This article provides a multidimensional examination of Filipina domestic workers’ efforts to promote workers’ rights nationally and globally. Through their own experiences as transnational workers, Filipina activists were able to translate their knowledge of labor dynamics into practical and effective tactics such as the demand for labor contracts as an industry standard. Combining ethnographic research and interviews conducted with New York– based Filipina domestic worker activists with primary and secondary sources from Los Angeles, recent advocacy work in New York is compared with efforts in Los Angeles and California more broadly. Key points of comparison—demographics and organizing histories, geography and usage of public space, and political contexts and legislation—illuminate significant divergences and continuities between the two regions.
The marchers participated in the first National Domestic Worker Congress, forging alliances with workers from across the country and taking to the the streets to support the proposed New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (see Figure 1). Domestic worker rights organizing within the United States and globally has become a leading example of a multiracial women-led labor movement. New York’s Domestic Workers United (DWU) emerged as a leader in promoting successful strategies and network building, developing out of Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV): Organizing Asian Communities’ Kalayaan [Freedom] Women Workers’ Project. (Kalayaan is a common name under which Filipinas/os have organized globally for women workers’ rights.) CAAAV’s Women Workers’ Project (WWP) was initially led primarily by Filipina domestic workers but incubated into DWU, a multiracial organization that has succeeded in changing local and state labor laws and coordinating domestic worker rights organizing across the country. Immigrant women generally have played crucial leadership roles in DWU, which has reported that 99 percent of domestic workers in New York City were foreign-born and 76 percent were not U.S. citizens (Domestic Workers United and Data Center, 2006, 10). Through their efforts, domestic workers in general and, more specifically, the Filipina workers in New York and Los Angeles analyzed here have countered popular assumptions that they are satisfied with their conditions or too isolated to change them.
Because U.S. domestic workers are denied the right to organize and lack many other labor protections, they have generally had access to few legal means to protect themselves. Moreover, until the efforts of groups such as DWU, domestic workers were often dismissed as “unorganizable” by unions because of the highly gendered, private, and isolating character of the job (Mercado and Poo, 2009, 9). Household employment produces situations in which workers are not able to claim the value of their work, offering a striking repetition of the public/private division that so long led to the undervaluation of domestic labor, paid or unpaid. However, the dual processes of feminization and casualization of work in the United States, in conjunction with women’s increasing visibility within labor and feminist movements, has produced new opportunities for women to organize. By using a range of tactics, such as “[mobilizing] public opinion, political action, and community organizing,” women are working within, in alliance with, and outside of unions (Cobble, 2007).
Although street protests like the one shown in Figure 1 publicly expose domestic workers’ frustrations with their ongoing exclusion from a range of federal labor protections and civil rights laws, their turn toward activism is often based in personal experiences that spill beyond the individual workplace. On a Saturday morning during the spring of 2009, I met with CAAAV’s WWP organizer Carolyn De Leon and five WWP members at a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. All six were initially drawn to the project because of their own negative experiences as workers or their concern for friends and other women in their community. In 2004, Nancy Vedic’s employer attempted to forcibly send her back to the Philippines when he terminated her employment after she complained about working conditions, which included ninety hours a week for two to three dollars an hour. She was able to escape at the last minute when De Leon and other members met her outside her employers’ building, quickly taking her bags when her employer went back inside for a moment and escorted her to De Leon’s apartment. With the support of CAAAV’s WWP, Vedic brought a lawsuit against her former employer for back pay that gained local news coverage (Casimir and Shin, 2004, 8). Similarly, Nita Asuncion, after working for a family for seven years in Hong Kong and for seven more years in the United States, was fired. Her employers offered to send her “maybe one hundred dollars, maybe one hundred and fifty dollars a month” if she went back to the Philippines. These experiences drew both women to CAAAV’s WWP, but they continued to participate because they recognized that their experiences were not unique. As Asuncion stated, “We make the spring rolls, they make their own rules.” This comment received resounding laughter from the group, suggesting their familiarity with a dynamic faced by Filipina domestic workers in cities around the globe.
Because of the international scope of Filipina employment in domestic work, transnational practices are key to analyzing their organizing in New York City and Los Angeles. Workers often share migration experiences whatever their location, particularly in light of U.S.-Philippine state relations and labor policies. Thus activists collaborate under large umbrella organizations such as the General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action (GABRIELA) and the recently formed National Domestic Workers Alliance. Nonetheless, local contexts inform different histories and current activities in Los Angeles and New York City. Combining ethnographic research and interviews conducted with New York–based Filipina domestic worker activists with primary and secondary sources from Los Angeles, I compare recent advocacy work in New York with that in Los Angeles and California more broadly. Efforts on both coasts are read through the ongoing experience of Filipina domestic workers as transnational laborers and the growing efforts on national and international levels to promote domestic workers’ rights. Key points of comparison—demographics and organizing histories, geography and usage of public space, and political contexts and legislation—illuminate significant divergences and continuities between the two regions.
Rotramel, Ariella, "We Make the Spring Rolls, They Make Their Own Rules: Filipina Domestic Workers’ Fight for Labor Rights in New York City and Los Angeles" (2012). Gender and Women's Studies Faculty Publications. 7.
The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.