Shared Struggle Led Women to Political Action

Ines Cruz Yslava is a member of a group of domestic workers who successfully campaigned for increased protections.
Ines Cruz Yslava is a member of a group of domestic workers who successfully campaigned for increased protections. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008

Most Sundays for the past six years, about 25 live-in nannies and housekeepers from across the Washington area have gathered in Silver Spring to share stories of mandatory six-day workweeks, 14-hour days and salaries that amount to as little as $1 an hour.

Calling themselves the Committee of Women Seeking Justice, they gather in a circle and commiserate in English, Spanish, Hindi and French. Among the topics: no sick days, little overtime pay, feeling "on call" at all hours and sleeping on basement floors. Several have shared stories of having been kept as modern-day slaves, organizers said, rarely allowed out of the house and never seeing a cent.

Some are so worried their bosses will find out about the meetings that organizers use code -- "Come to my nephew's christening" or "Come to my niece's birthday party" -- when calling their employers' homes.

What began as an informal support group soon blossomed into a political movement for workers' rights. After four years of petition drives and appealing to local lawmakers, the group claimed a key victory last week, when the Montgomery County Council approved what are believed to be among the most far-reaching labor protections for domestic workers in the country.

A coalition of 31 religious, labor and community organizations provided legal advice, political savvy and emotional support, organizers said, but it was the passion of these women that sustained the cause.

"We were ready to say, 'These abuses are over,' " said Ines Cruz Yslava of Silver Spring, a former live-in housekeeper who now works full time cleaning homes in Bethesda and Howard County.

The legislation, which County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has said he will sign, will require Montgomery employers to offer written contracts to nannies, housekeepers and cooks working at least 20 hours a week. The contracts will have to spell out wages and other benefits. The bill also requires that live-in employees have their own bedroom, equipped with a lock, and "reasonable access" to a bathroom, kitchen and laundry room.

Montgomery's Office of Consumer Protection will enforce the measure and may fine violators as much as $1,000.

The legislation fell short of the group's goal of a "domestic workers bill of rights" that would guarantee health insurance, paid vacation time and sick days, among other benefits.

But "it shows that their work is valuable," said Jessica Salsbury, a staff attorney for Casa of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that hosts the weekly meetings and spearheaded the legislation.

The group started with about eight women and now has about 100, with an active core of 25, said Alexis De Simone, a Casa organizer. They represent 17 countries. About half are Latina, with most of the rest coming from Africa and Southeast Asia, De Simone said. Some socialize together on weekends and play on the same soccer team Sunday mornings.

As domestic workers, they are excluded from most federal labor protections, including those that mandate safe workplaces, prohibit retaliation for unionizing and outlaw discrimination based on race or religion, Salsbury said. Their lack of legal standing has deep historical roots, she said, hearkening back to the notion that domestic work was inferior because it was traditionally done by slave women. Unlike Virginia and the District, Salsbury said, Maryland entitles them to overtime pay.

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