Modern day slavery doesn’t occur only on the other side of the world or in poor countries. It’s common right in the United States.
Social worker Tiffany Williams has aided a 24-year-old nanny forced to sleep on the basement floor in freezing temperatures and beg for food scraps from the family’s dinner table. Another client is a 50-year-old housekeeper forced to work for 10 years without pay and who was never allowed to leave the home.
Tiffany Williams is a social worker with the Break the Chain Campaign, a direct service and advocacy project in Washington, D.C., aimed at empowering migrant working women who have been exploited.
“This kind of abuse happens in homes all over the United States, not just overseas, and not just in brothels and street corners,” Williams writes in The Register Citizen, a Connecticut newspaper.
“Our country might have officially abolished slavery 154 years ago, but here, even in the nation’s capital, we are seeing more and more cases of human trafficking of domestic workers by U.S. citizens.”
According to a survey by Domestic Workers United and Datacenter, domestic workers in New York City earn poverty level wages for the 50 to 60 hours per week they work without overtime or health insurance. More than 30 percent have experienced verbal or physical abuse on the job.
The National Labor Relations Act doesn’t cover domestic workers, so they can’t organize for better working conditions. They’re also isolated, spending up to 12 hours a day inside a home without co-workers or social interactions. Foreign-born workers have cultural challenges, suffer discrimination and many employers do not hesitate to threaten deportation even when their employees are legal immigrants.
Domestic worker organizations are finally finding ways to fight back. The National Domestic Worker Alliance represents 30 such organizations and is readying to address the lack of labor protection in the industry.
A campaign within the Department of Labor to strengthen work hours and fair deductions for room and board is gaining a toehold. Domestic workers in California and New York are lobbying for statewide legislation that includes overtime and sick leave.
This alliance has partnered with the AFL-CIO to advocate for a Domestic Worker Convention that would define humane, fair working conditions for domestic workers all over the world.
But much can be done simply, easily and locally with a kind heart.
“Your loving nanny, your hardworking housekeeper, your elderly father’s caregiver…these people make it possible for you to go to work and support your own family…” Williams says. “They deserve the right and the ability to provide for themselves and their loved ones.”