Giving Rights to Caregivers Without a Voice
By Albor Ruiz
Sunday, April 5th 2009, 4:00 AM
"I am not speaking only for myself, but for 200,000 people," said Patricia Francois, a nanny who is suing her former employer for allegedly assaulting her.
Two hundred thousand is the number of domestic workers in the New York City area, most of them, like Francois, immigrant women. And all of them without the protection of labor laws.
"What happened to Patricia is an indication of the kind of abuse employers so many times get away with," said Ai-jen Poo, the lead organizer for Domestic Workers United, the largest coalition of nannies, housekeepers and caregivers in the city.
The situation of these women is ironic: While we trust them with our most precious possessions - our children, our elderly parents, our homes - they are among the most exploited and abused of society's laborers.
Francois' case is just one dramatic example.
A nanny who spent 6-1/2 years caring for the young daughter of Matthew Mazer, an affluent Manhattan documentary filmmaker, Francois is suing him for assault and battery as well as an unspecified amount of unpaid overtime.
Francois charges that on Dec. 18, 2008, Mazer punched her in the face after she tried to stop him from yelling at his 13-year-old daughter. She was left with a black eye and blurred vision, she says.
Mazer denied the allegation through his lawyer, Robert Gaulin. "Actually, she attacked my client," Gaulin said. "He never touched her."
Saturday, at a rally outside Mazer's midtown apartment, Francois announced the lawsuit. Together with other workers and DWU members, she called for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
Sponsored by Assemblyman Keith Wright (D-Harlem) and Sen. Diane Savino (D-S.I.), the bill would offer these workers the same protection and rights others enjoy.
Unfortunately, Francois' allegation is not rare. Other horror stories have made headlines.
One of the most dramatic stories is that of Swarna Vishrantamma, an Indian immigrant who worked as a nanny and housekeeper for a Kuwaiti with diplomatic immunity. For four years, until she managed to escape, she was forced to work 18-hour days, paid a paltry $200 per month and abused physically.
"Because you work in a private house, almost anything goes," said Marilyn Marshall of Brooklyn, a nanny from Trinidad. "They don't think of what you do as real work or of you as a real worker."
Also, abusing domestic workers is easy. They work without the protection of any labor laws - not even the National Labor Relations Act - and without power to negotiate with their employers. That's why passing the Bill of Rights is so urgent.
The legislation has already moved out of both the Assembly and Senate Labor Committees this session and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) has expressed his support.
"We have been waiting for five long years," Poo said. "But I think it will pass this time."
Besides waiting, Poo and DWU have been working very hard. "We have been going to Albany every month," Poo said.
Despite their optimism, hundreds of domestic workers will travel to Albany on April 28 to push for final passage of the bill as part of the April 23-May 1 National Week of Action for domestic workers' rights.
"[Our situation] is very unfair. I feel that we give a lot every day and get very little," said Carla France, an immigrant from St. Vincent who was a nanny for 18 years and now works at DWU. "It's time we are treated the same as other workers."
She could have been talking for every nanny, housekeeper and caregiver in New York City.
Do you think a domestic worker bill of rights should be law in your local municipality?