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Domestic Workers Struggle Now Like Women in 'The Help'

The movie “The Help” has attracted throngs of movie-goers, swept up in the story of domestic workers struggling for dignity and respect in Civil Rights–era Mississippi. Viewers might be surprised to learn that in the current era, domestic workers continue to live out those same struggles across America and throughout the world.

Back in the 1930s, under the New Deal, most workers won the rights to organize and bargain collectively, and secured minimum wage and overtime protections. But that wasn’t true for domestic workers.

At a time when housekeepers and nannies were overwhelmingly African American women, these workers were shut out partly because Southern senators refused to vote for laws that covered them. Some of these exclusions from our most basic workplace rights still remain in place.

Today, domestic workers in the United States and around the world are still largely women of color, and primarily immigrant women of color. They struggle to support their own families while they labor every day in support of others. Very few are afforded health care, so their families go without.

Physical, Sexual Assault—Even Slavery

Both in the United States and abroad, domestic workers are subjected to poor working and living conditions, as well as physical and sexual assault--and even slavery. Experts say that one-third of the victims of labor trafficking in the United States are migrant domestic workers.

The good news is that, just as the main characters in the fictional movie have done, real-life domestic workers are joining together to demand dignity and justice on the job.

In New York, Domestic Workers United and other worker advocates won enactment of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010 after six years of dedicated organizing. A similar bill has passed the California State Assembly.

Also, the U.S. Department of Labor has the opportunity right now to remedy one of the most pernicious exclusions—a regulation that allows many home health care aides to elders and people with disabilities to be legally excluded from basic minimum wage and overtime protections.

With a simple fix, some 1.7-million domestic workers can gain some measure of workplace equality and dignity.

International Rights and Protections

The arc of history is bending towards inclusion at the state, national, and international levels. In June, the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, overwhelmingly approved the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. It establishes legal rights and protections for domestic workers in countries that ratify the treaty.

Importantly, this Convention recognizes that domestic work is real labor and that domestic workers are genuine workers entitled to basic human rights. Organized domestic workers from around the world were the driving force behind this historic achievement.

"The Help" offers more than just two hours of entertainment and a glimpse into a past world. It provides an opportunity to address the vulnerabilities of some 2 million women in the United States, who continue to care for our families today--in work that makes all other work possible.

The film gives us an opportunity to remember that we always have the power to work together and create a world where dignity at work and economic security go hand in hand.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith coordinates the Immigrant Worker Justice Project for the National Employment Law Project.

Jill Shenker

Jill Shenker is field director with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

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