Silver Taube: Domestic workers seek dignity and labor rights
Human Rights Watch says domestic workers in private households are among the most exploited and abused workers. Photo courtesy of South Bay National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Economic, social and gender inequalities, as well as war, climate change and violence, are forcing millions of people into migration for employment in domestic work every day, according to the International Domestic Workers Federation.

Human Rights Watch says domestic workers in private households are among the most exploited and abused workers, and one of the most vulnerable demographics. They often work 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages far below the minimum wage. They may be locked in their workplace and are often victims of physical and sexual violence and human trafficking.

On June 6, 2011, the International Labor Organization—an arm of the United Nations that deals with labor rights—adopted Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which set out the rights of domestic workers around the world. Since then, 24 countries have ratified it. Shamefully, in North America neither the United States nor Canada have ratified C189. Mexico ratified it in 2020.

International Domestic Workers Day commemorates the day Convention 189 was adopted. Each year, thousands of domestic workers hold activities and events across the world to urge more governments to ratify and implement C189.

There have been fewer labor protections for domestic workers than other workers. According to Rie Mayazaki, a professor of social policy studies in Japan, domestic workers tend not to be treated as workers or employees because of the historical roots of slavery and the various master–servant relationships of domestic work.

When Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 which granted minimum wage and overtime protections to workers in the U.S., southern lawmakers refused to pass the act unless farmworkers and domestic workers were excluded because they did not want to include African-Americans who largely comprised the workforce. Domestic workers were also excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and OSHA for the same reason.

The domestic workers’ exclusion from Cal/OSHA became a concern during the California wildfires when domestic workers were required to work in evacuation zones and clean houses covered in thick layers of smoke and ash without masks, gloves or safety gear. According to then Cal/OSHA Chief and now federal OSHA Chief Doug Parker, wildfires create a toxic stew that is hazardous to workers, and failure to provide basic safety gear like masks and training when cleaning up hazardous materials would be a violation if there “was a traditional employer-employee relationship,” but it is not a violation because of the exclusion.

In the past few decades, domestic workers in the United States and California have tirelessly advocated for their rights. In 2007, the National Domestic Workers Alliance was formed. It is a multilingual, multiethnic and multiracial movement led by women of color that connects the struggle for racial justice, immigrant rights and labor rights. It has 70 grassroots affiliated organizations and chapters and an online community of 250,000 workers.

As a result of the group's advocacy, seven states, two cities and the District of Columbia have passed domestic workers bill of rights and protections. At the federal level, the alliance is supporting a bill, S 2569, co-sponsored by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, Sen. Ben Ray Lujan and Rep. Pramilla Jayapal, that will enact a national Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

In California, the Domestic Employers Network formed a local Bay Area chapter in 2010 to organize employers in support of domestic workers’ rights and advocate for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The California Domestic Worker Coalition Steering Committee was formed in 2012.

Before 2013, domestic workers were not entitled to overtime pay in California. After advocating for over seven years, the California Domestic Workers Coalition won a historic victory in 2013 with the passage of AB 241, which extended overtime pay to domestic workers on the condition that the law would sunset after three years.

In 2016, the California Domestic Workers Coalition again won historic legislation, SB 1015, making the overtime provisions of AB 241 permanent under state law.

The California Domestic Workers Coalition also won another great victory in 2017 with the passage of SB 258, the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act, which mandates that manufacturers of cleaning products must disclose the most toxic ingredients on the packaging and online description of products.

Domestic workers have continued to advocate for inclusion in Cal/OSHA. In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 321 creating an advisory committee composed of domestic workers, employers and occupational health and safety experts to develop industry-specific health and safety guidelines, and make policy recommendations to the Legislature to strengthen the health and safety of domestic workers.

In January, the advisory committee published policy recommendations. It concluded the Legislature should remove the household domestic services exclusion from Cal/OSHA. It also recommended support for employers to enable them to provide healthy and safe conditions by establishing a financial assistance program for low-resourced employers and to expand an existing program to include health and safety outreach and education.

This year state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo introduced SB 686 that would remove the Cal/OSHA exclusion, require safety guidelines consistent with the advisory committee’s voluntary guidelines and provide a one-time fund for employers.

To celebrate International Domestic Workers Day this year, Narbada Chhetri visited the South Bay Chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance on June 10. Chhetri, who formerly worked in Nepal as a human rights and anti-trafficking advocate for 15 years, leads the workers’ rights program at Adhikaar, an organization that empowers Nepali-speaking immigrants to learn about and assert their legal rights. She led a successful campaign for the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and helped nine trafficking survivors secure over $300,000 in lost or stolen wages.

As we commemorate International Domestic Workers Day, we must remember that we owe a debt of gratitude to domestic workers and advocate for their right to a healthy and safe workplace.

Lucescamaray Blog columnist Ruth Silver Taube is supervising attorney of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, supervising attorney of the Santa Clara County’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement Legal Advice Line and a member of Santa Clara County’s Fair Workplace Collaborative. Her columns appear every second Thursday of the month. Contact her at .

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply