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Times Haven't Changed for 'The Help' of Today

Friday, August 19, 2011

"The Help" has stirred controversy in its portrayal of domestic workers during the civil rights-era in the South. But it's also stoked interest in the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which New York State passed last year.

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Feeling a Connection

Another woman, an employer of a nanny and housecleaner, stayed to talk with domestic workers in the theater for nearly 20 minutes after the screening. She said she was shocked to learn that much of the abuse and exploitation portrayed in "The Help" continued today, and happily signed a petition in support of the Bill of Rights campaign.

Many people leaving the viewings commented on the strong personal and emotional resonance they'd felt while watching the film.

This kind of connection and these discussions help drive home why we need a California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, and why all of America needs to grant domestic workers labor protections.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935--the law that provides basic labor protections to most workers--domestic workers were left out. At the time, domestic workers were overwhelmingly African American women. Southern senators refused to allow the passage of the act unless it left them out.

Today, domestic workers are still predominantly women of color, often immigrants. The vulnerability they face hasn't changed. Nor has their lack of legal protections.

The California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would help change that. The bill, which passed the California State Assembly on June 2, would provide domestic workers with the basic rights that the heroines of "The Help" went without, such as overtime, meal time, rest breaks and access to kitchen facilities.

Whatever the film gets wrong, it has offered more than just a fictionalized glimpse of the past. It provides a window into the vulnerabilities of hundreds of thousands of today's domestic workers, the workers who make all other work possible.

It also reminds us that we have the power to change things.


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Grecia Lima is the campaign director of the California Domestic Worker Coalition, a member organization of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

For more information:

CA Bill of Rights:

"An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help," Association of Black Women Historians:

"This is why I worry about "The Help," What Tami Said:

"Judge throws out suit against 'The Help' author," ABC:

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Yes, despite the stereotypes, it is an advance to see domestic work acknowledged and the exploitation of domestic workers made public. How heartening to know that California domestic workers are fighting for a bill like the one recently passed in New York. 35 years ago I produced a radio documentary about the history of domestic workers in New York -- with stories from the women themselves. Check it out on my website: www.gailpellettproductions.com The doc is called "I won't get down on my knees" http://gailpellettproductions.com/i-wont-get-down-on-my-knees-domestic-w...