Former domestic worker fights for labor rights

Angela Alvarez - a former domestic worker who now a lead organizer for the domestic workers movement at IDEPSCA

Angela Alvarez  is a former domestic worker who is now a lead organizer for the domestic workers movement at IDEPSCA | Sinduja Rangarajan

As a former live-in housekeeper, Angela Alvarez quietly worked 15- to 18-hour days. She ate her employer’s throwaway food. She stayed up late after parties to clean up the mess.

It was Alvarez’s first job in the United States and she thought the long hours were normal.

Once, Alvarez took a day off for being sick and her employer penalized her by paying 25 percent less for the entire week. Alvarez quit her job.

That was injustice, Alvarez said. “They never gave me money for taking care of their grandson; they never gave me money for cleaning their daughter’s house.”Today, Alvarez educates other housekeepers about their rights, teaches them how to negotiate with their employers and coordinates efforts to lobby for legal reforms. She is one of the lead organizers for the domestic workers movement at the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California, an organization that strives to educate and organize immigrant communities.

It has been 13 years since Alvarez last worked as a domestic worker but she says the plight of workers hasn’t improved much.

“I receive mostly the same complaints that I had,” she said. “Nothing has changed. All the normal rights that other laborers have, domestic workers don’t have. ”

According to research this year by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the University of Illinois, Chicago, domestic workers are excluded from key federal and California employment and labor laws. They also work in sub-standard conditions that make them vulnerable to injuries. More than 35 percent of workers suffer from work-related injuries, but only 1 to 2 percent receive worker’s compensation or health insurance coverage. The researchers said that 25 percent of domestic workers in California are paid below minimum wage and work long hours without breaks.

Alvarez said she believes the reason domestic workers were excluded from labor laws when they were enacted more than 70 years ago has its roots in slavery and racism. Domestic workers were usually women of color and their work was taken for granted for several centuries, she said.

“You are a person and sometimes, they don’t see that,” she said. “They treat you like you are nothing or you are less because you are a domestic worker and it’s not like that. Domestic work is a real job…. It needs to be recognized as that.”

Alvarez emigrated from Guatemala to the United States illegally in 1995 to escape poverty and the Guatemalan civil war. Many members of her extended family were assassinated.

“You are always afraid,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “It (was) really hard for me to make the decision to come here because I love my sisters and brothers. But sometimes, the necessity you have is stronger than your love for the people.”

Many women who emigrate from Latin American countries illegally have their first job as a domestic worker, Alvarez said. Like her, she said, most of them work long hours and are paid low wages but don’t realize they can ask for more.

The California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September is a first step in the right direction, Alvarez said. The bill provides childcare providers and caregivers with overtime pay after nine hours of work per day or 45 hours of work per week.

Alvarez led the lobbying and worked with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to get the bill passed. She and her colleagues from the institute made trips to Sacramento to meet with government representatives, handled paperwork and coordinated the organizing efforts.

At the institute, Alvarez is a “health manager”who conducts workshops for low-wage laborers to spread awareness about diseases like cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. All her additional work to aid domestic workers is voluntary — meaning extra hours without pay.

“I want those who come (after) me to have the things I didn’t have,” she said. “I have four children and a big family. I want to do the right thing for their futures.”

Alvarez said she doesn’t want the changes to stop with the overtime bill. There are several other problems that she wants fixed.

One of them is the right to take 10-minute breaks after every three hours of work.

“It’s a hard job involving physical labor,” said Alvarez. “We deserve a break. There are employers who don’t want to see you resting. If they see you even for one or two minutes they say, ‘What are you doing, why you not working?’”

Another is the right to safe working conditions. More than 50 percent of workers have reported working with toxic cleaning supplies without protection according to the research report. Alvarez regularly hears complaints from workers about nosebleeds and skin rashes after they had to work with chemicals for five to six hours.

“We try to teach workers to negotiate with their employers to give eco-friendly materials, but employers don’t listen,” she said. “Eco-friendly detergents take more time.”

Alvarez’s transition from domestic worker to activist wasn’t easy. She had to take on unpaid internships for two years while raising a family of four single handedly. But she says her job is worth it.

“I feel most satisfied when they say to me that they learn and they are not the same as when they came here,” she said. “When they say they now know how to defend their rights…and know how to negotiate with an employer.”

Location of IDEPSCA offices. View larger map.

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