Community performances raise awareness for the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights

domestic worker
A caregiver (played by Divina Calo) aids her bedridden employer in the play “Caregiver.” (Jenny G. Zhang/MEDILL)

By Jenny G. Zhang

“Coming, Mr. King!” the caregiver calls to her bedridden employer.

His bell chimes insistently, joining the cacophony of shrill rings from her cell phone and the landline.

Ding! – her family in the Philippines – ding! – requests for more money – ding! – her sick father – ding! – Mr. King ringing for assistance – ding! ding! ding!

The simultaneous demands, bearing down on her from all sides, overwhelm the caregiver. She freezes in place, paralyzed by the immense pressure. The noises come faster and louder, faster and louder.

The sounds fade, the stage lights dim and the audience applauds enthusiastically. They recognize in the act many of their own lives as domestic workers.

The play “Caregiver,” written by Lorely Trinidad-Ontal, and the musical “Piketlayn Cantata,” written by Joi Barrios-Leblanc, are being presented as a double feature by the Chicago-based Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE) and community arts organization Circa Pintig. The organizations hope to raise awareness for the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, also known as House Bill (HB) 1288, which moved out of the state House of Representatives and into the Senate last May.

U.S. domestic workers, one-third of whom are immigrants, according to a 2012 study by the Economic Policy Institute, are excluded from many of the labor protections that extend to other workers.

If passed, the bill would amend existing laws to include domestic workers, granting them minimum wage, at least one day of rest per week, pay for all work hours and protection from harassment in the workplace.

The struggles of domestic workers are illustrated even in the production of “Caregiver” and “Piketlayn Cantata,” according to Circa Pintig executive director Angela Mascarenas.

The plan, she said, was to cast actual Filipina caregivers as the leading characters, but one of the caregivers wasn’t allowed by her employer to have a single day off in February.

“That’s illegal!” said Mascarenas, who was production manager and adapted the original scripts for the performance. “This is the reason we need the bill passed.”

daniel biss domestic workers
Sen. Daniel Biss shows his support for HB 1288 with cast members and volunteers on February 28. (Jenny G. Zhang/MEDILL)

According to AFIRE executive director Michael Aguhar, HB 1288 may be put to the vote in March. Out of the 59 state senators, the bill tentatively has the support of 31 legislators. While that number surpasses the majority of 30 senators needed to pass the bill, AFIRE and other community organizers are working to solidify support in the Senate.

“The conversation that we’re having this afternoon is part of an effort that I think is essential, which is to build support from the outside to pressure senators to be ready to vote for this bill,” said state Sen. Daniel Biss, one of the 20 original sponsors of HB 1288, before the afternoon performance on February 28.

He urged supporters to push forcefully in order to combat the troubles plaguing Springfield, including the lack of budget and the impasse between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats in the legislature.

None of the senators who voted against the bill during the Aug. 19, 2015 Senate committee hearing were available for comment before publication.

Aguhar said he hopes that seeing “Caregiver” and “Piketlayn Cantata” makes audience members and others recognize the merit of domestic workers’ roles.

“There is dignity and respect in this work,” he said. “This kind of work has value.”

Circa Pintig will hold one final performance of “Caregiver” and “Piketlayn Cantata,” directed by Levi Aliposa, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 5 in the Moooh Dulce Gallery.

Photo at top: A caregiver, played by Divina Calo, aids her bedridden employer in the play “Caregiver.” (Jenny G. Zhang/MEDILL)