Campaign Honors 'The Help' For Domestic Awareness

The Help has become a box-office smash, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance is using the film to raise awareness for real-life Aibileens and Minnys via its "Be The Help Campaign." A series of viewing parties across the country on Oscar night is designed to support the actresses who, with their work, honored domestic work and made it visible. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. It's Oscar night in Hollywood, and that means glamorous parties all over the city. But this year, a particular group of women will be hosting parties to cheer on two nominees: actors Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer who portrayed maids in the film "The Help."

As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports now, those parties will try to raise awareness for the rights of domestic workers.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: "The Help" is a movie about black maids in segregated Mississippi who make the lives of their white employers easier by doing their household work. Here's Viola Davis' character, Aibileen, describing her job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HELP")

VIOLA DAVIS: (as Aibileen) I work for the Leefolts from 8:00 to 4:00, six days a week. I make 95 cent an hour. That come to $182 every month.

BATES: For that, she does everything: cooking, cleaning and raising the Leefolt toddler, Mae Mobley. Aibileen and her fellow housekeeper Minny are fictional but...

AI-JEN POO: There are Aibileens and Minnys in every town and every city. And each one of us has a role to play in really bringing respect and dignity to their work.

BATES: That's Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a network devoted to securing rights for the nation's estimated two million housekeepers, nannies and home caregivers. After a six-year grassroots campaign, Poo successfully got a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in the New York state legislature.

The bill was the first of its kind in the country. It regulated working hours and work conditions and mandated that employers pay the legal minimum wage. Now, Poo has her sights on California.

POO: We call it the Wild West because it's so unpredictable. And oftentimes, what you're looking at is the situation where workers are highly vulnerable to abuse.

BATES: A California bill similar to the one in New York was passed in the state assembly and will soon go to the Senate for a floor vote. But, as with New York, there has been resistance. Opposing lawmakers say regulating hours, overtime and other workplace conventions for domestic workers means many working families will not be able to afford the nannies and housekeepers they rely on.

Anticipating that, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has created a campaign called Be the Help to raise public awareness of the value of domestic work. They're keying off the current craze for the movie to remind employers that they are able to do their jobs because of the help they have at home.

Jennifer Bernard has been a New York nanny for 20 years and wants "The Help" fans to keep this in mind.

JENNIFER BERNARD: I want them to really remember that the domestic worker is an important person and - in their home, that we take care of their most prized possession every day. And if they go out to seek a job, they want to be treated in a special way, and we want to be treated the same.

BATES: Bernard will be at one of the scores of viewing parties being held on Oscars night to emphasize the importance of domestic work. She hopes if Octavia Spencer wins an Oscar, she'll repeat her moving speech from the Golden Globes.

OCTAVIA SPENCER: You know, with regard to domestics in this country now and then, I think Dr. King said it best. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance, and I thank you for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SPENCER: Recognizing that with our film...

BATES: And Bernard hopes the movie will continue to raise awareness so that California and other states will pass laws aimed at giving domestic workers many of the same protections that govern others in the workplace. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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