Some things never change.
The story of domestic workers in the 1960s that fuels the newly released movie The Help is still happening today, organizers say. Maids, nannies and housekeepers are expected to work long hours and sometimes be available around-the-clock, and for little pay. Some are subject to sexual and other forms of abuse. They can be let go with no notice or even a “thank you.”
The big difference is that while the movie is set in the racially segregated South of years past and focuses on the plight of African-Americans, many of today’s domestic workers are from other countries. Some have many years of education in their backgrounds, but when they come to the United States, the only work they can find is domestic. And they are organizing.
“In the ‘60s, support for this industry was not as great as it is now,” said Joyce Gill-Campbell, organizing coordinator for the New York-based Domestic Workers United. “People, although they were not immigrants, they were afraid. They were afraid because of who they were — African Americans in this country. They did not really have any support because of their color.”
“The Southern women are the ones who left us this legacy and gave us the right to do what we do. We’re still chiseling,” said Christine Lewis, a household worker and activist for domestic workers’ rights in New York.
The life of a domestic worker is not an easy one, according to Lewis, whose speech indicates a rich education and who was a literacy teacher back in her native Trinidad. Lewis cares for two older children, but also is an activist and a journalist. She appeared on The Colbert Report in January to advocate for rights for nannies.
The women who often fill these jobs might work for $150 to $400 per week so they can send money back home to the Caribbean or Latin America for the children and other family members they’ve left there, Lewis said. They are often wrought with guilt for neglecting their own children while they care for others.
They are expected to do everything. When other African-Americans see them pushing strollers in the street, they avert their eyes or ask if they couldn’t find some other work. By the time they commute home from the expensive neighborhoods where they work several days a week, it is time to turn around and go back, Lewis said.
“You take a child to the playground and the child wants an ice cream, so you dip in your pocket. You’re not compensated for that,” Lewis said.
They often are considered invisible by society. Actress Viola Davis, who portrays domestic worker Aibileen in The Help, said after a screening before the National Association of Black Journalists convention last week in Philadelphia that it’s important to expose the public to different facets of African-American life, such as the experiences of domestic workers.
“The biggest and greatest message that we can show the world is that we are just as complicated, just as beautiful, just as rich as anyone else,” Davis said, generating applause.
The Department of Labor estimates there are 865,960 “maids and housekeeping cleaners” in the United States, and that they earn, on average, $10.17 an hour or $21,150 a year. Domestic Workers United, however, estimates the number at about 2.5 million.
The organization has been working to pass laws to regulate and limit the number of hours a domestic worker can be required to log, and for paid time off. The group is taking advantage of the attention generated by Wednesday’s movie release by holding a protest at the Manhattan offices of sports agent Sheryl Shade and filmmaker Matthew Mazer. Nanny Patricia Francois claims she was punched, grabbed and otherwise physically assaulted by Mazer in 2009 while caring for the couple’s daughter. Francois alleges Mazer called her a “stupid black bitch” and said he hoped she dies. The couple has not commented publicly on the case.A similar event is slated for today in San Francisco, where members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance have planned a press conference to highlight the fact that the sort of treatment of domestic workers shown in the movie The Help still exists today.
Nationally and internationally, activists have been pushing for better rights for people who suffer the sort of treatment that Francois alleges.
In June, the International Labour Organization, a Geneva-based arm of the United Nations, adopted the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The convention recommends work standards for the estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide who work in their employers’ homes.
In New York in 2003, the City Council passed the first local bill in the country requiring families that hire nannies to sign agreements indicating they are aware of such standards as minimum wage, overtime and Social Security. Other cities across the country are looking to copy such a bill.
In July 2010, New York State granted the first state-level law in the country granting rights to domestic workers, placing a ceiling on work-week hours and requiring one day of rest per week. California is looking to model that law, Gill-Campbell says.
California state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco, has introduced a measure that would provide basic legal protections for domestic workers, including required meal breaks, overtime and rest.
“Racism and mistreatment against this group of workers is still rampant in this country, including California,” said California-based domestic worker advocate Ariana Gil
Gil, Gill-Campbell, Lewis and other advocates for people who clean homes and watch others’ children are hopeful that the movie will shine light on a topic they’ve been trying to publicize for years.
“The real help” are the 2.5 million domestic workers across the United States, Gill-Campbell said. “Those are the ones who have the real, true stories, the exploitation and abuse some of them are facing.”