Organized labor fighting for domestic worker rights

Kai Ryssdal: The ILO, the International Labor Organization, is holding its annual meeting in Switzerland this week. It's the 100th such gathering for the U.N. agency. One of the things it's working on is a new set of labor standards for domestic workers -- nannies and housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly. Women, mostly. Undocumented immigrants, often. A vulnerable and isolated workforce, almost always. There's a push on for an international treaty to protect them. Organized labor here in the U.S. has a similar idea.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler explains.


Jeff Tyler: Sitting in her apartment in Los Angeles, 52-year old Frida Hinojosa isn't afraid to speak out. She's a U.S. citizen now. But when she came here 20 years ago as an undocumented immigrant, she was too scared to protest the living conditions provided by her employer.

Frida Hinojosa: She had a trailer in her backyard. And she had eight dogs. And I arrived during the winter, when it was cold. My boss sent me to sleep with the dogs. So I did. I slept with the dogs.

Hinojosa is a domestic worker. Her job is part nanny, part maid. She says employers can seem like nice people in public...

Hinojosa: Once you close the door, it's a different story. Domestic workers suffer verbal abuses, physical abuses, emotional abuses.

Once, Hinojosa was injured while taking care of a child. So she told her boss.

Hinojosa: When I explained what happened, my employer said she didn't believe me and fired me, unjustly.

Historically, unions have organized workers like Frida Hinojosa. But under U.S. labor laws, domestic workers are excluded from unionizing.

Ana Avendano is with the AFL-CIO.

Ana Avendano: Domestic workers are not protected either by wage and hour laws, or by the law that guarantees workers the right to bargain collectively. So that means that nannies have no real mechanism to improve their wages and working conditions.

At the International Labor Organization in Geneva this week, the unions have used their influence to make domestic workers a priority. By the end of the week, the ILO is expected to announce new minimum labor standards for domestic workers.

But the AFL-CIO's Avendano says that may not have much impact here in the U.S.

Avendano: The irony here is that the United States doesn't even guarantee those minimum standards.

It might seem odd that labor would invest time and money on people who are currently prevented by law from becoming union members.

Abel Valenzuela is a Chicano Studies professor at UCLA.

Abel Valenzuela: I think this is really an important new direction that the AFL-CIO should be taking, if they want to exist, I think, as a relevant entity.

Valenzuela says undocumented immigrants working below the radar make good prospective union members.

Valenzuela: We're literally talking about hundreds of thousands of potential members. So it's smart strategy on their part.

Advocacy groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance recently partnered with unions to establish labor standards in New York state.

Nanny and house-cleaner Frida Hinojosa is working on a similar campaign in California.

Hinojosa: That's what we are fighting for. For a bill of rights, so we will be protected by labor laws.

But until the law changes, she'll work with immigrant groups that have banded together outside of organized labor.

In Los Angeles, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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