the long line of employees waiting to be included in protective labor laws. The California Senate passed the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights on Aug. 23. and it will soon be reviewed by the California State Assembly and the next governor.

The upcoming bill, which is scheduled to appear before the next legislator in 2011, will include such rights as equal overtime pay, equal right to worker's compensation and the right to five hours uninterrupted sleep in adequate conditions.

Gov. David Paterson of New York signed the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights Aug. 31 making his the first state in the nation to pass legislation protecting domestic workers. Once excluded from labor legislation, domestic workers in New York have been granted basic legal protection in the workplace.

"It's a struggle for human rights and human dignity," said Andrea Cristina Mercado, lead organizer of Mujeres Unidas y Activas. "These workers have been in the dark."

Mujeres Unidas y Activas is a grassroots organization with offices in San Francisco and Oakland. Their mission is to educate and empower Latina women to promote social justice. The organization is also a leader of The California Worker Rights Coalition that is currently fighting for the Cailfornia Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights.

"There is no accountability, no oversight," said Mercado. "This frequently leads to exploitation and abuse."

MUA's strategy for passing the law is a combination of organizing, education and legislation. According to Mercado, domestic workers are often isolated from information about organizing.

"A law can be on the books but workers won't know about it," she said. "That's why employer education is important so that they know the law."

MUA estimates that there are currently 500,000 domestic workers in California. However, because domestic workers are employed in the private sector, employment is often off the books making the exact number difficult to finalize, said Mercado.

"Positions in domestic work have largely been held by women of color and immigrant women," said Mercado. "This has really been a legacy of discrimination."

In 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the National Labor Relations Act providing federal labor protection to U.S employees and employers, but the act specifically excludes farm workers and domestic workers.

Lillian Galvedo, executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice, also noted that it was racial discrimination that initially excluded domestic workers from the NLRA.

"The thinking of the time was that the large majority of domestic workers were African American women," said Galvedo. "It was thought that they didn't deserve these protections."

Filipino Advocates for Justice, an Oakland-based advocacy organization, is also part of the California coalition that will spearhead the DWBR in 2011. Galvedo believes that immigration status is a large reason as to why abuses in the workplace often go unreported and unrecognized.

"A large number of immigrants who don't know their rights fear calling in because they don't want to invite retaliation," said Galvedo. "There is a huge incentive to not report violations of their rights."

According to Galvedo, those who hold positions in domestic work are frequently their family's primary source of income. As a result, they often feel pressure to stay in a position that is inequitable.

"Things we take for granted such as time for being sick, taking care of sick children and family members or vacation time is not possible for some workers," said Galvedo. "It borders on the line of slavery and indentured servitude."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar legislation to CDWBR in 2006, but this year it has yet to encounter any opposition.

Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Kasturi Ray, said these past oppositions were likely a result of race and class privilege.

"There was a lot of worry that this would land on the backs of middle class women," said Ray. "The middle class has been historically shielded and seen as clients of the state more than the working class."

Although Ray said having rights is important, she believes that depending on formal legislation FROM the state may have repercussions.

"I am worried that informal ways of gaining rights may be swept aside," she said.

Ray is currently in the process of writing "The Trade in Maids: Cross-Cultural Readings of Paid and Unpaid Domestic Workers," a book that details the obstacles South African domestic workers encountered after they established formal rights.

"Formal rights are really important," Ray said. "But they often narrow the ways in which you can maneuver your rights."

"When the rights language started, domestic workers were presented as victims," she said. Ray believes that having the states hand in such an intimate form of labor can make traditional ways of negotiating no longer available.

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