Dick Meister: New hope for domestic workers

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With a lot of luck, we may finally take decisive action to guarantee decent treatment for the world's highly exploited housekeepers, maids, nannies and other domestic workers. There are an estimated 100 million of them, working in more than 180 countries.

Their pay is generally at the poverty level, and very few have fringe benefits such as pensions and employer-paid health care. Few have the protection of unions or labor laws, and they're often at the mercy of unscrupulous labor contractors.  Almost half of them are not entitled to even one day off per week. About a third of the female workers are denied maternity leave.

The hope for improving the domestics' slavery-like conditions has arisen from action taken in Geneva this month at the annual meeting of the United Nation's International Labor Organization - the ILO.

Delegates representing unions, employers and governments voted 396 to 16  for what's called a "Convention on Domestic Workers." The non-binding convention spells out how domestics should be treated in UN member countries – most importantly in the pace-setting United States.

In the U.S., as in most other countries, an estimated 80 percent of the domestics are women of color, subject to racial discrimination and physical and sexual abuse.  In the United States, most of them are immigrants as well . They're easy targets for exploitation, especially since, as elsewhere, domestics mainly work in private unregulated households, usually alone.

What's more, U.S. domestics lack most of the protections of state and federal labor laws that are granted most U.S. workers outside of agriculture . Most other non-agricultural workers at least have the right to unionize. But domestics don't even have that basic right.

The National Labor Relations Act specifically denies union rights to anyone "in the domestic service of any family or person." That's right. The Depression-era law that was designed to pull poverty-stricken workers out of poverty and build a middle class does indeed prohibit an entire group of exceptionally needy workers  from taking a major step to improve their extremely poor working conditions. The word for that is "un-American." 

That outrageous legal prohibition has its roots in racism. Pressures from southern states, which objected to granting union rights to the mainly black domestics, was the main reason domestics were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.

 Some domestics have nevertheless formed union-like organizations to seek better treatment. But they need the force of law behind them.

The ILO convention calls for guaranteeing domestic workers in the United States and everywhere else some of the key rights that unionized workers invariably have, among them, regular working hours, vacations, maternity leaves and Social Security benefits.

Domestics would be promised what amount to contracts with employers that would make clear just what they would be expected to do, for how long, and for how much pay.  Their working conditions would have to include time off of at least 24 hours a week.

Migrant workers would have to be provided with a written job offer of employment or a contract before crossing  the border into another country to work.

It took several years for ILO representatives to adopt the domestic workers convention. It was finally adopted as a direct result of campaigning here and aboard by groups of activists from unions and other organizations. They will  be working for the next few years to get as many nations as possible to implement the ILO convention with their help.

The effort in this country is being led by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, with major support from the AFL-CIO, which has arranged to have some domestic workers represent themselves in ILO meetings and voting.

Among other things, proponents hope to make it clear that "domestic workers are real workers, NOT powerless individuals who are expected to remain in quiet servitude and endure long hours without overtime pay, along with hazardous working conditions without access to health and safety protections."

Proponents also hope to end the "cultural relativity excuse that sleeping on a mattress in an unheated garage is better than he or she would get in their home country, or that the poor treatment of domestics is a tradition."  The ILO convention says otherwise and workers in the United States and other countries where it is adopted  "will be armed with the knowledge that there is an international standard that protects them."

Domestics already are granted labor rights in New York State, and California legislators are considering a proposal to bring them under that state's labor laws. But winning basic rights for the badly exploited domestic workers elsewhere will be very difficult. But so was convincing ILO representatives to take on the task, the long needed task of granting domestic workers union rights and, with them, the decent wages, hours and working conditions that come with unionization.

Yes, winning the union rights for domestics worldwide will be very difficult. But we know it can be done.  And certainly we know that it should be done. 


Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century.  He can be reached through his website, dickmeister.com, which includes more than 300 of his columns.