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Celebrate Human Rights Day by Honoring the Human Rights of Domestic Workers

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Tomorrow marks the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Considered the Magna Carta of human rights law, the UDHR has a lot to say about dignified work as a core human rights principle. It affirms that all human beings have the right to "just and favorable remuneration," to join trade unions, to limits on hours worked, to holidays with pay, to be protected against discrimination and to a social safety net in the event of unemployment, sickness or disability.

While American workers have made many gains since 1948, we have a long way to go to live up to the promise of the Universal Declaration. United States labor laws fail to address many of these guarantees. Moreover, they are full of exclusions and exceptions.

Among those who work without basic labor standards protections are nannies, housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly and disabled. Domestic workers keep families and homes functioning and make all other work possible. Yet the industry is fraught with human rights violations, ranging from low wages and unpaid overtime to verbal and physical abuse. These workers, who number nearly two million workers in the country, often get no time off, even to deal with medical emergencies. A hidden workforce, toiling in private homes around the country, domestic workers are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and oppression.

The outdated legal scheme for domestic work contributes in no small part to the devaluation of this work and the inhumane treatment of this workforce. Domestic workers are excluded from labor laws that protect other workers' right to bargain collectively. Even if they had such freedom of association, the nature of the industry, where work is performed in isolation in individual homes, makes it staggeringly difficult for them to organize collectively. Many domestic workers have no legal right to overtime pay or a day off to care for their own families. Nor is there a safety net for domestic workers. Should they fall ill, suffer injury, or become unemployed, the vast majority do not qualify for unemployment or disability benefits.

In the wake of the current financial crisis, the situation of domestic workers has become even more precarious, as employers cut wages and working hours, and as the temptation to seek out the most vulnerable in a sea of job applicants becomes harder to resist.

The bottom line is that protections are urgently needed.

On December 7, the children and families of domestic workers and employers gathered at a vigil in New York City to highlight the dreadful human cost of these exclusions. Workers and their children shared testimony about the state of constant crisis in which they live. Families whose children and homes have been entrusted to domestic workers made compelling declarations about the need for guidelines outlining employer obligations. Two days later, on December 9, New York City Council members passed a city resolution in support of a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights.

These families are part of a movement, led by domestic workers, that is gaining ground. Domestic Workers United in New York, along with other domestic workers organizations, has been pushing for the passage of a state-wide Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which would guarantee and protect core labor standards that many other workers take for granted. These include overtime pay; one day off per week, a few paid vacation days, holidays, sick days, and personal days; advance notice of termination; severance pay; and health care coverage for all workers, either provided by employers or as a wage supplement.

Domestic workers across the country are looking to New York as the first state to live up to the international human rights principles that promise human dignity to everyone. One more day without the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights means one more day that a worker is abused, denigrated, and exploited. Its passage would signal an historic precedent to guarantee dignified work embodied in the Universal Declaration and much discussed in the faltering economy.

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