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A House Is Not a Home Without Rights for Care Workers

6:43 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Caregivers and clients gather in Washington, D.C. to support workers’ right to organize. (SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana via Facebook)

Originally published at In These Times

Does a public union belong in the most private of workplaces? Thousands of personal care workers in Illinois who tend to elders and people with disabilities at home wouldn’t have it any other way. For years, they’ve relied on the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to negotiate their contracts. But a radical anti-union movement has gone to the Supreme Court to challenge care providers’ right to organize—putting hard-won labor gains in serious danger.

The case now before the court, Harris v. Quinn, started with a class-action lawsuit filed in 2010 by several care providers in a state Medicaid-financed program for people with disabilities. The plaintiffs argue that their automatic incorporation into a public sector union—with the requirement to pay dues—violates their free speech and free association rights.

The litigation, which lost first in a federal district court and later in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, stems from the political agenda of the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, whose representatives are arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs. In the past, the group has led campaigns in various states to push “right to work” legislation that undermines the dues obligations unions rely on to finance their operations. This time, it’s attempting through the judiciary system to weaken the collective bargaining authority of public-sector unions.

In 1977, a Supreme Court decision mandated that unions named as the bargaining agent for a group of workers must represent all of them. In turn, those who benefit from unions’ negotiations with employers must pay their “fair share” of the cost in the form of dues. If the Defense Foundation’s challenge succeeds, it could nationally damage this “fair share” precedent, thereby eviscerating unions’ financial resources. And on a statewide level, home care workers would be left with less protection in the workplace and less leverage to negotiate as a group.

The workers at the heart of Harris are an unusual group of public servants: They’re based in private homes as hands-on caregivers, yet they’re supported by taxpayer dollars. As state employees, they also enjoy working conditions that are a cut above a home healthcare typically industry characterized by low wages, high turnover and sparse benefits. Unlike many nannies, housekeepers and privately employed home aides, some 20,000 SEIU-represented workers have a steady contract with the state of Illinois. And during the past decade, SEIU has enabled its care providers to gain access to professional training, a new healthcare fund and a 65 percent wage hike.

But Flora Johnson, a home care provider and chair of SEIU Healthcare Illinois’s Executive Board, testified recently that a Legal Defense Foundation victory could threaten those advancements.

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Dignitary’s Maid Reveals Indignities of Domestic Work

8:05 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

National Domestic Workers Alliance, Anannya Bhattacharjee — via Facebook

Originally published at In These Times

A certain romance colors our image of the house servant of yore. In fare from Downton Abbeyto Hollywood’s The Butler, they’re depicted as spectacles of starched traditionalism, deference and obsessive manners, even as they navigate unspoken class and racial faultlines. Though household labor has evolved from its rigid historical forms, a new chapter of the period drama for the era of globalization has emerged in New York’s rarefied diplomatic scene, with curious case of Sangeeta Richard, the domestic worker of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.

Richard unleashed a diplomatic firestorm last month with her accusations of labor abuse: She claims that when she entered the United States on a special A-3 visa for diplomatic personal employees, her contract stated she would earn $4,500 per month as a live-in domestic worker beginning in November 2012. She ended up with less than $600 monthly, just over $3 per hour, a fraction of the federal minimum wage. A petition circulated in support of Richard states that she was kept in “slave-like conditions.” Her husband reportedly filed a petition in a New Delhi court complaining that his wife was being forced to work each day from 6a.m. to 11p.m.

Her employer, Khobragade, was subsequently charged with labor violations and visa fraud, and suddenly became the center of the story. Indian officials and elites protested the arrest as a political affront as well as a cultural misunderstanding. In a country strafed by class divides, the nationalist logic goes, the tradition of keeping a maid is a sign of status and integral to a middle-class lifestyle.

But the Richard affair is not simply a diplomatic spat. Rather, it underscores deep issues of labor, gender and class that cut across hemispheres.

Domestic work is not a cultural peculiarity of India’s, but an expanding globalized sector of more than 50 million people, flowing between regions and across borders, generally from poor to rich areas. Sometimes these people are placed in systems that meet the legal definition of indenture, enslavement or human trafficking. More typically, these workers, mostly women—and in urban areas like New York, overwhelmingly immigrants and women of color—are employed individually or through an agency, and work in a system with virtually no oversight that lacks even basic worker protections.

Many household servants are “imported” to accompany wealthy expatriate households. For specialized employees of diplomats, like Richard, their right to work is linked to their employer’s sponsorship, which in turn opens the door for coercion. This may mean outright abuse or more insidious oppressions, such as holding workers hostage by confiscating their papers and confining them to the house. Read the rest of this entry →

Caring for Workers Who Care for Our Loved Ones

11:21 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

At a June 2012 New York Care Congress at Pace University, care workers came together with community members to discuss how to ‘create quality, dignified care for all.’ (Photo from ALIGN NY)

Originally published at In These Times.

