An Interview with NDWA's Jennifer Bernard on Domestic Workers' Fight for Rights and Recognition

Jennifer Bernard at Union Days 2016
April 29, 2016
Taylor Keating

Summary of Interview with Jennifer Bernard, National Domestic Workers Alliance—Union Days at the ILR School at Cornell University, March 17, 2016 

Jennifer Bernard is a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), an organization fighting for the rights and fair treatment of domestic workers across the United States. The NDWA is comprised of 53 affiliate organizations and over 20,000 nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers throughout America. Ms. Bernard got involved with the alliance while members were fighting for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York. They succeeded in getting the bill passed in 2010, and since then, the NDWA has been instrumental in getting the Bill of Rights passed in other states, such as Hawaii, Illinois, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Since joining in 2005, Ms. Bernard has seen the organization grow tremendously, and the NDWA now has affiliate organizations and members in 36 cities and 17 states in the U.S.  

Ms. Bernard has worked as a nanny since coming to the U.S. and recently adjusted her legal status after living and working undocumented for 22 years. She highlighted the fear of victimization and job loss that many undocumented workers, especially those within the field of domestic work, face. As a result of this fear, these workers do not ask the necessary questions or seek needed help to adjust their legal status, remaining “invisible.”

In an effort to address this lack of information, the NDWA recently launched a website that provides material and resources for adjusting legal status. The site is called Step Forward (, and it permits the user to find free or low-cost immigration legal services in their area. Ms. Bernard believes that the site will help answer the questions of both undocumented individuals and those with legal status seeking to help their families adjust their status. The site also provides stories of domestic workers who have taken steps towards legalizing their status, as well as information surrounding immigrant and worker rights. The site is available in English and Spanish, although it will likely expand to include a wider variety of languages later on due to the diversity of NDWA members.

The NDWA has made significant gains within the industry and continues to fight for the rights of domestic workers, both as workers and as immigrants. The fight for domestic workers’ rights has gone international, with the International Labor Organization stepping in and passing the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Over 20 countries have ratified the bill as it continues to gain international traction. Ms. Bernard claimed that the involvement of the ILO led herself and other NDWA members to realize that a drastic change was needed to improve the lives and work experiences of domestic workers around the world.

Ms. Bernard explained that the NDWA has given her confidence in her professional relationships, and she now feels comfortable negotiating her contract with her employer. Through the NDWA, she helps empower other domestic workers, especially those who are “invisible” due to their legal status, to feel safe in demanding fair treatment and respect in the workplace. With regards to representing other workers in her industry, Ms. Bernard declared, “I am a domestic worker, I fight for the bill of rights, I demand respect in my industry, and I am not afraid to say it.”

Full Transcript of Interview with Jennifer Bernard

Can you tell me about your role in the NDWA and how you got involved? 

I got involved in 2005 when it was just Domestic Workers United fighting for a bill of rights that protects domestic workers in the state of New York. I went to my first meeting and discovered that there was something good about that movement that was building. As a domestic worker, I really wanted to be a part of it, so I joined the movement that fought for the Bill of Rights. In that time, we fought in the domestic field and we got the bill signed into law in 2010. After the struggle for 15 years, in 2010 it was signed into law.

My part in the movement was really to be supportive of every other domestic worker, understanding that I had the ability to do that, to work with others that thought they were invisible and afraid; I did not have that fear at all. I really had the determination to see something happen, and something good. The understanding of how much the work that we do is important, that really hit home with me, that we had 2,000 domestic workers in the state of New York alone. The understanding that we make every work possible, that the world needs domestic workers, not just New York City.

And it became something that was very pressing to every domestic worker that got involved, like what can we all do together. The National Domestic Workers Alliance was formed in 2007 by our director, Ai-jen Poo, and it has grown out from then in the most exciting, productive way. We now have 53 affiliate organizations under us with about 20,000 nannies, housekeepers, caregivers, and others, and a local chapter in Atlanta. In 36 cities and 17 states, we have grown tremendously. In that time, understanding that the bill not only protects the documented, it also protects the undocumented from abuse at work. We fought tremendously for the respect and the recognition that this is real work.  

In your experience, what are some of the unique problems facing undocumented workers? 

