Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Saturday, 27 March 2010

New York nannies battle for rights

Nanny Barbara Young: "We are the invisible workforce"

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan reports from Manhattan on the potential impact of a proposed bill of rights for the estimated 200,000 nannies, housekeepers and care workers in New York state who are currently exempt from most US employment law.

For 17 years, Barbara Young from Barbados has worked as a nanny in New York, arriving at 0700 to care for the children of high-flying parents, often working through the night to care for newborn babies.

Because domestic workers are specifically excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of the 1930s, nannies operate in the shadows, their pay and conditions determined by their employers.

Ms Young has had to endure a lot over the years.

She told me how one employer paid her the bare minimum for her daily nannying work, and then expected her to sleep in a room with an infant, and feed that baby overnight, all for no extra pay.

"Because you work in the home, people don't see you as an employee. It's seen as women's work, not proper work," says Ms Young.

"We're on the streets, in the parks, the libraries and the after-school programmes, yet people don't notice these are workers. We need a change in this industry."

Lobby group

Ms Young has joined Domestic Workers United, an organisation of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies and caregivers who are backing the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights which they hope New York state lawmakers will soon adopt.

If every nanny in the city didn't turn up to work, the place would grind to a halt
Nicola Kraus
Co-author of The Nanny Diaries

The bill has been approved by the state Assembly, and needs to get through the Senate.

Ms Young believes the bill would make a huge difference to her.

"It would require notice of termination, paid sick leave, paid holidays, the right to a day off, and it would recognise domestic work as real work."

The bill would also give nannies the right to organise collectively.

It won't specify an hourly wage.

Nicola Kraus, a former nanny and co-author of The Nanny Diaries - a novel which exposed the way wealthy employers can treat their staff - supports the bill.

New York City runs on nannies, she points out.

"If every nanny in the city didn't turn up to work, the place would grind to a halt.

"I tended to work in households where there was a lot of staff - a florist, a social secretary, and the nanny was at the bottom of the heap, even though we were looking after their most prized possession, and in my view doing the important job of bringing up the next generation of that family.

"That was laid bare when the Christmas bonuses came round - other people would get money, typically the nanny would get a picture frame."

Ms Kraus says the bill will help domestic staff become recognised as legitimate employees, but she wonders how it will be enforced, given that nannies work in private households hidden from public view.

Tricky relationship

Parent coach and New York mother Tammy Gold says the bill will be helpful because it will provide a clear bar for both employers and nannies.

Nanny feeds a boy in NY
The New York reforms could herald changes in other US states

She finds the current situation cuts both ways - nannies can overcharge employers and employers can exploit nannies.

The mother-nanny relationship "is the trickiest one out there," Ms Gold observes.

"You see your boss in their pyjamas, you're caring for their most precious possession, guilt and resentment can come into play, so this will be really helpful."

Danya Klein, mother of one-year-old Kai, finds that New York nannies already lobby strongly for their pay and conditions, and have clear demands.

Even so, she thinks the bill of rights will help because it will simplify the process of negotiation, which often leads to a "situation of dissatisfaction".

After years of working long hours for low pay, Barbara Young feels it's time for New York's invisible workforce to become more prominent.

"We keep the economy going... working for the higher echelons, the doctors, the lawyers, and people on Wall Street," she says. "This bill would give us a better opportunity and it would give me rights."

California lawmakers are watching the progress of this bill closely, and lobbyists for domestic workers say that will be the next state to introduce this measure.

In June in Geneva, the International Labour Organization will host a meeting at which work will begin on an international convention for domestic workers' rights.

This is an issue whose time has come.

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