Wednesday, April 30, 2014

California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and the voices of “La Collectiva”

Guest blogger: Lizette Perez, second-year law student, University of San Francisco

I recently assisted on a project to document the experiences of domestic workers affiliated with the Women’s Collective of San Francisco Day Labor Program at La Raza Centro Legal, “La Collectiva.” The project is aimed at compiling the stories of La Collectiva’s members to shed light on the reality of their work as domestic workers, highlight the forces that brought these women to this country, and record their experiences helping to lobby for the recently passed California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
On September 26, 2013, California became the third state in the country, after New York and Hawaii, to establish its own state-level legislation to provide basic protections for domestic workers. Governor Jerry Brown signed these protections into law via the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (AB241). The passage of this legislation symbolized a huge victory for the immigrant rights movement because it secured employment protections for one of the most vulnerable and exploited group of workers, immigrant domestic workers. Domestic workers nationwide are largely comprised of immigrant women and are a sector of the labor force that is typically not discussed, particularly in the realm of immigration reform. As the law currently stands, key labor and employment laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act, do not cover domestic workers.

The CA Bill of Rights began as an expansive bill that reflected a worker-driven agenda for reform in working conditions. As the law went through the political process of getting enacted, it lost much of its content to compromises. At passage, it entitled domestic workers to overtime pay if they work more than nine hours a day or forty-five hours a week. Provisions for health and safety protections, meal and rest breaks, adequate sleeping accommodations, and workers compensation were lost along the way.

Although heavily compromised, the bill signifies a success in the domestic worker’s rights movement, considering the decline in unionized labor, wages and benefits, and the devaluation of domestic workers generally. Domestic work has a legacy of not being regarded as real work that is worthy of equal treatment because it lacks economic currency.  Much of this rationale is rooted in the history that domestic work has in slavery, and because of the gender and racial make up of the workers. Additionally, this view has been justified because it takes place in the privacy of family homes and the workers have been deemed “unorganizable” because they work in isolated work environments with many different employers.

Grassroots, worker-led organizations such as La Collectiva have made significant contributions to highlighting the value of domestic workers and bringing visibility to their issues. The stories recounted by the women of La Collectiva illustrate the role that the organization has in providing a social space that provides mutual support, collaboration, and empowerment to its members. The organization functions somewhat as an employment agency but also offers leadership opportunities, trainings on health and safety concerns involved in doing domestic work, and educational workshops on a variety of issues from the law to family dynamics.
What was particularly powerful to me in hearing the women’s stories regarding their experience as domestic workers involved the work that they did toward advocating for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Several members spoke about their efforts in conducting outreach and educating other domestic workers in the neighborhood about the movement. They also spoke about the empowerment they felt when they traveled to Sacramento and met with legislators. They discussed feeling validated in the work that they do as domestic workers and the transformation that finding their “voice” in the movement has had on not only their careers, but also their families. One woman in particular recounted the pride and dignity that she experienced when the bill was finally passed. She felt that all of the hard work that went into the passage of the law would serve as a legacy that she could pass on to her children.

Their experiences reminded me of the values in rebellious lawyering of respecting the client instead of repeating the subordinating experience, the importance of collaboration, and educating clients and communities to support resistance. The life stories that were shared with me that day have certainly served to energize and inform my work and will continue to do so going forward.


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