Domestic Workers Rights Are Women’s Rights

Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) has a big decision to make for the cause of women’s rights.  On his desk at the moment is a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that recently passed both houses of the California legislature.  The bill only needs Gov. Brown’s signature to become law; if he doesn’t sign it before September 30, it automatically becomes law.

The Bill of Rights–Assembly Bill 889 [PDF]–guarantees domestic workers overtime pay and lunch and rest breaks, and assures live-in workers that will be allowed sufficient sleep in adequate conditions. The Bill covers nannies, housekeepers and caregivers employed by private agencies, as well as those hired by individual families.

The provisions of the bill are hardly radical. They are rights that many of us wouldn’t think twice about.  Of course, people deserve the right to eat lunch and should have the right to a full night’s rest. Why are we even talking about this?

Because these basic rights are routinely denied to household workers.

Domestic work, an occupation historically made up of African American and immigrant women, was excluded from the labor protections afforded to most workers in the 1930s: Social Security, unemployment, a minimum wage and the right to organize and bargain collectively. Although they now have access to Social security and minimum wage, domestic workers are still a vulnerable workforce.

Today, there are overwhelmingly poor immigrant women of color who engage in the devalued work of cooking, cleaning and caring that enables households to function.  Many don’t think of that as “real” work. Moreover, domestics work in the privacy of the home, are sometimes undocumented, aren’t always aware of their rights and are subject to the whims of their employers.  It is particularly difficult for household workers to organize because they are isolated from each other, and it is very easy for employers to replace them if they express even an ounce of dissatisfaction.

That’s why it’s important for states to step in and guarantee a basic level of protection for these women (mainly) workers.

In this crucial election season, the question of domestic workers rights needs to be part of a broader agenda of how we define women’s rights. Women’s issues, from rape to equal pay to contraception, seem to permeate the rhetoric of the campaign, and they’re all important. But the status of domestic workers should be added to this list. Women are increasingly carrying the burden of supporting families, and low-paid service-sector employment–such as household work–is one of the fastest growing sectors of the labor market. While the Bill of Rights won’t solve all the problems of these workers, it is one important step to assuring a basic level of decency and respect.

This bill has been many years in the making, with a previous version passed in 2006 but vetoed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The current bill was advocated by the California Domestic Workers Coalition, which is part of a global grassroots movement by domestic workers and their allies. The movement already passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State in 2010, the first in the nation, and last year convinced the International Labour Organization to pass a Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers that established global standards for domestic workers. It only needs to be ratified by for it to be applicable in the country.

The California bill is the result of many visits by local activists to the state legislature in Sacramento, dozens of rallies and protests, community education projects and hours of door-to-door campaigning.  The hard part is over. Right now all it would take is the stroke of a pen by Gov. Brown to turn this hard-fought battle into a concrete victory.

Email Gov. Jerry Brown at to urge his support of AB 889 by Sept. 30.  

Screenshot from National Domestic Workers Alliance


Premilla Nadasen is an Associate Professor of History at Queens College, City University of New York. Her first book, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (Routledge 2005), won the John Hope Franklin Prize awarded by the American Studies Association. In 2006-2007 she served as first Visiting Endowed Chair of Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College. A longtime community activist and scholar, she has worked with numerous social justice organizations, including Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She has written for Feminist Studies, the Women's Review of Books, Race and Reason, Ms. Magazine, and the Progressive Media Project. In addition, she has given numerous public talks about African-American women's history, welfare policy, and labor organizing. She is currently writing a book on the history of domestic worker organizing in the United States.