Domestic workers across Seattle are fighting for their right to fair wages, benefits and worker power.
Current law protects workers in most industries from harassment, wage theft, and other exploitation because they benefit from organizing together to speak with one voice. Nannies, house cleaners, and other domestic workers have no such protections. Domestic workers, often women of color, lack the traditional protections of labor law. They are thus vulnerable to abuse, working in isolation inside the homes of individuals who have control over their pay, working conditions, and their dignity.
It doesn’t need to be this way. While these concerns often go unheard, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has taken an important step to invite women to share their stories and begin the conversation about how to address these issues.
Domestic workers are organizing for a bill of rights that not only includes the right to economic prosperity and physical security but will begin giving them a seat at the table to improve industry standards for themselves.
As one former Casa Latina worker put it, “There’s no such thing as undignified labor, there’s only undignified wages.”
The Human Rights Commission calls on the City of Seattle to pass a bill of rights that would include domestic workers in existing protections for wage standards, paid sick leave, protection from sexual harassment and discrimination, and the right to organize. Within that bill, Seattle should create a worker council as a forum in which workers, employers, and city officials can exercise the power to raise workplace standards.
Seattle also has a special duty to protect and empower workers.
In 2012, Seattle declared itself a Human Rights City. Indeed, the right to organize in the workplace is recognized by international human rights standards. As a Human Rights City, Seattle has an affirmative duty to fulfill workers’ rights and strengthen their economic power. Creating a worker council that would allow a forum for workers, employers and city officials to have the power to set higher workplace standards for their industries is a step in the right direction.
Meeting these standards recognizes that all people have the right to self-determination and the right to pursue economic security.
These jobs are critical for those who work them—and quitting or finding another place of employment can be a costly proposition. The Seattle Domestic Workers Alliance recently surveyed Seattle nannies, house cleaners, and gardeners. The survey found that 94 percent of domestic workers do not make a living wage. Over 75 percent have difficulty making ends meet, including 85 percent of workers of color. Domestic workers also have few benefits offered: 54 percent do not have health insurance, 35 percent have no paid vacation.
It’s time to change that.
Most domestic workers have years of experience in their industry, yet they rely on public benefits to get by. Why? Our City owes these workers more. We must ensure that these workers can advocate for themselves knowing that they are protected by the City and have a voice on the job. Eight states have enacted Domestic Workers Bills of Rights, but Seattle could lead the way in building the kind of worker power that is critical to shifting the economic circumstances of the poor in our city.
Domestic workers in Seattle deserve to know that they can count the Seattle City Council and the Mayor as their own allies. Passing a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights will send that message.
Marcos Martinez is the Executive Director of Casa Latina
Tammy Morales is Co-Chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and the Race and Gender Equity Task Force