For many seniors, growing older means facing new kinds of stress—such as fragile health, a tight budget on a fixed income, or the travails of living alone.

And for the people who care for the aging, the stress can be just as severe. When her client is going through a rough time, one domestic worker says she lives through every minute of it, too: “Sometimes we stay there for five days…and we don’t know what’s outside…You cannot leave the job.”

Stories like this one, recorded as part of a survey of New York’s care workers, form the invisible pillar of an evolving industry that is making the private home the center of public health, and in the process, reshaping our relationships of family, work, community and social service. Yet the home care workforce, which is driven largely by poor women of color, mirrors inequities embedded in the low-wage economy. At work, caregivers manage the lives of our loved ones while often facing exploitation and abuse, and after a long day of delivering comfort to vulnerable clients, manystruggle themselves to cope with ingrained poverty their communities.

To open a conversation about the economics and ethics of caregiving, ALIGN (Alliance for a Greater New York) has partered with the national advocacy campaign Caring Across Generations, along with various community and labor groups, to study New York City’s more than 150,000 home care workers. The surveys and investigations published by ALIGN reveal structural problems in the industry and identify potential for reforms that work for those who give and those who receive care.

In New York, the home care industry is booming as more seniors opt to live at home rather than in institutions. Thousands across the city earn their living by taking care of seniors and people with disabilities. Overall, according to the study, the sector “will be the single biggest driver of employment in the city in the coming years.”

On a typical day in New York, these workers, mostly women of color and immigrants, act as both therapists and companions, managing medications, bathing and feeding, and helping seniors feel dignified even on the days they can’t get out of bed. On top of this, the workers have to negotiate with stressed families about hours and pay–and typically take home low wages that keep them and their families mired in poverty. Read the rest of this entry →

Domestic Workers Sow a New Global Movement

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Members of the International Domestic Workers' Network show support for the groundbreaking International Labor Organization's Convention 189, signed in 2011. (Courtesy of WIEGO)

Originally posted at In These Times

In Argentina and Brazil, a sector of workers that has long labored invisibly is moving out of the shadows and gaining legal protections. Their counterparts in Jamaica and Uruguay are sparking a new political consciousness from the friction between tradition and globalization. Around the world, private homes are becoming labor’s latest battleground as domestic workers stake out their rights.

Despite stretching into every region of the world, domestic work has historically been excluded from conventional labor laws, regardedly merely as “women’s work.” A breakthrough came in 2011 with the passage of the groundbreaking Convention 189 on domestic workers’ rights by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN special agency for labor rights. The convention lays out principles for fair treatment at work, including the right to a fair labor contract and a safe work environment, freedom from exploitation and coercion, and legal recourse against abusive employers.

The Convention was adopted in 2011. Since its establishment on an international level, domestic workers have been organizing more comprehensively on the ground. Advocates in various countries have been building up national frameworks for codifying the rights of domestic workers. The ILO reported this month that “Since the Convention’s adoption, a total of nine countries have passed new laws or regulations improving domestic workers’ labour and social rights, including Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Singapore.”

In Brazil, new legislation enshrines the ILO Convention’s principles, including an 8-hour workday and overtime. Significantly, the legislation targets a sector that has historically been dominated by black women, building on the government’s other recent efforts to dismantle racial barriers in the economy. The measure has been hailed by activists as an extension of the nation’s abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

In Argentina, where 17 percent of working women are domestic workers, the legislature passed an act in March granting domestic workers standard labor protections, including limits on working hours. In the official announcement of the bill’s passage, Labor Minister Carlos Tomada described it as a corrective for an entrenched social imbalance:

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Invisible Workers, Global Struggles

7:42 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at The American Prospect

(Photo: Flickr/Janansanfran)

Like countless other migrant girls toiling far from home, her life was invisible—except for the chilling way it ended. Earlier this month, Rizana Nafeek, a young Sri Lankan migrant in Saudi Arabia, was executed after being convicted of killing a baby in her care. The case drew international condemnation not only because of the severe punishment and opacity of the legal proceedings—she was reportedly just 17 at the time, not 23 as her falsified passport indicated, and advocates said her confession had been coerced—but also because the girl’s brief life exposed the consequences of the invisible struggles facing domestic workers in the Middle East and beyond.

Nafeek’s case symbolized the severe treatment of migrants in Saudi Arabia (human-rights watchdogs report that numerous other domestic workers have faced the death penalty after unfair accusations—sometimes stemming from cases of self-defense against abusers—pushed them into a biased and abuse-ridden legal system). But Nafeek represented one extreme of a continuum of abuse of transnational, precarious migrant labor, channeled through legal “sponsorship” programs and black-market networks.

