The San Francisco Bay Guardian – Domestic workers celebrate Women’s Day with call for justice

On the fifth floor of a building in Chinatown salty porridge, fried pastry, and oranges were being passed for at a special Women’s Day meeting of the Chinese Progressive Association. Of course, the day itself is Tuesday, but as member Wen Lan Rong told me (through an interpreter), in China the holiday is a much bigger deal: women often get the day off work to go out to special meals or outings with their lady friends. Staff and volunteers passed out roses and folic acid vitamins to the females in the room, but the morning played host to a discussion of a campaign that, if successful, could be a much more substantial way of honoring women in our society: the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights and attendant legislative drive.

Rong said that she first heard of the domestic worker campaign when the CPA went to the US Social Forum last summer in Detroit. New York was a month away from passing the bill, which now guarantees overtime pay, rest days, and protection against harassment from employers in an industry that mainly employs immigrant women and that used to be subject to negligible oversight. An ex-restaurant worker that is currently involved in the CPA’s struggle for labor law enforcement in the service industry, Rong is ready to be an ally in the campaign’s new struggle to become law in California. “We fight not just for our rights, but the rights of all men, women, and children,” she said, mentioning the CPA’s support of the Filipino caregivers who fought for and won $70,000 in back pay from unfair employers last year.

And after a CPA organizer’s Power Point presentation on California’s plan to mimic New York’s results – and even improve on them, as our state’s proposed bill includes the right to advance notice of termination, an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep for live-in workers, and the right to cook one’s own food at work – many of Rong’s fellow community activists agreed.

Which is how we found ourselves making an activist day of it – heading from Chinatown meeting to the Women’s Building for the domestic workers’ campaign kick-off. Originally slated to be in Dolores Park, the California Household Workers Rights Coalition of women’s and other community groups – including Mujeres Unidas y ActivasFilipino Advocates for Justice, and Hand in Hand, a coalition of domestic worker employers – packed itself into the community center’s Audre Lorde room (forced by the drizzle outside) for skits, songs, testimonials from local domestic workers, and the warm, fuzzy feeling of female solidarity.

Among the guest speakers were several domestic worker employers, one of whom testified from her wheelchair that her success in life wouldn’t be possible without the help her domestic workers provide her in getting her ready for her days. “Without my attendants, I never would have been able to get my master’s degree.” A representative of the female clergy community read a letter about the significance of the campaign on the 100th anniversary of the holiday to promote women’s rights, on behalf of her colleagues that couldn’t attend (apparently they’re busy on Sunday). “Some think there are no battles to be won, but let us not be decieved. One arena where the struggle still exists in the US is that of the domestic workers, who work without many rights in the workplace.”

Cuz let’s be frank, there are definitely male domestic workers – I should know, in my younger days I worked on SEIU’s childcare and homecare worker campaign up in Oregon and there were lots of engaged, awesome men that worked in other peoples’ homes. But cooking, cleaning, and caring for the young, the old, and the differently-abled has traditionally been regarded as “women’s work” in our society – and as such, minimized and denigrated to the point where workers in these fields rarely receive the respect and compensation they deserve. Not to mention the fact that unlike most workers, domestic workers tend to only have a coworker or two, if any, at their worksite, making organizing campaigns like this one all the more difficult.

So it was nice to see that not only is California responding to New York’s cue, but that the charge is being led by women’s groups themselves. Go on, ladies. After Maria Luna, a member of Mujeres Activas y Unidas, gave a shout-out to the three generations of females in her family in the audience, she sang a song she’d composed for the occasion, sung to the tune of  “Cielito Lindo.” 

Ay yi yi yi, somos mujeres (Ay yi yi yi, we are women)

Mujeres haciendo cambios en nuestras vidas (Women making changes in our lives)

Somos mujeres (We are women)

California domestic workers expert tribunal

April 1 1:30-5 p.m., free

State Office Building

455 Golden Gate, SF

by Rita Felciano (The San Francisco Bay Guardian)