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Domestics seek to bring rights home

A demonstration of Domestic Workers United in New York.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: There's a certain set of things most of us expect walking into a job interview: minimum wage, paid sick leave and vacation time, compliance with relevant state and federal laws concerning the workplace, some official to complain to if there are problems.

There are occupations, though, where none of the above apply. Marketplace's Alisa Roth reports domestic employees -- nannies, maids and baby sitters -- are working hard to change that.


ALISA ROTH: It's hard work being a nanny. Even under the best of circumstances. Hyacinth is pushing her young charge on a swing in Central Park.

HYACINTH: I go out with the kids to the library, to art class, singing, and I take them to the playground, to the pool, and give them baths, and play with them, sing, read for them...

Twelve-hour days. Breaks when the kids nap -- if they nap. And it's much worse, under the worst of circumstances. Ai-jen Poo is an organizer for Domestic Workers United, a New York-area advocacy group for the industry.

AI-JEN POO: We heard about the Indonesian workers in Long Island who were basically enslaved for five years, working around the clock, seven days a week, and being brutalized and tortured.

Now, it's obviously illegal to have slaves, or make somebody work 24 hours a day. And these kinds of spectacular abuse cases are pretty rare. But domestic workers -- like nannies, maids and baby sitters -- don't get the same workplace protections that almost all other workers get.

And by nature of the job, most work in isolation. The law forbids them from forming unions. Plus many are undocumented immigrants, most are unskilled. All of which makes for a system that can easily veer into abuse, or at least unfair treatment.

Domestic Workers United has come up with a Bill of Rights, now before the New York State Legislature.

POO: What we're trying to do is establish some basic guidelines and standards to really recognize the workforce as a real workforce, and provide a set of standards that employers and workers alike know that they'll be working with.

The bill would give domestic workers benefits like paid vacations and sick days, and rights like protection from discrimination -- so workers would have legal backing when they complain to employers or state agencies.

Domestic Workers United regularly takes to the streets to protest unfair working conditions, and build support for its proposed legislation. A couple of municipalities have already passed rules similar to this bill of rights, but the rules lack the teeth of state legislation. If the bill passes in New York -- and many say it could -- it would be the first of its kind.

Patricia Smith is New York state's labor commissioner. She says even the support of the law might not be enough, though.

PATRICIA SMITH: It's very difficult to get an individual in that intimate of a situation to come forward and talk about the possible violations. It's especially difficult in the domestic worker situation where the employee is a live-in worker, because if your employer fires you, not only are you losing your employment, but you're losing your housing at the same time.

Plus, it's an employers market, especially in big cities like New York and Los Angeles where many more women are looking for work than there are jobs -- so workers may be reluctant to make a fuss for fear they could be easily replaced.

None of that is stopping Domestic Workers United. It's pushing for similar legislation across the country, and hopes to see the New York bill passed by early next year.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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