The Movement for Domestic Workers’ Rights is Gaining Momentum

“Domestic workers take care of what’s most precious to us—our family and our homes—yet they have been intentionally excluded from basic workplace protections since the creation of some of our country’s most fundamental labor laws,” Ai-jen Poo, Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said in a recent statement. “It’s time our laws catch up to the 21st century.”

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham began accelerating that progress when she signed the Domestic Service in Minimum Wage Act into law last week—marking a major victory for nannies, house cleaners and home care workers across the Land of Enchantment who are now included in the state’s minimum wage mandates and labor protections.

New Mexico now joins just eight other states—New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Nevada, Massachusetts, Oregon—and one city, Seattle, in the fight to protect domestic workers. In states without such laws, however, in-home workers earn less than $11 per hour on average, and most are ineligible for healthcare or retirement benefits.

These laws—at the local, state and federal level—also create support networks for sexual assault survivors and grant domestic workers recourse against harassment and discrimination on the job. For some of the most vulnerable workers facing down the #MeToo movement, that kind of empowerment is invaluable.

“Although we’ve seen an incredible shift in public consciousness to focus more attention on sexual violence recently, there’s still much work to be done,” Mónica Ramírez, NDWA’s Gender Justice Campaigns Director, told Ms. “Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a chance for each of us to commit to ending sexual violence in all of its forms. Nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers face pervasive workplace sexual violence.”

Domestic workers, who are almost always immigrants and women of color, have too often been overlooked by labor advocates and legislators alike. Domestic labor was curiously excluded from The New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set the first national minimum wage at 25 cents, leaving this vulnerable and rapidly-growing population with very few legal options when they’re not paid.

But the movement for domestic workers is now gaining momentum.

In the wake of three-time Oscar-winning film Roma, which started a worldwide conversation about the rights and dignity of domestic workers, domestic workers across the U.S. have kicked off the new year by organizing with unprecedented energy to expand their rights at work. Bills similar to the DSMWA in New Mexico have been introduced in the city of Philadelphia, the state of Connecticut and in Washington, D.C. In California and New York, where such laws are already in place, legislators are looking to strengthen them.

And on Capitol Hill, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) are preparing to introduce a national Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights as early as this year, which will close current legal loopholes that exclude domestic workers from certain labor and civil rights laws, standardize rest and meal breaks and ensure fair scheduling.

“This is the year of the domestic worker,” Poo declared confidently. “Their time has come.”  


Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.