Contra Costa Times
SAN FRANCISCO — It was an encounter with a Berkeley homeowner five years ago that made Sylvia Lopez realize how vulnerable she was to the whims of her employers.
"He said I wasn't cleaning quickly enough, so he grabbed me by the arm and forced me out of the house," the 44-year-old Oakland housekeeper said. "To do a good job, you can't go that fast."
Lopez was one of a few hundred house cleaners and nannies from the Bay Area and across the country meeting in San Francisco and Oakland this weekend for the National Domestic Worker Congress.
Organizers hope the gathering will be the West Coast launchpad for a national movement and a statewide legislative campaign next year.
"It's an industry that has much higher rates of abuse than other sectors," said organizer Andrea Mercado of Oakland-based Mujeres Unidas y Activas (United and Active Women). "Domestic workers are excluded from a lot of labor laws. They don't have a right to organize a union, they don't have the same right to overtime."
The mostly female workers marched Friday morning through the Mission district of San Francisco and then converged for an hours long meeting at the Women's Building.
"It can be a dignified job, but not everyone treats you that way," said Lopez, joined by her two children.
"They definitely made a lot of sacrifices to get here," said Mercado, who said many of the women find it difficult to leave family and the homes where they work for such an event. "They'll be sharing their work, the situations they face, the abuses they face on the job."
The congress continues today at Laney College in Oakland, and has workshops that include lessons on nontoxic cleaning products and discussions of self-esteem on the job.
In California, organizers are looking to follow the campaign that has fought for five years to get a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights on the books in New York.
"Domestic workers are the invisible force that makes other work possible," said former Manhattan nanny Patricia Francois, one of the veterans of the New York campaign. The Trinidadian immigrant said she sued her employer after suffering physical abuse.
But it's not just physical abuse that domestic workers are concerned about, said Antioch housekeeper Maria Hernandez, whose biggest concerns are low pay and wage abuses.
"They know that no laws protect us, so they can do whatever they want," she said.
While domestic workers share many of the same universal labor rights as other American workers, it can be harder to enforce those protections, advocates say. Federal labor investigators can more easily probe a factory than they can someone's house.
The New York campaign sought to get domestic workers benefits that more powerful labor groups won over the decades, such as paid sick leave, personal days, inflation-adjusted wage hikes and more protection from discrimination.
The legislation being proposed by California advocates will include some of the same priorities.
The proposals would ensure that overtime applies to all of the state's domestic workers, while guaranteeing workers the right to cook their own food and get at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep.
As evidence of the vulnerability of the nation's domestic workforce, which is dominated by immigrants, many of them undocumented, organizers have pointed to several egregious cases in the Bay Area. A Walnut Creek homeowner was convicted of forced labor last month after her Peruvian live-in nanny told police about her mistreatment. An Atherton couple was recently ordered to pay back wages for a nanny who worked 14-hour days for them.
Vilma Serralta, the household worker who won that lawsuit, was among those speaking at the conference.