News/US: Domestic workers tell of exploitation

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Subject: News/US: Domestic workers tell of exploitation
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Thu Jun 22 2000 - 09:37:44 EDT

Domestic workers tell of exploitation
Sunday, May 28, 2000

Staff Writer

the morning Marjina announced she wanted to leave and asked for back
pay, the family who employed her as a domestic worker locked her in the
cellar, she says.

By the time they opened the door 10 hours later, the sky was black and
the air growing cold. But they pushed the Bangladeshi woman to the door
of their Teaneck home, stuffed $370 into her hand -- the only pay for
three months' work -- and then, Marjina alleges, they shoved her

Marjina, wearing just a sari and sandals and clutching her few
belongings in a plastic bag, says she slept under a tree that night,
terrified after repeatedly being ordered never to venture out on her
own. In the morning, she climbed aboard an NJ Transit bus even though
she could not read where it was going, slumped into a seat, and wept.

"I will never forget that, what happened to me," Marjina said recently,
speaking in her native Bengali. "I always heard that America is good,
that there are so many chances, but I can never explain what kind of
suffering I had here."

Marjina's account, outlined in lawsuits she filed last fall against two
Teaneck families and detailed in an interview, consists entirely of
unproven accusations about events alleged to have taken place behind
closed doors. Both former employers vehemently deny her allegations.

But the story she tells is depressingly familiar to advocates for South
Asian domestic workers and, increasingly, to some federal law
enforcement officials. They say Marjina speaks for the nearly invisible
ranks of poor women exported to the United States to clean homes, cook,
and tend children, and too often, to be exploited by their employers,
many of them also immigrants.

Marjina, who brought suit in federal court in Newark, says she
considers herself lucky because she fled last year and found help. She
spoke on the condition that her full name not be used for fear of
retaliation by her current employer.

But workers' advocates and law enforcement officials say such accounts
convince them that there is a hidden population of domestic workers
still being exploited by employers, who routinely confiscate workers'
passports, forbid contact with the outside world, and force them to
work very long hours. The pay often amounts to a few dollars a day. In
some extreme cases, there is no pay at all, advocates and attorneys

The situation is particularly dire in suburban areas, including North
Jersey, where these women -- many poor and illiterate like Marjina,
some in this country illegally, others dependent on their employers for
visas -- are isolated by geography, language, and fear.

"Their vulnerability is rooted in being beholden to their employer and
also because they're living in a private home," said Carol Pier, a
research fellow at Human Rights Watch investigating abuses of domestic
workers in the United States legally. "It makes it more difficult to
take advantage of being protected by laws that are generally intended
for workers in the public sphere."

The stock market boom has given more middle-class families the means to
hire maids and nannies, said Ai-Jen Poo, director of the Women's
Workers Project, a campaign to aid Filipina domestics in the
metropolitan area.

But while most Filipina women are employed by white families, the great
majority of South Asian domestics work for the region's growing number
of South Asian doctors, programmers, and other professionals, said
Shabano Aliani of Worker's Awaaz, a Queens-based group that tries to
assist these women.

Many South Asian employers seek workers who share their language, food,
and culture, Aliani said, and they come from countries where great
disparities in wealth and class make the notion of servants common.

"It's a very cultural thing in the South Asian community," said Neela
Trivedi of Andolan, a domestic-worker support group that aided

In their native countries, "most middle-class [people] would have
workers in their homes, so when they come here, they definitely have a
need for a domestic worker," Trivedi said.

To poor women coming from countries with more people than jobs, an
offer to work in the United States can often seem like the answer. It
did for Marjina.

In her village in Bangladesh, people speak of America as a land of
riches. But Marjina, a young mother married to a tailor, had not
planned to go abroad until her husband took a second wife over her

Leaving her daughter with family, she followed thousands of other
Bangladeshis in looking for work outside the country, and found it in a
garment factory in the oil-rich but labor-poor Middle Eastern country
of Dubai. The factory was owned by a family from India and after a few
months, they asked her to go with them to America, to work in their
home there.

"If you pay me well, I'll go anywhere in the world, no problem," she
recalls telling them.

Soon after, the family, with Marjina in tow, flew to New York and then
drove to a brick Cape Cod home in Teaneck. Weary from the trip, Marjina
fell asleep on the floor. Marjina says she woke to find one of the men
staring down at her in a rage.

"Did you bring this woman here to sleep?" the man yelled to his wife.
"Is she our guest?"

