Patricia Francois speaks to a nanny in a New York City playgroundNEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Two years after leaving her job caring for a little girl who lived in an expensive apartment here, Patricia Francois, a 51-year-old Trinidadian, struggles to pay her bills with what she earns from odd jobs.

But she finds time for volunteer work dear to her heart. Every day she leaves her apartment with her bag stuffed with pamphlets and newsletters in case she runs into women who look like they could be nannies.

"I could be at the laundry or on the train," she said. "I need them to know they don’t need to have fear in their heart."

On a recent afternoon around the time children get out from school, Francois was looking for nannies in a Central Park playground. Her mission: to tell them about a historic law that will provide basic employment protections to domestic workers in New York.

On Nov. 29 New York will be the first state in the United States to extend to domestic workers basic rights such as overtime pay, paid leave and protection from workplace discrimination.

All of the state’s roughly 200,000 such workers, regardless of their immigration status, will be protected under the new law.

California–with twice as many domestic workers–is widely expected to be the next state to follow suit. While domestic workers are difficult to count, there could be as many as 2.5 million in the United States, according to estimates from the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency that sets international standards on labor.

‘No Longer Alone’

Francois credits a newsletter by Domestic Workers United, a New York based group, for changing the course of her life.

"I do not feel alone anymore," she said. After finding the publication on a park bench, she attended a meeting with the group and was immediately hooked.

A couple years ago, Francois could have been among those she was looking for in the playground. In those days she was watching over a little girl she had cared for since she was 18 months old.

But in December 2008, she quit her job after what she claims was a physical altercation with the girl’s father, her employer of six years.

While she says her previous employer was only physically abusive once, that was enough. She was afraid to speak up against the father, who she says was often rude and emotionally abusive not only to her but also to the little girl who she had grown to love.

"We get caught up in dysfunctional families and sometimes we (domestic workers) have to bear the brunt of that," she said.

On top of that, no matter how many hours she worked, which typically averaged more than 50 hours a week, she received the same weekly pay of $500.

Francois’ story is retold around the world in versions occasionally so horrifying they capture global interest.

Worker Sentenced to Execution

Yesterday Human Rights Watch called attention to the case of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker in Saudi Arabia sentenced to execution for killing a child in her care when she was 17. The organization raised concerns over Nafeek’s lack of access to proper legal counsel, lawyers and competent translators during her interrogation and trial.

This past summer another extreme example surfaced in Saudi Arabia when Lahanda Purage Ariyawathie, a 49-year-old Sri Lankan maid, returned home after a four-month work stint. Airport security detected 24 nails skewered into her arms and legs by the Saudi couple for whom she had worked.

Advocates for domestic workers blame the unregulated nature of this job market for many of its problems.

Domestic workers constitute 4 to 10 percent of the labor force in developing countries and about 2.5 percent of the labor force in industrialized countries, according to the International Labor Organization.

Manela Tomei, director of its program on employment conditions, calls domestic workers the most legally and socially vulnerable labor force because they are excluded either by law or everyday practices from national labor laws and social security systems in both industrialized and developing countries. Widespread presumptions about the safety of household work further compound the problem by excluding workers in many countries from occupational safety and health regulations, she says on the group’s Web site.

Plenty of men are domestic workers, but the vast majority are women.

Long-Held Struggle

Establishing legally binding standards to ensure that these workers, who form one of the largest segments of the global work force, are treated fairly is a long-held struggle for domestic workers and their advocates.

Lately, however, there has been some progress.

Last June, for the first time since 1948, domestic work made it on the agenda of the International Labor Conference, an annual meeting of the International Labor Organization.

That meeting ended with member states calling for a convention on domestic work to provide fundamental safeguards such as the right to form a union, earn a livable wage and a legal recourse for challenging maltreatment. The convention will be formally introduced and voted on during the group’s upcoming annual conference in June 2011.

Only in a few countries such as Brazil, Bolivia and South Africa are domestic workers included in employment laws.

"Whether or not governments ratify or implement the convention, domestic workers and their organizations will use the convention as a normative framework in their daily advocacy and negotiations," said Martha Chen, a lecturer on international development at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

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Naomi Abraham is a freelance writer in New York.

For more information:

Domestic Workers United:

International Labor Organization:—ed_norm/—relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_104700.pdf/

Human Rights Watch reporting on Rizana Nafeek’s case: