Houston, TX – As the awards season dust settles on the movie The Help, domestic workers continue to fight for their rights and are winning victories around the country. Last week here in Houston, a group of domestic workers who were employed by a maid service won a great victory after three years of fighting for their back pay. The six workers, who organized against unfair working conditions with the help of the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, received a settlement from their former employer for $30,000.
“We are so happy that justice has finally been served,” said Zenaida L. one of the workers who initially stood up to their employer. “More important than the money, we are glad that the dignity of our work is finally being recognized.”
Also last week, the Center received the good news that a live-in domestic worker brought here from Argentina, was able to recover over $45,000 in back wages. “Betty”* who has been a domestic worker for over 37 years, says she found the strength to speak out when she thought about other workers who could be in her place.
“I came here with an employer I’ve known for a long time and having good knowledge and resources about my rights,” she said, “but if this happened to me, I can only imagine how much worse things can be for others who are not in my situation.” Since coming forward with her case, she has become active in the Worker Center, especially through “The Beehive” – the center’s domestic worker organizing group.
At the end of last year, public attention surrounding the Oscar-nominated film The Help drew the conversation towards the plight of domestic workers. The realization of how little has changed for domestic workers since the time depicted in the film galvanized viewers and long-time supporters alike to take action.
Though domestic workers like Zenaida and Betty are professionals who do real work every day, they are excluded from many of the basic protections guaranteed by the FLSA to most other workers in the U.S. – things like minimum wage, overtime, sick and vacation pay. This exclusion was no accident. When the National Labor Relations Act was being discussed by Congress in 1935, segregationist representatives from the South insisted on leaving out two groups that were predominantly African-American: domestic workers and farmworkers.
Many domestic workers do not earn a living wage and work without access to health care, paid sick days or paid time off. Because of their unique workplaces – inside other people’s homes – the struggles faced by domestic workers are largely out of the public spotlight. These concealed, and often precarious, working conditions may enshroud graver instances of abuse, including cases of human trafficking.
Houston domestic workers, along with many groups around the U.S., are engaged in a movement to win protections and recognition for the over 2.5 million domestic workers nationwide – most of them women – who provide the care which makes all other work possible for millions of families in the United States.
This May, a delegation of Houston domestic workers, along with Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center staff, will be travelling to Washington, D.C. for the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance Worker Congress to engage in organizing and strategy workshops and to educate their members of Congress about the need for better domestic worker protections.
The domestic workers hope to learn from the work going on throughout the country, including New York – which last year passed the first ever state Domestic Worker Bill of Rights – and California, a state that is currently working towards getting a similar piece of legislation passed.
*Worker’s name changed by her request
The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center (HIWJC) is a membership-based organization that provides a safe space for low-wage workers to learn about their workplace rights and organize to improve working conditions on the job. HIWJC is also a coalition partner of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.