Cityview: Silent Slavery

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“I began trembling throughout the day with fear and starvation. Although I was given $50 at the end of every month, I did not want to spend it on food because I had no idea what the future had in store for me,” recalls Meena (not her real name), a 40-something Indian woman who was a live-in domestic worker for a Westchester family. She says her work conditions were so horrible she actually thought she would die in this house thousands of miles from her family. “If you had seen me, you would have thought you were bumping into an old lady, 80 years old,” she says.

Coming to the United States is not necessarily a liberating experience. For some South Asian women, arrival here means isolation and exploitation in a land that is becoming increasingly hostile to immigrants. Yet domestic work in the United States–caring for children or the elderly, cooking, cleaning and doing other household duties, often while living in an employer’s home–is one of just a few options available to many immigrant women struggling to escape poverty or domestic violence in South Asia. Sold a myth of American social freedoms and opportunities, many women choose domes-tic work with upwardly mobile South Asian immigrant families as their ticket to the states, only to find themselves literally trapped in their employers’ suburban homes.

Often, women who come here through legal channels from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India are responding to an ad or an employer’s request. Unbeknownst to them, they may be working illegally in the United States because their employer has failed to get them a work visa. Such “sponsors” put up the money to bring the worker to the United States, later insisting she pay back her debt. This “fly now, pay later” scheme is a new form of indentured servitude wherein domestic workers are forced to submit to an employer’s every demand. Women become trapped as employers fail to pay them regularly and fairly, leaving them with very small amounts of money for long periods of time.

Meena told me she had always dreamed of making money for the education and marriage of her three daughters. She had accepted an employer’s offer of $200 per month–she received $50 and the rest was to be sent home to her family in India–far below min-imum wage but more than she had earned in India.

Financial control is only one means of exploitation. The other popular trick is threatening to reveal a worker’s immigration status to authorities. When Meena asked her employer for a sponsor letter to obtain a work visa, she was told that getting a visitor’s visa would be easier. This is true, but misleading. Employers often secure 90-day tourist visas for their domestics, but when that expires, they turn around and threaten the workers with arrest and deportation. Work visas can take years to obtain.

Others who legally employ domestic workers sometimes convince the workers that they should hand over their passports or green cards for safekeeping, and then hide the documents to keep the women hostage in their home. A domestic worker’s ability to fight such exploitation is especially difficult for immigrants who are prevented from learning English or from speaking with people outside of the house. Domestic workers dependent on employers for money, food, transportation and shelter live in fear. In many cases, if they are disobedient or try to escape, they can lose everything, even the roof over their head.

The law does little to protect domestic workers. Deemed “private household workers,” they are even excluded from some basic civil rights. According to the Center for Immigrants Rights, nearly all United States workers may invoke the protections of the Labor Relations Act and are allowed to form unions, but not domestic workers. Additionally, the exclusion of domestic workers from New York City human rights anti-discrimination statutes silences them further, especially in cases of sexual harassment–to which domestic workers are particularly vulnerable.

Generally, domestics file complaints against employers only under extreme circumstances. But there have been small victories. After being taken to Manhattan Federal Court in 1995, Meena’s employer settled out of court rather than publicly reveal the facts of the case. He offered $9,000 in payment of back wages and compensation for undue physical and psy-chological hardship.

“I am not fighting for the money,” Meena proclaimed. 1 do not want their money, because it is made at the cost of sweat and blood of many women like me. I want people to stop treating us like slaves. They want us to tolerate misery just because they brought us to America.”

Organizing to build the necessary structures to increase domestic workers’ bargaining power and their ability to negotiate better work conditions is imperative. We must bring these women into the sphere of law so they may assert rights and protections other workers take for granted. Until all women’s labor participation in this country is acknowledged and regulated by law, it will be an uphill battle to remove thousands of domestic workers from their isolation, invisibility and silent slavery.

Sushila Patil is a health educator and volunteer with SAKHI for South Asian Women, a resource and advocacy group.

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