Opinion | Civil Rights

It's time for domestic workers to have rights

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

You likely have heard that June is Pride Month and that June 19 is Juneteenth, but there is another day of celebration this month that is often overlooked: June 16, International Domestic Workers' Day. 

The day was first marked in 2011, when the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, also called Convention 189, which requires promotion and protection of the human rights of all domestic workers. To date, 22 countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa have adopted Convention 189, but the United States has not, in spite of being an ILO member nation.

Most domestic workers in the U.S. have few rights

These men and women clean our houses, tend our gardens, care for our children, aging parents and those with disabilities, but are still routinely subject to unfair labor practices, abuse and even human trafficking. Consider these facts:

  • Live-in housekeepers and nannies are still excluded from The Fair Labor Standards Act (even after it was revised in the 1970s), the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Occupational Health and Safety Act

  • Domestic workers don't fall under overtime, workers' compensation or unemployment benefits laws and cannot unionize

  • There are no laws preventing verbal, physical or sexual abuse or harassment of domestic workers

  • A fourth of domestic workers live in poverty, making only on average $9.37 per hour, just above the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. This comes out to $19,489 a year, well below the federal poverty guideline of $26,500 for 2021. (Legally, nannies, housekeepers, and most senior caregivers are covered by minimum wage legislation, though not in all states. In addition, some employers may pay in cash to circumvent these laws.) 

  • Most domestic workers don't have benefits or paid time off   

  • According to a joint report by Polaris and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the highest number of human trafficking cases in the last 10 years involved domestic work, even though it is the trafficking of people for sex work that gets the most media attention 

Polaris estimates that the United States employs more than 2 million domestic workers each year, the majority of whom are people of color and migrant workers. That's nearly 2 percent of the full-time working population of our country who do not have any employment rights. They are often single heads of household, usually mothers, trying to provide for their families in an industry with little opportunity for growth and advancement where abuse is rampant.

Convention 189 in the U.S. and abroad

Dozens of countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa have adopted Convention 189. By doing so, their governments affirm that domestic workers have the same labor rights as other workers, including clear conditions of employment, a minimum wage, limited work hours with compensation for overtime, weekly time off, Social Security and other benefits as dictated by law. Ratification also serves as a pledge to protect domestic workers from violent and abusive employers, prevent child labor and oversee the agencies that employ domestic workers to ensure they are operating within the law.

The United States seems content to make domestic workers labor protection a state issue, which means laws vary widely by location. New York became the first state to adopt a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010, and since then, nine other states and the cities of Seattle and Philadelphia have followed suit. This is a positive first step, but the protection is not equal in those states, much less throughout the country. 

In 2019 then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) introduced a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to the 116th Congress. Unfortunately, the bill died after being referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, but we hope another similar bill will be proposed soon.

This summer, as we celebrate the days, months and holidays that mark the freedom and beautiful diversity of this country, keep our domestic workers in mind. If you employ them, know the law where you live and be sure they are paid and treated fairly. Congress holds the keys to a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights moving forward. Let them know that you support fair labor and employment practices for all and will no longer be silent while domestic workers are treated like second-class citizens.

Nicole Evelina is a USA Today bestselling author. Her latest novella "Consequences" is based on real-life events surrounding a domestic servant in 19th century Ireland. Erica Sklar is the national organizer at Hand in Hand: the Domestic Employers Network.

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