Rafaela Serrano, L’14, burst with emotion as she described witnessing Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick sign into law a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights earlier this summer. Joy, pride, accomplishment—it was a whirlwind of sentiments from the Northeastern student in the School of Law’s LLM program. That moment on a July morning at the Statehouse marked the culmination of four years of work she and many other community groups and members of Northeastern’s School of Law community put forth to make the bill a reality.
“It was a powerful moment for me and many others,” Serrano said. “I felt so touched to know that we educated people, organized ourselves, and advocated for these issues.”
Serrano, a native of Brazil, served as vice president of Boston’s Brazilian Immigrant Center when the movement began to take shape in 2010 with the founding of the Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers—comprising the center and four other community organizations. (She later served as the center’s president from May 2011 to Aug. 2013) A convention was held the next year, which continued to lay the groundwork for identifying basic labor protections that weren’t available to housekeepers, nannies, and other domestic workers.
This summer, Massachusetts became fourth U.S. state to enact such legislation. Included in the state’s new law are the requirement for employers to provide written contracts that clearly define domestic workers’ job responsibilities and hours, protections against sexual harassment, and provisions for maternity leave. Some of the law’s provisions go into effect this fall, and others will roll out in April 2015.
Many members of the Northeastern School of Law community participated in this effort, most notably Monica Halas, L’78, of Greater Boston Legal Services. The Northeastern alumna played a primary role in crafting the legislation and was the attorney for the Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers, which was focused on securing these rights for domestic workers.
“This was a campaign on a whole different level,” Halas said. “There were many inspirational people who were involved in this. It takes a village to pass a bill. That was certainly true here, more so than anything I’ve ever worked on.”
Halas also hailed Northeastern’s co-op program. She said she’s worked with many co-op students during her 35-year career at Greater Boston Legal Services who have provided important research work on many issues, including for this Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Co-op students’ work on the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights included preparing fact sheets, presentations, and more than 20 in-depth legal memoranda as the bill went through dozens of drafts. In fact, one of her current co-op students is now updating a handbook on domestic workers’ rights—developed several years ago by Northeastern law students—to align with the new legislation.
“I have supervised many co-op students over the years,” Halas said. “They bring a can-do attitude, they work well independently, and they play a big role in this work.”
These efforts also highlight the continued work of the NuLawLab, launched last year at the School of Law to explore new avenues for delivering legal information and educating lawyers in order to increase community members’ access to the legal services they need. The lab builds on the School of Law’s longstanding focus on social justice issues.
For one of its first projects, the lab partnered with Studio REV-, the Brazilian Immigrant Center, and MIT’s Center for Civic Media to develop a hotline and text-messaging app for domestic workers to get information about their legal rights,, which is still in beta form. For her part, Serrano’s work at NuLawLab involves doing a comparative analysis of Brazil’s and Massachusetts’ laws relating to domestic workers. This work, part of an independent study, will eventually be incorporated into the app.
NuLawLab Executive Director Dan Jackson said the project builds upon the law school’s longtime relationship with the Brazilian Immigrant Center. “The center has been a wonderful community partner,” he said.
Serrano also plans to pursue her doctorate in political science with a focus on public policy, and she hopes one day to run for government in Brazil.
“My work on this bill strengthened my belief in doing what I believe in: social justice,” she said.