Few workers are at greater risk of exploitation than domestic workers. Nannies, au pairs, house cleaners, home health aides – all too often these workers work alone under the supervision of their employer, and under informal and precarious work arrangements. Sexual harassment and wage theft are frequent occurrences. To make matters worse, they have historically been excluded from coverage under labor and employment laws. That’s why the Catholic Labor Network recently teamed up with Washington DC’s Festival Center to host a “listening session” with DC domestic worker Antonia Surco for the area’s faith-inspired activists.
Like most domestic workers today, Surco is an immigrant – in her case from Peru. Sucro spoke about her career caring for both young children and disabled elders in prosperous DC homes, caring work that she loves to perform. However, it is risky – she was dismissed suddenly at the start of the pandemic, facing total loss of income. As a domestic worker without a written contract she was ineligible for unemployment and unable to access key elements of coronavirus relief. A parishioner at nearby St. Catherine Laboure in Maryland, Surco was cheered by the presence of representatives of several DC parishes and of the Archdiocese of Washington. She urged participants to support passage of a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that would include, among other things, a requirement that those hiring a domestic worker sign a written contract.
Surco is one of the leaders of the DC Chapter of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance. The group formed to fill a void in American labor and employment law – protection for domestic workers. During the New Deal of the 1930s, when the federal government passed the Social Security Act (unemployment insurance and old age pensions), the National Labor Relations Act (the right to organize in unions) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (the minimum wage), domestic workers were conspicuously excluded from coverage. These exclusions set a pattern, and domestic workers were often left unprotected by subsequent employment laws. It is unlikely a coincidence that this work, then and now, has largely been performed by people of color.
Surco and her colleagues are asking the Washington DC City Council to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Such legislation would ensure that in the future domestic workers were covered by the DC Human Rights law (which guards against both discrimination and sexual harassment) and by the District’s workplace safety and health ordinance. It would also guarantee domestic workers a written contract.
As Catholics, we believe that every worker is a child of God possessing human dignity. Every worker has rights. The time is now for a DC Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. To view the listening session on video, click play below.