Group asks Montgomery to help domestic workers


CASA of Maryland and other immigrant-rights groups have called for the Montgomery County Council to pass legislation to protect domestic workers from unfair and abusive labor conditions.

The Coalition for Domestic Worker Rights consists of a variety of organizations including CASA, Progressive Maryland, the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center and the Montgomery County Justice and Advocacy Council of the Washington Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church. The coalition announced its formation last week at CASA's Silver Spring office.

Many domestic workers - including housekeepers, child care providers and helpers for the sick and elderly - are immigrant women who are unaware of their rights and unable to organize, the group says. Some employers take advantage of that, said Marita Etcubanez, an attorney with the Asian Pacific American center.

Some employees are forced to work 12-hour days, six days a week for less than a living wage, which, according to the draft of the bill, is $10.50 an hour. Many are not paid for overtime, don't have health insurance and are not allowed sick days, the coalition said.

Carmen Oliva, who was a domestic worker when she was a new immigrant, said at a news conference that her bosses did not treat her well. She was forced to work long hours and perform tasks far beyond what she agreed to when she was hired.

"I came to CASA, put my case before them, and they helped me," said Oliva, who is now the leader of the Committee of Women Seeking Justice, a subgroup of CASA. "We have rights as human beings."

Recently, CASA also has been involved in reviewing cases of physical abuse and involuntary servitude in Montgomery County, said Kim Propeack, spokeswoman for CASA.

The coalition is promoting a bill that would guarantee domestic workers $10.50 an hour and give full-time workers at least two days off per week, an option for health insurance and unpaid leave in accordance with the Family and Medical Leave Act.

"This bill provides domestic workers essentially the right to a weekend," said Elizabeth Keyes, an attorney with CASA. "I'm frustrated that in most cases, I can only go to court to fight for someone's minimum wage."

More than 261,000 of Montgomery County's residents were born outside the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The county is home to 44 percent of Maryland's foreign-born population.

CASA approached the Montgomery County Council about the bill last winter, said George Leventhal, council member at large and chairman of the county's Health and Human Services Committee.

"I'm very interested in trying to address the abuse of domestic workers," Leventhal said.

Before any legislation is introduced, Leventhal said he would like to see research to provide supporting data, although he said the anecdotes he's heard are compelling and said he believes abuse is widespread.

Caroline Zaayer writes for the Capital News Service.

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