Written by
Gianna Melchionda '24, Digital Communications Associate
April 17, 2023

Labor rights activist Virgilio Aran believes that every worker has an important story that tells how they overcame a challenge, and he has spent the last two decades organizing to ensure that those stories are heard and that workers' rights are protected. On March 30, Aran spoke to an audience at the Pace Center Lounge about his work on the New Jersey Domestic Worker Bill of Rights and the importance of labor rights and unions.  

Aran, who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1996, has been organizing for labor rights since 1998 in both the United States and Canada. While his story of immigration ultimately inspired his passion for activism, he remembers vividly the emotions it charged at the time. “In the 3.5 hour flight, our lives changed," he said. "What is it to live in another country with or without a visa?... we saw it as a clock ticking, in six months our visas were going to expire, and we were to be undocumented immigrant.”

In the 3.5 hour flight, our lives changed. What is it to live in another country with or without a visa?... We saw it as a clock ticking, in six months our visas were going to expire, and we were to be undocumented immigrant. - Virgilio Aran

Aran recalled that he “was in my comfort zone, although I was angry.” Instead of succumbing to that anger, Aran pushed against its limits, past his comfort zone, in order to be a force of good for others. "My determination came from wanting to break the chains, my anger from being undocumented," he said. "And I wanted to transform it through my work.”

During his talk, Aran emphasized the importance of house visits in his work as an organizer. These visits enable Aran to engage in attentive listening and learn about the problems from those who are actually facing them. He reminded the audience that these issues are not mere abstract concepts but are actually taking place in our own countries and communities, right in our own backyards. 

The issue of anti-discrimination protection is a crucial aspect of ensuring fairness and equality in the workplace. However, domestic workers, such as nannies and housekeepers, have historically been excluded from anti-discrimination laws, leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse, said Aran. Furthermore, the precarious nature of domestic work means that even if workers are technically covered by anti-discrimination laws, they often lack the job security to assert their rights. For example, Aran pointed out that if a domestic worker becomes pregnant, their employer can legally terminate their employment, leaving them without a job and potentially without access to healthcare. In addition to these challenges, domestic workers often face exploitative working conditions, such as being denied meal breaks or rest periods, he added. Some argue that this is necessary to ensure that clients receive the care they need, but others argue that it perpetuates a form of modern-day slavery.

According to Aran, another issue facing domestic workers is the risk of homelessness. Many live in the homes of their employers, he said, which means that they are vulnerable to eviction if their employment is terminated. Advocates have called for notification requirements to ensure that workers are given adequate notice before being forced to leave their employer's home. Overall, the exclusion of domestic workers from anti-discrimination laws and the lack of protections for their basic rights is a pressing issue that demands attention and action, Arain noted. He spoke with passion about how it is essential that we recognize the value of domestic work and provide workers with the protections and rights they deserve.

Aran also spoke at length about the New Jersey Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which he has been working on since 2019. The bill aims to address the lack of protection and isolation faced by domestic workers, whom Aran argued are essential but often not considered "real workers." Aran likened the situation to slavery and pointed to wage theft in restaurants and shops as another example of workers being taken advantage of. This has manifested itself in many ways and across chains, with examples of minimum wage workers having upwards of 18% of their annual income taken by owners illegally retaining their wages.

Aran also discussed the organizing process, identifying the "7 D's" that opponents of unionization use to stop the process, including denying, delaying, dividing and conquering, and discrediting. He emphasized the importance of building political consciousness among workers and showing them what they can achieve, as well as identifying opposition from groups like the HomeCare Association and Fair Share Hospital Collaborative and Au-Pair Associations.

Next Activists Speaking

Aran's talk is part of a series of Activists Speaking events organized by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, which seeks to "educate, inspire, and engage Princeton University students in meaningful service and civic leadership." The next Activist Speaking event is on Wednesday, April 19 from 6-7:30pm at the Carl A. Fields Center multipurpose room 104. Activist Sonalee Rashatwar (they/he) will be speaking about their work as a clinical social worker, sex therapist, and grassroots organizer, and their focus on addressing sexual trauma, diet trauma, racial or immigrant trauma, and South Asian family abuse, while promoting fat positive sexual healthcare. Sign up with my.princeton.edu. The talk on April 19 is a collaboration with TigerWell and the Carl A. Fields Center's Collective Care series.