Posted on Sat, Aug. 20, 2011
The Help still needs our help
By JENNIFER HILLand ALEJANDRA RAMOS
When the movie The Help opened last week, viewers got swept up in the story of domestic workers struggling for dignity and respect in civil rights-era Mississippi. Those viewers might be surprised to learn that modern domestic workers are living out that struggle today in Florida and across America.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act in the 1930s, domestic workers were left out. Today, many domestic workers are immigrant women of color. But the vulnerability they face and the lack of adequate legal protections has not changed.
Emelia is one such woman. She was brought to the United States with promises of a good job as a housekeeper. When she got here, the terms changed. She got up around 7 a.m. and worked every day until about 10 p.m., caring for the employer’s children, cleaning, cooking and doing laundry. She worked seven days a week, eventually getting Sunday mornings off to go to church. For all this, she made $500 a month.
Meanwhile, her passport was confiscated, and she was told not to talk with strangers or she would be arrested and deported. This is human trafficking, a modern form of slavery that sometimes binds domestic workers, not with literal chains, but with fraudulent promises, isolation, withholding of documents and threats of retaliatory immigration enforcement.
It would be nice to believe that The Help told an archaic story, but that’s not the case. We know domestic workers living in Florida today who have had to eat off separate plates or use separate bathrooms, who have been denied sufficient food or access to medical care, had their belongings searched by employers and been paid less than minimum wage — often much less. Threats and retaliation are not uncommon.
Domestic workers today, like the African-American heroines of The Help, have found ways big and small to fight back. Domestic workers helped by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) have turned around to help others by sharing information, connecting victims of abuse with assistance and speaking out for better laws. With the help of organizations like FIAC and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, they’re making progress.
After six years of organizing by immigrant domestic workers — together with immigrant-rights advocates, unions, employers, clergy and community organizations — New York passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in July 2010. Now California has the chance to do the same. The California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which passed the California State Assembly on June 2, would provide domestic workers with the basic rights that the heroines of The Help went without: the right to a safe and healthy workplace, worker’s compensation and overtime pay.
In Florida, domestic workers are engaged in making change, too. Over the past several months, women like Emelia have been surveying other domestic workers about their working conditions, with leadership from the Research Institute for Social and Economic Policy and help from an array of dedicated community groups including the South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, We Count!, Sisterhood of Survivors, Miami Workers Center, and the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Florida’s domestic workers are also sharing their stories in efforts to strengthen the laws, combat human trafficking, win passage of new international standards for migrant domestic workers, help the Department of Labor address wage theft and protect victims of workplace crimes from retaliatory immigration enforcement.
Employers are a key part of the struggle. A national organization, Hand in Hand, consists of employers who believe “that caring homes and just workplaces go hand in hand.” They challenge employers to learn about domestic-worker rights and to improve their own practices or assist others.
The Help gives today’s domestic workers, immigrant and nonimmigrant, a chance to learn about the history of civil-rights struggle in this country and the heroines on whose shoulders they stand. It shows all of us the power generated when domestic workers share their stories and others listen. It gives us the chance to reflect and make powerful change.
Jennifer Hill is director of Workplace Justice at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. Alejandra Ramos is a member of the Coordinating Committee, National Domestic Workers Alliance.
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