Like many parents, Daniela Contreras woke up last Thursday and helped her daughter get ready for school. But the long-time domestic worker who now organizes with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) then hopped on a train to Washington, DC to take part in the protests against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
During a September 27 press conference of sexual assault survivors and supporters, including #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Annie Kuster, Contreras spoke about her experience being assaulted as a 16-year-old childcare provider.
“Every day, I hear stories of working women just like me, stories full of pain, fear, silence and shame,” Contreras said in her remarks. “But through our organizing, we’ve passed laws and policies to protect domestic workers.”
Thanks to Domestic Workers United, NDWA and others, a 2010 New York Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights now protects against harassment, abuse, wage theft and other workplace violations. Last December, NDWA helped change New York City anti-discrimination law that required a business to have four or more employees in order for a claim to be filed. Now workers can file a claim even if they are the only employee, as is the case for many cleaners, nannies and other domestic positions.
But when she’s not fighting for change in New York City or at the capital, Contreras is meeting with domestic workers out in the world, encouraging them to stand up for their rights. In These Times talked with Contreras about NDWA’s role in protesting Kavanaugh nomination — and how the activism continues after the media spotlight ends.
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank: Why did you participate in the press conference?
Daniela Contreras: I was asked, but I wanted to be part of this. If you’re a new organizer, a lot of workers will not trust you. But if they see me in the media, they’ll feel I’m more credible. It gives us more credit. The other reason is because I was 16 when I was assaulted, but never said anything. The more I talk about it, the more people will be able to come forward at any point.
A year ago, I came out publically as part of #MeToo. I have friends who just now are coming forward. It does strain me a lot because I’m feeling exhausting at the end of the day. But I’m no longer afraid. I’m speaking out. I felt powerful being in that space with all these amazing, powerful women. We are doing this together. I remember that 16-year-old girl who couldn’t say anything. Now I’m this older woman talking in front of all the women supporting me.
It is sad to see all these women who have been through all of this. You would think it’s only you, but then having all these women, it makes you realize how many more are out there who have not come forward. Is this what this society looks like? It is very upsetting to know this, but at the same time, I think that it was a very powerful moment. There’s a saying in Spanish that translates to, “Where there’s unity, there’s power.” I know they went through all of this, but we’re all standing alone together. If he doesn’t get nominated, then we won.
Do you feel connected to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford?
When all this allegedly happened to her, she was only around 15. She said the reason she didn’t want to say anything was because she was going to be believed. She was afraid. It was shameful to talk about it. I felt the exact same way. I didn’t come forward for the same reason. I was afraid. I had no one. What was I supposed to tell my mother? Just because I’m supposed to go and help her out financially, this is what happened to me. I didn’t want to make my mother feel guilty about it. I felt nobody would have believed me if would have said something. The trauma goes on with you for the rest of your life. I’m wondering now what would have happened if I had said something.
How did you become involved with the National Domestic Workers Alliance?
I was a domestic worker not by choice, but necessity. I needed to get a job. I was pretty much engaged to my daughter’s father, but a week before she was born, he left us. He took everything with him and left us pretty much on the streets. I had a newborn baby and my mother was sick. I had bills to pay, because he stopped paying the bills. I was no longer working because he asked me not to while I was pregnant. I became a nanny again because getting a regular job was going to take me a while. My daughter wasn’t going to wait. Her hunger wasn’t going to wait.
One day, in the neighborhood where I was working, another nanny told me about a meeting with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. I didn’t know there was such an organization. The title excited me. I kept going to every single meeting. The first thing I liked about being in that space was I felt welcomed. For the first time, I was able to bring my daughter to a meeting. They had a program called Groundbreakers where you learn about Bill of Rights in New York. You pretty much become a lawyer. You go through this training for six weeks and then you can apply to do outreach where you talk to other workers. It’s the same way the other nanny invited me to a meeting. We go to the parks. We listen to their stories and try to find any red flag, if any workers are going through sexual harassment or wage theft.
How do you build trust and community with domestic workers?
One thing I have to tell them is I’ve been a domestic worker. I know what they’re going through. I know the struggles, good or bad. Sometimes because of immigration status, language, or because there will be retaliation, they don’t want to say anything. Or they come forward either after they’ve quit their job or when they no longer can take it anymore. Some of them went through sexual harassment when they were little.
I had a housecleaner who I’ve been talking to for two years. One day I met with her and brought up the topic of abuse. She said, “It happened to me when I was six.” It might take a while to build trust. It might take a hint, like someone saying, “Things are not so great at work. I feel uncomfortable.” They’re not really telling exactly what’s happening, but you have an idea.
Personally, I wasn’t sexually harassed just as a nanny. I was at many different jobs because before I didn’t have a status, I was more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents where employers knew that. They felt like, “Okay if you’re undocumented and you don’t speak the language I can take advantage of you.”
The last time it happened was a decade ago. I was working at a restaurant where most of the waitresses were undocumented, but the owner knew we needed the jobs. He would do the nastiest things to us. Sometimes he just picked on me. One time I didn’t stay quiet. I went to his apartment and made him file a report. I said, “You’re not going to do this anymore. I’m no longer afraid of anybody, and this is going to change.” That gave me power, but it didn’t work in my favor because he had a good lawyer. He was able to change the story on me. The lawyer said that, according to the employer, I was the one harassing him. It made me upset, but my coworkers saw what happened. A few years later all the waitresses organized. They filed another lawsuit and this time they won.
Why is it important to highlight the stories of domestic workers in #MeToo?
One, because the places where they work, it’s pretty much the employer and the worker. There are no supervisors. There’s no one you can go and tell, “Look this is what’s happening.” The only person you can tell is your employer, but what if they’re the perpetrator? That’s why we had to go and say something. That’s why we felt like we needed to be there. We need to be heard.
At the 2018 Golden Globes, our executive director Ai-jen Poo was Meryl Streep’s guest. While receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award, Oprah talked about her mom who was a domestic worker and why they have to choose between bringing a paycheck and or coming forward. I met a few Hollywood people who have done domestic work, so they understand too.
What changes would you like to see for domestic worker?
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was passed in 2010, but even now domestic workers don’t know about it. That’s why we’re going on the streets and giving them this information. We want them to know they’re protected and have an extended statute of limitations. But I still wish there would be more time. It took me 20 years to come forward. We want to provide protection for them, but also let employers know that, yes, you have someone working in your place and it’s private, but there are workers’ rights and sexual harassement is included on the job.
Two weeks ago, we had our monthly meeting and we had new workers. A nanny said that her employer told her, “I looked at the Bill of Rights, and according to what it said, you don’t have that many protections.” The nanny was upset. She said she knows what her rights were and that her employer was taking advantage of her. That’s what makes me really upset: When employers know that domestic workers are very vulnerable and they still take advantage of them. I would love to see a change with that.
What self-care do you take part in after sharing your story?
I just come home and hug my daughter. I’ve also been disconnecting myself from the world, staying home with the people I love and just doing regular mommy things. I’m always playing music. I’ve also been sleeping a lot. It does take a lot out of me to do this. It takes me two to three days to feel back to normal.
What hope do you have for the future?
I would love for my daughter — hopefully she’ll never have to deal with this — but if she ever goes through something like this, she will be believed at any age. I hope she or any survivor won’t have to wait all these years. And I hope that person who’s done it will suffer consequences. I am very optimistic. Like a lot of women, I came forward for a reason. It’s hard. It’s painful. But we want to see change, and I know there will be change. I want to say that I made a difference for future generations by just speaking out. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I want to say that I was part of it.