SAN FRANCISCO - For two hardworking women, International Human Rights Day 2010 was an occasion to celebrate. Victoria Aquino and Lourdes Torres, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines in recent years and worked as caregivers in a San Francisco rest home, have won a settlement from their employer totaling over $70,000 in unpaid wages and penalties.
The occasion was also a springboard for the launch of a Global Campaign for Decent Work and Rights for Domestic Workers, and for the unveiling of a new report on the organizing struggles of workers not protected by existing labor law.
The two women told their stories to a rapt audience of fellow caregivers and members of organizations campaigning against wage theft and for full labor rights for all workers.
Aquino said her work as sole caregiver for six elderly and disabled patients involved shifts of 14 or more hours, seven days a week, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, dispensing medications and helping to maintain the facility. And then she was on call at night. Torres, who later joined Aquino as relief caregiver for part of the week, worked similar hours.
The two turned to the Filipino Community Center for help, and the Center, together with the Women's Employment Rights Clinic at Golden Gate University, launched a campaign to support Filipino caregivers and their workplace rights. In April, Aquino and Torres won an 8-hour workday. After long negotiations, they also won all back wages they were owed.
"This is not only a victory for me, but a victory for all caregivers who have had their wages stolen by an employer," said Torres.
And that was the theme of the day, with speakers emphasizing that workers across the spectrum of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and employed in many industries, share the onerous burdens of wage theft and lack of labor rights.
Aquino and Torres were eloquent in expressing their appreciation for the work of the FCC, the Women's Employment Rights Clinic and its director, attorney Marci Seville, and other organizations that backed their struggle.
Seville, in turn, emphasized the two womens' courage in coming forward, and the importance of their insistence that the settlement must be made public. She also praised the work of the half-dozen law students who negotiated the settlement.
"When you have conditions like these two caregivers worked in, you have both a workers' rights issue and a patient care issue," she added. "We need to reach out to the families of these patients and to people in the disability community and make staffing standards a big issue."
The Filipino Community Center and other organizations are members of the Progressive Workers Alliance, formed earlier this year, which is calling for a Low Wage Workers' Bill of Rights.
A related international effort, highlighted by Guillermina Castellanos of La Raza Centro Legal's San Francisco Day Labor Program, is the Global Campaign for Decent Work and Rights for Domestic Workers, officially launched Dec. 10. The campaign aims to achieve an international convention on domestic work at the forthcoming conference of the UN's International Labour Organization in June 2011.
Introducing the new report, Unity for Dignity: Expanding the Right to Organize to Win Human Rights at Work, Kimi Lee of the Excluded Workers Congress emphasized that farm workers, domestic workers, day laborers, formerly incarcerated workers and many others experience problems comparable to those of the two victorious caregivers.
The report, available at www.excludedworkers.org, analyzes the ways millions of workers are excluded from the right to organize and highlights the ways in which these workers are asserting their rights against enormous odds. The Excluded Workers Congress was founded in June, at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit.
Also participating were legislative aides to San Francisco Supervisors David Campos and John Avalos, who presented certificates from the Board of Supervisors, honoring Aquino and Torres for their courage and fighting spirit.
Photo of Victory Aquino by Marilyn Bechtel/People's World