NEW YORK CITY--This past weekend, Filipino domestic workers of DAMAYAN Migrant Workers Association, based in New York and New Jersey, joined about 100 participants from 10 cities around the country to attend the first-ever National Domestic Workers Congress, held in Barnard College.
The Congress was organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (The Alliance/NDWA). Taking place from Thursday through Sunday, the Congress brought together 18 workers' organizations to develop a national agenda to reverse the history of injustice and exclusion of domestic workers from laws and recognition.
According to NDWA, one-third of all domestic workers face some form of abuse from their employers. Most domestic workers have no paid vacations or holidays, and the vast majority work without health insurance or paid sick days.
In the New York City area, there are an estimated 200,000 domestic workers who are vulnerable to the informal and unprotected domestic work industry. Filipinos comprise at least 15 percent of this invisible workforce.
“We were able to connect the local and regional work of each organization towards a common fight for recognition, labor protection, respect and dignity for domestic workers,” says lead worker organizer Linda Abad of DAMAYAN. “Through the formation of a national body, we are able to unite the power of immigrant women workers and speak in one voice.”
To address the rampant workplace violations and labor exclusions, local domestic workers' organizations have been working on a comprehensive Bill of Rights since 2004, legislation that would establish labor standards for New York's domestic workers. The New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is the first state bill in the nation that would create labor rights for this growing workforce. The Alliance anticipates that the initiative will set the stage for similar initiatives around the country.
This past weekend's Congress was convened in part to support the demand for a New York state-wide legislation, and to build the national movement of domestic workers.
To lead the national organizing and implement a program of action, NDWA's membership elected six organizations to the national coordinating committee - three from the west coast, one from Maryland and two from New York. Representing the New York area in the coordinating committee are Domestic Workers United (DWU) and DAMAYAN, ensuring Filipino participation in the lead coordinating body.
According to Abad, the Filipino people's experience is critical in contributing to the domestic workers movement.
Ten percent of the Filipino people live and work abroad in 192 different countries. Seventy percent of the 3,400 Filipinos who leave the Philippines every day are women, the majority of whom become vulnerable to abuse and violence as domestic workers.
“We drew the connection between advancing our rights and welfare and giving a global perspective on the roots of our problems: the extreme poverty and lack of employment back home,” states Abad.
According to DAMAYAN, the crisis of migrant women domestic workers is due to globalization and US-led plunder of Third World countries like the Philippines. “Women's oppression also intensifies our exploitation because domestic work has historically been devalued as ‘natural' and unpaid women's labor,” adds Abad.
Congress sessions also included educational workshops on the history of domestic work in the US, gender and sexuality in relationship to the exploitation of domestic workers, and panel presentations on the role of allies in supporting the cause of domestic workers. DAMAYAN contributed by taking on key roles facilitating workshops and moderating panels. Members of DAMAYAN offered their experiences over the past five years in building a 400-member strong Filipino domestic worker-led organization in New York and New Jersey.
On Saturday, along with the Congress participants, DAMAYAN and Ugnayan ng mga Anak ng Bayan, the local Filipino youth organization supporting the domestic workers, rallied at City Hall to support the passage of the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
Abad spoke from the stage on behalf of DAMAYAN. “We all came here for the American dream but all we got is the nightmare. Our fight for a Bill of Rights challenges centuries of slavery and racism in the US. It embodies the struggle of immigrant domestic workers for equal recognition, protection and fair labor standards normally accorded to American workers. But this fight goes beyond our rights and welfare. It is a struggle against globalization that exploits our labor, and patriarchy that oppresses us as women.”
This weekend's Congress came on the heels of two visits to Albany, on April 15 and May, 20, when more than 300 domestic workers and their allies, including DAMAYAN and Ugnayan, met with more than 50 legislators to call for respect and recognition and to gather support for the Bill of Rights. The Bill currently has 42 Assembly co-sponsors.
In the next year, The National Alliance anticipates deepening and broadening its membership towards
strengthening the movement of domestic workers. High in its priorities is to build the leadership of the domestic workers organizations and the passage of the Bill of Rights.
“I have personally seen the strength and passion of the women domestic workers to fight for their rights and liberation,” Abad concludes. “The Congress served as a catalyst in advancing both a national domestic workers movement and for invigorating a working class women's rights movement in the US. We will make sure the Filipino domestic workers will be a vital part of this struggle.”