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Domestic Workers Harness Technology to Claim Their Rights

In 2010, New York passed a groundbreaking piece of legislation—the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights—guaranteeing full-time domestic workers eight-hour work days, overtime pay, paid time off, and access to Workers’ Compensation and disability benefits. Around the world, domestic workers remain extremely vulnerable, facing immigration challenges, racism and discrimination, language barriers, violence and intimidation, low literacy levels, and isolation in employers’ homes. Rights are only meaningful if workers can claim them.

NannyVan by lead artist Marisa Jahn & Studio REV- with National Domestic Workers Alliance
NannyVan by lead artist Marisa Jahn & Studio REV- with National Domestic Workers Alliance. Photo: Marisa Jahn, 2014.

Domestic Workers United and REV-, a nonprofit art, media and social justice organization, responded to this dilemma with a combined “tech and touch” strategy —a hotline, an app, and a bright orange 1976 Chevy van—to spread the word, support workers, and mobilize for change. “With a vulnerable workforce, the combination of high-tech tools and in-person organizing strategies has been key,” explains Marisa Jahn, Executive Director of REV-. “People won’t automatically call in if you just advertise a hotline number. Peers and advocates help others become involved, and our public events are very visible, which helps us inform the general public about issues domestic workers face.”

The hotline, called New Day, New Standard, accessible from any phone, is a know-your-rights resource for more than 200,000 nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers in New York. Callers choose from seven episodes featuring a nanny named Christine Lewis and “Miss Know-It-All,” who discuss topics ranging from the definition of domestic work to penalties for employers who don’t comply with the law. Callers can also connect with Domestic Workers United to report an abuse of their rights, or to share a success story with others in the movement. The hotline, at (347) WORK-500, receives hundreds of calls a month.

The Domestic Worker App, a collaboration between the National Domestic Workers Alliance, REV-, Terravoz, MIT Center for Civic Media, and the NuLawLab, adds new functionality: weekly text messages that notify subscribers of upcoming trainings, meetings and events; SMS message surveys; and live scheduled conference calls. The van is a highly visible mobile design lab and sound studio that “accelerates the movement for domestic workers’ rights,” providing trainings, media resources, and organizing support across the country.

These approaches are succeeding, in part, by focusing on accessibility and privacy for domestic workers. Many domestic workers are among the 10-17 million Americans who have cell phones but not smart phones. For many low-wage workers, apps that rely on photos, video, or complex interactivity would be likely to fail. Domestic workers also face significant privacy and surveillance issues on the job, so it’s important to maximize discretion: listening to recordings or replying to a workers’ rights survey can be done unobtrusively with the push of a button, without the use of an employer’s computer.

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