"The Help" and the rights of domestic workers
August 25, 2011
This week, I went to see the movie The Help, based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. The film focuses on the exploitation, abuse, and indignities endured by African American women who worked as housecleaners, childcare providers, and cooks in the homes of white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s.
I watched the movie as a New Yorker, a northerner, appalled at the horrors of that faraway era down south and astonished by the courage and resilience of women like those featured in this film.
I also watched the movie as a white woman who once employed a Jamaican woman as my son’s part-time nanny.
I was once among the hundreds of thousands of mostly white families in New York City who rely on the labor of mostly immigrant women of color to care for their homes, their children, their aging parents.
Some of these families are good employers who establish a mutually respectful relationship with the workers in their homes, providing well-defined and well-compensated jobs with benefits. Many others, however, take daily advantage of the fact that most labor laws fail to protect domestic workers. Just as in Jackson, Mississippi 50 years ago, a domestic worker’s wages and benefits are largely determined by employer disposition, values, and whim.
I know of employers who come home hours late every day and fail to pay overtime, who balk at providing paid sick time, who speak about their nanny as a “member of the family” but never as an employee owed paid vacation time. I know of one employer who believes that immigrant women who leave their children in their home countries to come to the U.S. to work--and send money home to their families--are inferior mothers. “They’re just different than we are,” she said.
I’m a founding member of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, which believes that caring homes and just workplaces do, in fact, go hand in hand. We are working in coalition with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to bring our country’s 2.5 million domestic workers out of the shadows, to insure that they are finally recognized, honored, and protected by law.
Just as unionized workers are fighting back against the state-by-state right-wing assault on collective bargaining, domestic workers are finding their collective power and organizing around the country to demand basic labor protections. Workers won the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York last year—the first such law in the nation--and are right now fighting for a Bill of Rights in California .
Our growing movement is bringing together workers, seniors, people with disabilities, parents and other domestic employers to focus attention on our national care crisis and to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in this budget-slashing era. Our goal is to not only defend our safety net, but to expand it: our Caring Across Generations campaign aims to create new, high-quality jobs for domestic workers and insure affordable, high-quality care for ourselves and our loved ones.
The Help is now leading the box office. People are turning out in droves to see this film.
May this movie truly help today’s domestic workforce; may it shine a national spotlight on the women who have been working behind the doors of our homes, in our kitchens and bathrooms, at our bedsides and those of our family members, the women who have always done the most important work of all.
Watch this video from the National Domestic Workers Alliance: Meet "Today's Help"
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