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A 'Talk Show' Uses Humor to Inform Domestic Workers About Their Rights

There's nothing funny about the treatment of many domestic workers, but a humorous public art project tackles the issue head-on.

There’s nothing funny about the treatment many nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers receive from their employers—including missed wages, no sick days, and strenuous hours. But a new public art project is using humor as a vehicle to educate workers, their bosses, and the public about the New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, a state law passed in 2010 that guarantees basic protections to a vulnerable class of workers.

"New Day New Standard" turns the idea of an information hotline on its headset. Instead of hearing a set of numbered self-help options, callers choose from a collection of comedic sketches explaining the new legislation in a radio talk show format. Hosts Christine Lewis and "Miss Know-it-All" (played by voice actor Jen Cohn) tackle questions called in from real domestic workers about the new details in the new laws, including minimum wage, overtime, taxes, unemployment insurance, penalties for employers who disregard the requirements—plus broader subjects like immigration, human trafficking, and slavery. The voices on the phone also take the time to joke and deliver punchy one-liners in a menagerie of accents that highlight the diversity of the ethnic communities from which New York domestic workers hail, including West Indian, West African, Filipino, Haitian, Dominican, Mexican, and many other Spanish-speaking groups.

A veteran advocate for New York City nannies and workers, Lewis has experience patiently explaining her industry’s hardships: She once appeared on The Colbert Report to tell the ostensibly-right-wing personality about why domestic workers need protection. Her status as a rising, charismatic leader in the movement made her a natural fit for the role as the talk show’s Oprah, according to creative director Marisa Jahn.

Jahn and her collaborators from REV-, a nonprofit for socially engaged art and design, came up with the NDNS concept when advocacy group Domestic Workers United approached them with the idea of doing an audio PSA. “We know that many low-wage workers and multi-lingual immigrants don’t listen to the radio anymore,” says Jahn “And they don’t have regular access to the internet where they could download audio pieces.”

But everyone has a phone, and even an antique flip phone can turn into a broadcasting device when NDNS’s hotline is dialed. Jahn imagines the service could come in handy for a nanny watching kids on the playground, for example. While she’s working, she "can whip out [her] cell phone, call the New Day New Standard hotline, and hear an 'episode' about minimum wages, paying your taxes, vacation time, etc."

The New York Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights, the first such law in the nation, offers the type of bare minimum protections you’d hope to see at any job: the right to time-and-a-half overtime pay, a day off every seven days, three paid days off per year after a year with the same employer, and added protection against sexual and racial harassment. The law came after years of organizing by DWU and a broad coalition of partners. Similar legislation is currently in the works in California.

Jahn emphasizes that the project is more than the typical PSA: "To improve the livelihood and well being of domestic workers in New York State and beyond, we need a really compelling ‘product’ of the highest caliber. In other words […] we needed art." And that idea didn’t come solely from the creatives tasked with the project. Interviews with domestic workers proved that something entertaining and unique would work best for spreading the message. Describing the final product as "'art' dignifies their involvement in this project as one worthy of sharing with the broader public," Jahn says. "'Public art'" sounds like you’re going to hear something exciting and fresh; 'PSA' sounds like it will be boring and didactic."

The project’s outreach efforts kick off this month in the liberal, yuppie neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Jahn says more than 60 percent of employers are in violation of the bill of rights legislation. Piloting in a progressive area, organizers hope, will make it easier to bring their work everywhere else.

Image courtesy of Marisa Jahn

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