Originally published on the Huffington Post.
The United States claims to be a nation founded on family values with working families often cited as the engine that moves us forward. In an increasingly competitive labor force in which time is a luxury, families often depend on domestic workers to take care of their children and their homes. It’s shameful therefore that the very people who provide the services that allow the very foundation of our society to thrive are treated close to the equivalent of modern day slavery.
When the labor code that set regulations protecting workers in this country was created in 1938, the vast majority of domestic workers at the time were African American and were excluded for racist reasons from labor protections. Today, domestic workers are mostly comprised of immigrants and a large portion are undocumented, leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment by employers since they are not required to sign a contract and are not guaranteed even minimum wage salaries.
There are 95,000 domestic workers in South Florida, around 80% of them are women and around 65% are undocumented. My mother is one of them. Although she has been lucky because she’s had a kind boss, she also worries knowing that her employment is not guaranteed. Like thousands of other undocumented workers across this country, my mom lacks social security or any other type of retirement fund. She has never had health insurance, leaving her vulnerable to economic ruin in the face of serious illness.
Here in South Florida, a group of domestic workers have decided that enough is enough and are organizing alongside organizations such as Miami Workers Center and the National Domestic Workers Alliance to demand dignity, respect and labor protection.
Marcia Olivo and Karla de Anda are representatives of the Miami Workers Center and are organizing the first domestic worker’s assembly with the goal of gathering between 200 to 300 workers. The idea behind the assembly is for these workers to meet, empower themselves and form a strategy to mobilize other domestic workers.
Carla Hansasck is one of the domestic workers participating in the assembly and her experiences illustrate why this industry is in desperate need of more oversight. Carla works up to 16 hours daily on weekends yet never sees a dime of overtime pay. She endures small and big indignities, such as having to eat a family’s reheated leftovers because they did not allow her to cook or bring food from home for herself. At another home where Carla worked for three months, she was paid half of her promised income and when she demanded the rest, her employer fired her.
Working within the walls of someone else’s home leaves a domestic worker vulnerable without the lack of basic labor protections, and many end up being severely underpaid. Yaquelin Mela Lopez worked three years as a nanny, working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and earning about $15 dollars a day. She’s also worked cleaning vacation homes, working long hours and receiving no overtime. Yaquelin says the upcoming assembly is an opportunity to bring domestic workers out of the shadows and unite to demand that the work they do be valued and protected.
The Miami-Dade County Commission recently approved a resolution declaring June 7th as a day of recognition for domestic workers. Although a clear step in the right direction, it is unfortunately nowhere near the solution needed to protect this part of the labor force. It is time for Florida to step up and join states such as New York, California, Illinois, Hawaii and others in passing a bill of rights to protect domestic workers and regulate this crucial industry. We let domestic workers into our homes to take care of our families, they should be treated with the respect and dignity that they rightfully earn every day at work.