More than 50 million domestic workers cook, clean, and care for households around the world, according to recent statistics, though that’s likely an undercount. They work in silence, shuttered in the places usually seen as a refuge from the outside world. For countless nannies and housekeepers, the home can be a place of extraordinary vulnerability, where the workday sometimes never ends, where the head of the house pays wages whenever he feels like it, or where rights exist only on paper, or not at all.

A new survey published by the International Labor Organization (ILO), a global body that monitors labor rights, illuminates a burgeoning workforce that is overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly excluded from basic labor and social protections. One of the first comprehensive analyses of the sector, the survey complements recent efforts to strengthen protections for domestic workers.

According to the ILO’s data, more than one-quarter of domestic workers are not covered by any national labor laws; just one in ten have the same general legal protections covering other workers. More than 40 percent are excluded from national minimum-wage laws, and even greater percentages are not covered by either limits on weekly work hours or guaranteed weekly rest time. The uneven legal landscape exposes workers to myriad forms of exploitation, and the isolated and precarious work environment enables many employers to ignore basic human-rights standards, cheat employees on wages, or press them to work excessive hours. Coercive conditions often spill into physical and psychological abuse, sexual assault, or outright enslavement.

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Settlement for New York Home Care Workers Highlights Injustice in Labor Law

7:43 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Caring Across Generations via flickr

Cross-posted from In These Times

After years of working a thankless job, more than 1,500 home healthcare aides in New York got some long overdue recognition this week, along with a $1 million paycheck in a landmark legal settlement.

The lawsuit involved home health aides working for a private provider of care to seniors and people with disabilities in New York City. The main allegations centered on a typical problem in the home care workforce–getting shorted on wages and overtime pay, thanks to huge gaps in labor protections. McMillan’s Home Care Agency, according to the suit, “consistently underpaid its workers and never paid overtime, despite frequently working more than 60 hours per week.”

Although the settlement deals with New York state labor laws, which offer more protection for this sector than federal labor standards, the mistreatment of these workers sheds light on a national problem. Many home health workers nationwide don’t earn enough to survive and are denied meaningful protections for minimum wage and overtime under both federal and state law.

The settlement awards the workers in the class-action suit with just over $1 million, divided up according to the number of unpaid overtime hours worked. Going forward, the settlement also prohibits the for-profit company from retaliating against workers who speak up about wage and hour violations.

According to the National Employment Law Project, one of the groups leading the litigation, the workers represent just a tiny percentage of the 250,000-strong home care workforce in New York state, but it could compel employers across the sector to take labor protections more seriously. That is good news as the sector might need to expand by an estimated 100,000 workers in the next decade to keep pace with demand for services, according to an analysis by PHI New York. Read the rest of this entry →

Facing Common Struggles, Domestic Workers Mobilize Across Borders

4:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Caring Across Generations (National Domestic Workers Alliance)

Cross-posted from In These Times

The United States isn’t unique when it comes to political and social crises related to immigration. Migrants in other parts of the world face similar, sometimes much harsher struggles. Even those who are “legal” are often extremely vulnerable to economic exploitation, racial discrimination, and physical and sexual abuse. Abuse and enslavement of migrant and domestic workers from Asia and Africa has become epidemic in the Middle East.  In the wake of the suicide of an abused Ethiopian worker, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, whose story helped galvanize migrant rights campaigns, the issue has moved into the media spotlight lately:

Stories of migrants dying on the job or taking their own lives are not uncommon, underscoring how their lives can be undervalued once they’re swept into a “disposable” household workforce. Migrant women in particular struggle often with abusive employers and sexual harassment. Read the rest of this entry →

Georgia’s Anti-Immigrant Politics Overshadow Women’s Struggles

6:09 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times 

(Photo from

The words “undocumented worker” evoke images we’re all familiar with: poor day laborers huddled on a street corner, sun-battered tomato pickers hauling buckets through the fields. One image that people often overlook is a far more intimate presence: the nanny caring for our kids, the home aide comforting our ailing parents, the quiet mother waiting nervously outside the doctor’s office.

Immigrant women are present in every aspect of American life, in the workplace and in the home, yet they’re among the most invisible. They’re about to be shoved further into the shadows as states move to crack down on the undocumented and relegate them to the margins of society. So a coalition of activists came to Atlanta, Georgia this week to raise the visibility of immigrant women as workers and community members, as the state moves toward policies that could give the police unprecedented powers to profile, arrest and detain immigrants arbitrarily. Read the rest of this entry →