Monday, July 21, 2008

Shared Struggle Led Women to Political Action

Today's Washington Post has a story about the plight of domestic workers in Montgomery County Maryland. My guess is that it's not much different from that of workers in other parts of the country. The one difference might be that these women have decided to fight back.

Most Sundays for the past six years, about 25 live-in nannies and housekeepers from across the Washington area have gathered in Silver Spring to share stories of mandatory six-day workweeks, 14-hour days and salaries that amount to as little as $1 an hour.

Calling themselves the Committee of Women Seeking Justice, they gather in a circle and commiserate in English, Spanish, Hindi and French. Among the topics: no sick days, little overtime pay, feeling "on call" at all hours and sleeping on basement floors. Several have shared stories of having been kept as modern-day slaves, organizers said, rarely allowed out of the house and never seeing a cent. [...]

What began as an informal support group soon blossomed into a political movement for workers' rights. After four years of petition drives and appealing to local lawmakers, the group claimed a key victory last week, when the Montgomery County Council approved what are believed to be among the most far-reaching labor protections for domestic workers in the country. [...]

"We were ready to say, 'These abuses are over,' " said Ines Cruz Yslava of Silver Spring (pictured), a former live-in housekeeper who now works full time cleaning homes in Bethesda and Howard County.
New legislation in the county mandates employers offer written contracts to employees working 20 hours or more each week. The contract must spell out wages and other benefits, and live-in employees must have their own bedroom (equipped with a lock) and reasonable access to bathroom, kitchen and laundry facilities. Violators of the new regulation could face fines of $1,000.

The legislation fell short of the group's goal of a "domestic workers bill of rights" that would guarantee health insurance, paid vacation time and sick days, among other benefits.
What began as a group of eight women now has around 100 members.

Cruz, 58, said she was motivated by a miserable decade as a live-in housekeeper in California. After arriving from El Salvador in 1976, she said, a law student promised her $1,000 a month to clean his house, do laundry, iron and cook. She said he required her to work seven days a week for $200 a month. [...]

Another group member, who spoke on condition that she be referred to only by her first name of Martha because she worried about what her employers would think, said she had felt stuck living with an emotionally abusive couple. At the time, she said, she spoke little English, had no family or friends to turn to and didn't know how to drive.

The couple brought her to Montgomery from their native Peru 14 years ago, she said. But promises of a $750 monthly salary, English classes and eight-hour work days evaporated when she got to Maryland, she said. She said she ended up making $250 a month.

Still, she was so grateful to them for sponsoring her U.S. visa, she said, that for two years she put up with mandatory 15-hour days and six-day workweeks, cooking, cleaning and caring for their young son.

"We brought you here," she said the couple told her, "so you'll do what we tell you."
How does this differ from slavery?

A lot has been written about immigration, illegal immigrants, and whether or not people should be rounded up and "sent home." Instead of carrying a sign complaining of losing jobs to immigrants, I would suggest protesters might be better served to support workers rights. I mean after all, if they are successful in preventing new people from coming to this country are they going to want to work for $200 a month?


1 comment:

Sue J said...

What a wonderful story of empowerment! It is amazing what each of us can do when we gather together to fight for what is right!