Maid In America

By Tracey Middlekauff

When Marjina, a young Bangladeshi woman working as a live-in housekeeper for an Indian family in Dubai, was invited to accompany the family to live and work in the U.S., she jumped at the opportunity. To her, America meant money and freedom. But soon after she arrived to begin her new life, Marjina says her dreams quickly dissolved.

"I thought they would treat me like a family member," she says, speaking in her native Bengali through an interpreter. "But I was lied to."

At the time, Marjina was unaware that she, like any domestic worker -- documented or undocumented -- was legally entitled to a work environment free from exploitation and abuse. But unfortunately, employers often thumb their noses at the law and ignore the rights of their domestic help.

Indeed, Marjina describes a grueling work schedule with little or no compensation. 18-hour days on Monday to Friday, 8-hour days on her "days off" during the weekend. She says she was never allowed to eat until the family was finished, she was forced to sleep in the basement with no mattress, and she was made to shovel snow in the cold Teaneck, N.J. winter wearing the only shoes she brought with her from Dubai: sandals. During this time, she says "I didn't even know what a U.S. dollar looked like."

Marjina found an advocate in one of her employers' friends, who located a Bangladeshi family in need of her services. But according to Marjina, things went from bad to worse.

Her new employers forced her to work similar backbreaking hours, Marjina says, and promised to pay her a meager $400 per month, most of which she never received. She was never allowed to leave on her own, and alleges she was physically abused by the couple's mentally impaired son. After three months, Marjina finally demanded payment, upon which she was locked in a basement, then ordered to leave with only $375 cash.

Distraught and frightened, with no English and little money, Marjina got on a bus, where she finally found some luck. The driver spoke Hindi, and he took Marjina to an Indian store where the owner called for help. Subsequently, Marjina was put in contact with Andolan, a Queens-based South Asian workers' rights group. Last fall Marjina filed a lawsuit against her former employers, who deny all her allegations.

LONG HOURS, LOW WAGES

Marjina's story is not an isolated one, according to many advocates for workers' rights, or even a particularly extreme example of the abuse that many immigrant domestic workers face on a daily basis. Ai-jen Poo, program director at the Women Workers Project of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence in Manhattan, says that, "It's the norm that people are subjected to long hours, little or no overtime pay, low wages, little privacy and a difficult environment." For live-in domestic workers, things are even worse. "(These workers) are often on call 24-7," Poo says.

The problem is extremely difficult to quantify accurately, because several groups, including the New York City-based South Asian Workers Rights Project, are only now starting to gather the hard data.

Experts estimate that ninety-five percent of immigrant domestic workers are women of color, half of them undocumented, and in many cases they work for people of their own ethnicity. Typically, Caribbean and Latin American immigrants will find jobs with white families through an agency, whereas Asian women, particularly South Asian women, will find jobs in upper class Asian families through direct ads in South Asian newspapers. "The Asian-American community is much more insular, and tends to hire more undocumented workers," says Chaumtoli Huq, an attorney working with the South Asian Workers Rights Project. When an Indian family hires an Indian domestic, Huq says, what separates them is not ethnicity, obviously, but class.

USING THEIR IMMIGRANT STATUS AGAINST THEM

The worker/employer relationship is inherently based on an imbalance of power, an imbalance which employers often use to intimidate their employees and prevent them from leaving. "If employers can, they will use immigration status as an added weapon," says Nadia Marin-Molina of Workplace Project.

This can take the form of an employer confiscating a worker's passport, keeping a worker in the house to keep them ignorant of their rights and out of contact with potential allies, threatening to turn an undocumented worker over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and holding out false promises of a green card. Molina tells of one worker who was promised green card sponsorship by her employer. After 10 years of working for low wages, she found out that her employer had never even taken the first step to sponsor her. And in any case, according to Chaumtoli Huq, getting a green card rarely happens at all for a domestic worker, and even if it does, it takes from ten to 15 years.

One might assume that even the most vindictive employers would hesitate to turn an undocumented employee over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, because they could be fined thousands of dollars for having violated the law by hiring the worker in the first place. But the standard to determine if an employer should be fined, Huq says, is whether the employer knowingly hired an undocumented worker. All the employer has to do is say they were ignorant of their employee's work status.

Ai-jen Poo believes that employers take advantage of their domestic workers simply because they can. "We have to change the culture where all the power lies in the hands of an employer," she says. Poo points out that domestic work is traditionally seen as women's work, which is devalued. "The work these women are doing completely enables every other industry to function -- it's crucial," she says. "But it's not seen that way."

WORKERS' RIGHTS

Whatever society's perceptions of the value of domestic work, one fact is certain: domestic workers, both documented and undocumented, are legally entitled to the same basic rights any U.S. citizen should expect. According to a pamphlet for workers put out by the Women Workers Project, these rights include (but should not be limited to) workers' compensation insurance, short term disability benefits, minimum wage, overtime, meal breaks and one full day off each week.

The problem is, many workers are not aware of these basic rights, and even if they are, fear of employer retribution may prevent them from seeking help. In New York, several groups provide representation, education and outreach to domestic workers in need.

The Women Workers Project has recently initiated an effort to institute a standard, industry-wide contract for domestic workers. While Ai-jen Poo admits that such a contract may be difficult to enforce, she stresses the need for a standard model and organized support. Such an effort is dependent on numbers; the more workers who are armed with the contract, the better. Although the contract effort is in its infancy, Poo says thousands of copies have already been distributed to workers.

Chamtoli Huq cites two important elements in creating a better work environment for domestic workers. One is to support the contract campaign and the viability of enforcing such a contract, and the second is to push for legislative change, such as the bill passed in the House May 9 that would offer protection from deportation to domestic workers who sue their employers. The bill, authored by Congressmen Christopher Smith (R-Trenton) and Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn), is currently awaiting a Senate vote.

But community outreach organizations remain a crucial element in the fight for domestic workers' rights, because before a worker can take advantage of any of their rights, they must first learn what those rights are.

MARJINA

Shortly after Marjina met Andolan's co-founder, Nahar Alam, she found work with a new family, and says she is now "very happy" with them. But even though she currently makes $1,000 a month, Alam points out that this is not even minimum wage given the hours Marjina works. Marjina still gets no holidays. "It's still not enough," Alam says.

Marjina says that she knows her rights now, and "will tell other people to go to organizations (like Andolan) when they come to this country." As for what she endured when she first arrived, she says, "Until the day I die, I'll remember this experience."

Tracey Middlekauff is a journalist living in Brooklyn.

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