Widening the Net

Push to Protect Household Workers Amps Up

It's not often that a big idea goes into government and comes out bigger. But following a May 6 City Council hearing, an innovative proposal to protect the rights of household workers could be expanded to do more than initially imagined.

"Things really seem to be in our favor," said Josephine Singh, a nanny and housekeeper who testified at the hearing. The bill would force job placement agencies to put in writing what currently can be informal and unreliable: rules about wages and working conditions for employers and detailed job descriptions for applicants. Agency violators would face fines or prison. While it mainly reinforces existing labor laws, the measure is unprecedented in its intent to remedy special problems faced by domestics, like irregular hours and duties and the lack of public oversight given their work's private nature.

Domestic Workers United, the grassroots organization that lobbied early supporters like Gale Brewer and Christine Quinn to pursue reforms, estimates there are over 500,000 mostly immigrant household workers in the city.

Heads of several job agencies at the hearing protested along a common theme: The bill targets city-licensed companies, while unlicensed operators and private employers are often the worst abusers.

The objections struck some council listeners as an attempt to quash the bill, but they have had the opposite effect. Legislators are now brainstorming ways to regulate unlicensed domestic deals and gearing up to meet with the Bloomberg administration, which will have to weigh in.

Expanding the bill invites more opposition, potentially from moneyed and politically important employers. But workers have already swayed a growing number on the council with simple morality. "I cannot see any person who believes in what's right and what's just voting against this bill," said Councilmember Allan Jennings, who chaired the hearing, pointing out the intent is merely to ensure real compliance with existing laws. "We will pass it by the end of the year, and it will be stronger."

 
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