May 31, 2006, submitted by JFREJ member
Last Tuesday (May 23rd), I had the opportunity to travel to Albany with about 80 member of Domestic Workers United (DWU) and 17 other members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). DWU is a city-wide coalition of domestic workers and organizations of domestic workers. The JFREJ presence on the trip was part of our ‘Shalom Bayit: Justice for Domestic Workers’ campaign. JFREJers attended this trip as allies to DWU, to support them in lobbying NY state legislators to back their Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
Domestic workers’ (nannies, housekeepers, and elderly care providers) experiences range from wonderful to abusive and everything in between, a problem stemming from the fact that domestic workers are excluded from most labor laws in the US (you can see a summary of these laws in the report cited below). As a result, domestic workers are often at the whim of their employers. 26% of domestic workers earn wages below the poverty line. 67% reported not receiving proper compensation for overtime worked. About 1/3 reported some type of abuse in their work environment. A staggering 90% do not have health insurance. (all of these facts are from DWU’s recently published report on domestic workers in the NY area).
DWU’s proposed Bill of Rights includes a living wage of $14/hour ($16 if the employer does not provide health insurance), paid sick and vacation days, overtime pay, advance notice of termination, and severance pay – among other things – that many of us expect and take for granted from our own employers. It is currently being moved through different committees of the New York State senate. On Tuesday, we encouraged legislators to push the bill to a vote on the senate floor.
Tuesday’s lobby day arrived on the heels of the aforementioned publication of DWU’s report “Home is Where the Work is: Inside New York’s Domestic Worker Industry,” summarizing several years of research, which included over 500 interviews with domestic workers in the NY area. There are over 200,000 domestic workers in the tri-state area, the overwhelming majority of whom are women of color. The questions stemming from this issue are numerous: how does the way domestic workers are treated affect the way our culture values domestic work itself? Do we still fail to view what is traditionally “women’s work” as actual work? How can we continue failing to recognize the importance of people who care for our most intimate and precious possessions – our children, our parents, and our homes?
These questions are the fuel for JFREJ’s Shalom Bayit campaign. The campaign seeks to “alter power relations between domestic workers and employers within NYC synagogue communities” (from the JFREJ website). We do this by encouraging dialogue between employers within communities, the long-term goal of which is to improve the working environment for both employer and employee. One of the problems is that because domestic work is not valued as real work, oftentimes employers of domestic workers fail to see themselves as employers. SB is also working on building resources for employers on a variety of topics, ranging from how to pay one’s domestic worker on the books to how to purchase health insurance. We encourage rabbis, including those who are members of the JFREJ Rabbinical Council, to give sermons on this topic. We held a pre-Passover event at which several rabbis taught texts on labor issues in Jewish tradition and two members of DWU spoke about their experiences as domestic workers. We also distributed our SB haggadah supplement, which contains five different readings for the Passover seder dealing directly with domestic work, each tied to a different part of the seder. (Upcoming events are listed here).
Tuesday was an incredibly uplifting day for me, for a number of reasons. The women of DWU are truly remarkable and they are a joy to be around. There’s an underlying tone in so many progressive organizations and circles that mainstream politics are simply “not for us.” Our game is to work on the grassroots level, and even attempting to enter the realm of mainstream politics, beyond demonstrating at the RNC, is simply not worth our time. On Tuesday, I learned that one can only have such an attitude as I have just described with a certain degree of economic and/or racial privilege – the privilege of knowing that regardless of what happens in mainstream politics, one’s life will more or less stay the same. For the women of DWU, pushing this legislation is not simply a matter of making a lot of noise in Albany, it’s about their lives. It’s about dignity and respect, gained through a bill that guarantees them rights that so many of us take for granted. It’s with this passion that they marched into the offices of the most white legislators in Albany and told their stories, proudly, fiercely, and emotionally.Lobby day was one step among many, and I also believe that our organizing in synagogue communities can have a tremendous political impact. If employers across New York city concerned themselves with being better employers and treating their employees the way that they expect to be treated in their own workplaces, the support for this legislation would be enormous. The discussion is just getting started.