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Long Invisible, Domestic Workers in CA are Stepping Out of the Shadows

Posted: Aug 10, 2012


Fifteen years ago, my graduate school instructor posed a series of questions that still guide me to this day:

If you found yourself in a time warp and living in the Jim Crow era south, would you say and do nothing, as many people did? Or, would you organize and fight against Jim Crow laws and policies? What side of history would you be on, he asked. The side of the liberators? Or would you just watch silently?

These questions continue to fuel my commitment to speak and act out on behalf of any groups who are affected by unequal laws and policies - such as domestic workers. All across California and the U.S., domestic workers toil in deplorable conditions. Not only do they work for less than minimum wage with no breaks, they are also subject to mistreatment and exploitation.

Even worse, unlike other sectors, domestic workers don't have any protections, excluded from enjoying the rights and protections enjoyed by other workers.

This injustice is rooted in our Jim Crow past. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which to this day provides rights such as a federal minimum wage and overtime protections for workers. Walter White and the NAACP fought to include domestic and farm workers under these protections. At the time, two-thirds of the African American workforce was comprised of domestic and farm workers, and complaints about mistreatment were rampant throughout the country.

Unfortunately, Franklin Roosevelt succumbed to pressure by southern whites, who successfully fought for the exclusion of domestic and farm workers from the FLSA. White legislators would not support a bill that would result in higher pay and increased protections for black laborers.

Although the faces of domestic and farm workers have changed since then, the need to right this wrong of years past remains as great as ever. The NAACP fought for domestic workers in 1938, and we are here to help finish that fight.

The California legislature can take a big step in the right direction by passing AB 889, the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. The second measure of its kind in this country -- New York in 2010 became the first state to pass such a bill -- AB 889 would include over 200,000 domestic workers in the labor protections that nearly all other California workers enjoy, such as overtime pay and meal and rest breaks.

Many years from now, students in a classroom will look back at our actions concerning justice matters of today. What message will our generation send them? What will be our response to the ongoing discrimination, exploitation and mistreatment of domestic workers?

Roberts Rooks is executive director of the Californai NAACP.

The accompanying video, produced by New America Media, was supported by a grant from the Rosenberg Foundation.

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