Archive | July, 2011

Domestic Worker Protections Should Extend Beyond New York

13 Jul

This past week, the Labor and Industrial Relations Committee in the California State Senate voted in favor of a domestic workers bill of rights that would provide basic labor protections for those workers in California.

Now the legislation will move to the Fiscal Committee; if approved, the entire State Senate will then vote on it.

As California’s domestic workers struggle to attain basic labor rights, I recall my master’s fieldwork spent studying the work of the New York City-basedDomestic Workers United in February 2010.

The organization traveled to Albany once or twice a month to lobby for theDomestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State. During one trip I was given the opportunity to serve as an interpreter for a group of women.

As I walked down the halls of the capital building with the group, I clearly recall one woman who was not able to catch up. I remember asking myself, “Why does she walk so slow? Is she scared? Does she not want to be here?”

I found the answer later that day as I interpreted her story about abuses she suffered as a domestic worker.

She was forced to clean on her knees for hours, and now she could barely walk due to the excruciating pain she felt both in her knees and her feet. She endured verbal abuse while braving seven-day workweeks, with each day’s work lasting more than eight hours. Not only was she underpaid at her job, she was eventually fired with no warning.

Her basic rights were being violated yet there was no legislation protecting her and the approximately 200,000 other domestic workers in New York. My voice shook in an attempt to hold back tears as I had to translate her story for our meeting with a group of state senators.

That’s when I realized the importance of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was eventually signed into law in August 2010 by Governor Paterson.

The domestic work industry has become a robust foundation in today’s economy. As women have taken on an active role in what were once exclusively male workplaces, families have increasingly sought the services of domestic workers. And in the wake of the economic crisis, this industry has become highly susceptible to exploitation.

That’s why the bill of rights was so important. It grants basic rights to a historically excluded group of workers: The right to overtime pay, the right to at least one day of rest each week, the right to protection against any form of harassment under New York State law.

In the fight over domestic worker rights, we can see issues of ethnicity, gender, and immigration intertwine.

Many domestic workers – nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly – are women of color. Many of them are immigrants. However, these women are often not viewed as regular workers. Due to the nature of the work, these jobs are perceived more as the duty of the woman, a holdover from a time when women were bound to the privacy of their homes.

Domestic work has been historically linked to particular socio-economic groups, such as indentured servants, slaves, or immigrants. In our current era of globalization, the work has often become a form of modern-day slavery, using immigrants, particularly Caribbean and Latina women, to provide the labor.

Considering this long history of mistreatment, I knew there would be opposition to the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York. Prominent Republican leaders in the State Senate wouldn’t support the bill, including Long Island’s Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon) and John Flanagan (R-East Northport), saying they were reluctant to pass a piece of legislation protecting undocumented immigrants.

In their opposition, they failed to recognize the economic and social need for domestic workers on Long Island. They also ignored the motivations of the workers, many of whom are forced to migrate to the US because of free trade, privatization, and the extraction of agricultural and industrial labor in their countries of origin. Instead, these workers are label “illegal,” marginalized in our society, and thus susceptible to abuse and exploitation.

Who can forget Muttontown’s Mahender and Varsha Sabhani, a millionaire couple who enslaved two immigrant domestic workers for five years? The couple forced the victims to work long hours, starved them, and beat and tortured them.

Thanks to the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, horrific cases like that can now be brought to the courts or reported to our labor department. Regardless of immigration status, workers can report abusive employers who violate their rights.

New York has already taken a vital step toward recognizing domestic workers and the importance of their contributions within our labor market, regardless of race, gender or immigration status. Now let’s stand by California, and aspire to see such a bill passed in every state.

(This post was first featured in Long Island Wins http://www.longislandwins.com/index.php/features/detail/domestic_worker_protections_should_extend_beyond_new_york/)

For Same-Sex Couples Trapped by the Immigration System, Marriage Equality in New York Isn’t Enough

13 Jul

Within the Latino community, especially back in our countries of descent, homosexuality can be handled as taboo—you know it exists, but you do not talk about it. In most Latin American countries, religion is quite important and shapes the values of many families, creating a sense of animosity towards the LGBT communities.

My parents are from Ecuador, and during a trip there nine years ago, I met individuals who kept their orientation a secret but would ask me how their lifestyle would be perceived in the US. Based on what I told them, they expressed their utmost desire to one day live in New York. This was their American Dream.

In a few weeks, LGBT couples in New York will be able to walk into City Hall and say, “I do,” thanks to the Marriage Equality Act, a law that was recently passed with the support of Governor Cuomo and a majority of New York State’s elected officials.

The mere thought fills me with excitement, even anxiety, at what awaits—New York State, a symbol of equality. It makes me feel good just to write that.

Unfortunately, this historic victory won’t change the way federal law regards LGBT couples, in New York or any other state, and it won’t help such couples enjoy the same rights afforded to their heterosexual counterparts.

Soon after marriage equality passed in New York, I started hearing about another piece of legislation: The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, the act recognizes the institution of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, denying LGBT couples the federal status given to heterosexual spouses.

Not only does the Defense of Marriage Act block marriage equality legislation on a federal level, it grants states the right to not recognize same-sex marriages conducted by other states.

But that’s not all. The law also keeps LGBT spouses from applying for citizenship in the way that a heterosexual spouse could.

It’s no accident that our immigration laws target LGBT couples. Just look at our immigration system’s history of discrimination over sexual-orientation:

The Immigration Act of 1917 placed openly homosexual immigrants under the classification of “mentally defective,” and the amended Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 linked homosexuality to “sexual deviation,” enacting a closed door policy to any openly gay immigrant.

The Immigration Act of 1990 eventually made legal immigration possible for openly homosexual immigrants, but that still doesn’t account for same-sex couples who want their spouses to join them in the US.

Since the Defense of Marriage Act does not recognize same-sex marriages, one same-sex spouse cannot file for permanent residency for his or her partner, perpetually ostracizing those couples based on their sexual orientation.

Anyone who studies social issues knows that policies and problems tend to be linked to one another. Immigration and LGBT rights are a perfect example.

Immigrants today, regardless of their sexual orientation, share the aspirations that newcomers throughout history have expressed – the desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For me, it all comes back to the people who I met in Ecuador. One particular guy who I met was living in secret. When I asked him what came next, he said “nothing.” He planned to eventually marry a woman and have children. He would be stuck living in the shadows, only able to dream of a different life in the US.

As a country, we should be proud that members of LGBT communities abroad look upon us in such a positive light. Let’s try to live up to that reputation, and support changes to our immigration system that will give long overdue equal rights to LGBT couples.

(This post was first featured in Long Island Wins: http://www.longislandwins.com/index.php/features/detail/for_same-sex_couples_trapped_by_the_immigration_system_marriage/)