I have been undocumented for 22 years, and I recently got my status adjusted. Within that time, I have found many directors that are undocumented, and I have been really invisible. No one knew about me unless I came forward, which I did. But that is still a problem among the undocumented, there’s a lot of fear: fear of being victimized, fear of losing your job. The majority of them are from third world countries, or have come here with a great education or background and because they have to divert their educational status from the British system into the American system, they don’t prioritize by doing that. What they do is, their priorities are mostly on their children that they bring along with them or that they leave behind.

So the time they would take to go to school without status or to certify their education, they give up on doing that and continue to work in order to take care of their children. This is a common thing that is happening among domestic workers, that their priorities are their kids so they stay in the field of domestic work. Not that anything is wrong with it, I’ve done it for 28 years and I have a great passion for what I do. But they stay in the field because their children become their priority, their family becomes their priority, and they need to work now because they don’t have legal status.

So staying in the industry is one choice that they make to keep their families afloat. That is happening a lot still, and some of them have really come out from behind the shadows and they’re understanding that there’s a bill of rights that will protect them and that there are ways they can pay their taxes if they work hard and bill themselves. It doesn’t mean that they will get returns on what they pay toward the taxes but that’s a task towards adjusting their status in this country. From my experience, I feel that paying your taxes and being of good character are two important things in being able to adjust your status if that opportunity comes your way.  

How can unions or advocacy groups best address these issues? 

Well the one thing that is going to make this whole domestic worker situation worth the fight in the end is the fact that this has gone international. It’s not just an American thing; it’s a global affair on migration. The ILO has stepped in, and we have many countries that have ratified the bill so far; about 22 countries have ratified the bill. We have had states coming forward and passing bills because it’s also a state affair, so we have had Hawaii, Illinois, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

We have state by state where they are taking care and ending the struggle of the domestic worker and organizing and having bills passed in their states. But the whole situation with the ILO and the understanding that this is a global affair has made us open our eyes to the fact that something drastic needs to be done to make sure that domestic workers get the kind of respect and everything that is due to them as working people.  

Can you speak a bit about the website that your organization just launched? 

That website is because the domestic workers, especially those who are undocumented, have been so intimidated that they are afraid to go on the site of the [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services]. They are so intimidated that they do not ask the questions and get the answers that they need to adjust their status. We have to find a way or a source that will help them so that they can have their questions answered and find places where they can seek help.

The site is called Step Forward, it’s a link on the National Domestic Workers Alliance website, and the whole thing teaches you what is happening in the immigration programs and laws in this country and how you can get help. If you put in your zip code you can get organizations within your area that are low-cost or free that will help you in adjusting your status or giving you advice as to how you should do it or what you should do. That website was just launched last week, it’s

We know it’s going to help to answer the questions of the undocumented especially, or even people who are documented and need to help their families to adjust their status. It’s important that they feel that level of comfort and that they don’t feel like their whole life is threatened when they just have questions. On that site they will find stories of other domestic workers and they will learn their rights. There’s a lot of information on the site, and it’s both in Spanish and English. Eventually we will probably include other languages because our organizations are very much far and wide; we have so many different languages involved. But so far we have Spanish and English information and that should be a great start in opening their eyes and understanding and teaching them how to find the information that they need.  

What has been the most rewarding part of your work with the NDWA? 

The most rewarding part of my work is the fact that I came into this industry as a nanny, not really knowing what I was going to make. That was the only job that was available to me when I came to the U.S., and then I discovered that it is my real passion, because I stayed a nanny for 28 years. I love what I do, but how do I get the respect? The National Domestic Workers Alliance has made that possible for me to really step up, not be afraid, understand that this is real work, demand the respect that I deserve, and really not be afraid to sit and talk with my employers. It is important that the relationship with employers and employees in the domestic industry really stands out with a common understanding between employer and employee.

There’s a reward in that I’m watching it every day get better. It has made baby steps, and it’s going to get better if a domestic worker decides to enforce that law and not be afraid. This has done so much for me, that I really sit and negotiate with my employers, I let them know who I am before I’m employed. I am a domestic worker, I fight for the bill of rights, I demand respect in my industry, and I am not afraid to say it. I have to be like that because I’m representing so many other domestic workers out there, especially those who are invisible. It has brought me a long way, and I am truly grateful to the National Domestic Workers Alliance for that.