Interviews with Marjina and another Bangladeshi domestic worker,
Shamela Begum, and with attorneys and activists assisting still others,
paint a portrait of women who flee into a world they're ill-prepared to

Begum, who was employed by a Bahraini diplomat and his family,
recounted recently how she broke down in tears when she attempted to
flee their New York City apartment because she had no idea how to use
the building's elevator.

In another case, an Indian woman who eventually fled a North Jersey
home two years ago was at first intimidated by the heavy foliage and
sprawling yards of the outer suburbs.

"She said she left the home and walked and walked and walked and all
she saw was jungle and more jungle," says Laura Abel, an attorney who
brought a civil suit on behalf of the woman seeking unpaid wages. "She
knew she wasn't going to be able to find someone by walking and asking
for help."

The struggle of these women has begun gaining attention recently.

A report last fall by the Central Intelligence Agency listed
exploitation of foreign domestic workers as one of several troubling
offshoots of increased criminal trafficking of women to the United

The issue also has attracted the attention of Congress, where Rep.
Christopher Smith, R-Trenton, co-chaired a hearing this year that
included testimony by domestic workers. The House on May 9 passed a
bill authored by Smith and Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., offering
protection from deportation to domestic workers who pursue legal action
against employers. The measure is awaiting a Senate vote.

But public officials say it remains exceedingly difficult to size up
the problem and intervene. Federal and state labor officials say it's
difficult to target domestic worker exploitation because, unlike the
situation in garment factories, there is no readily identifiable

With resources limited, the U.S. Department of Labor focuses its
enforcement efforts on sweat shops and other larger employers that
affect more people, said George Ference, deputy regional administrator
for the department's Wage and Hour Division.

New Jersey regulators say they have fielded some complaints about
employers mistreating immigrants who work as home health aides, but
just a handful alleging exploitation of other domestic workers. But
Mike McCarthy, assistant director of wage and hour compliance for the
state Department of Labor, says he believes there is a problem that the
complaints are not revealing.

"They [immigrant workers] are the type of employees that don't
complain, so unless there is an advocate to tell us where they are, you
wouldn't even know they're there," McCarthy said.

In the months after her arrival in Teaneck, Marjina says, she labored
18 to 20 hours, seven days a week, scrubbing floors and toilets,
changing diapers, and cooking meals.

Marjina says her employer told her shoes were too expensive and sent
her out to shovel snow wearing the sandals she had brought from
tropical Bangladesh. When she got sick, they refused to take her to a
doctor. They scolded her not to go out on her own, that the police were
surely waiting to arrest her.

When she asked to call home, Marjina said, the family nearly always
told her the lines to Bangladesh were out. When she asked to be paid,
they put her off. Finally, they arranged to wire $695 to her family in
Bangladesh. She clutched the receipt for the transaction. Marjina says
those were the only dollars she was ever paid in six months.

She found a confidante in a friend of her employers, and begged the
woman to find someone else in need of a housekeeper. The woman
recruited another Teaneck family, fellow Bangladeshis. One day when her
employer left her alone, Marjina called the friend and asked to be
picked up. Then, thinking she was putting her problems behind her, she
closed and locked the door.

Advocates for domestic workers have been working to reach women such as
Marjina, through ethnic newspapers and television broadcasts, visits to
playgrounds where some women take children they care for, and by word
of mouth.

The groups have organized protests in front of the homes of some
employers, including a pair of Morris County homes in 1997. They also
have assisted women in bringing lawsuits against former employers.

On such worker won a $20,000 settlement from a North Jersey family
after she sued for back pay. Lawyers for the woman would not identify
her, the family she worked for, or the town they live in, saying the
settlement was contingent on not disclosing such details.

A coalition of activists, most in Washington, D.C., also is campaigning
for changes in federal visa rules allowing overseas diplomats and other
foreign nationals and employees of the World Bank to bring about 4,000
domestic workers into the United States each year.

"There needs to be changes in how these institutions monitor these
women," said Joy Zarembka, director of the Campaign for Migrant
Domestic Workers Rights in Washington. "Isolation breeds

=46ederal officials say they now view abuse of domestic workers as a
significant problem that has largely gone unnoticed, and they have
begun paying more attention to the issue.

That effort has been spearheaded by the two-year-old National Worker
Exploitation Task Force, formed by the U.S. Justice Department to focus
on immigrant trafficking for work in brothels and sweat shops, which
has recently turned its attention to domestic worker cases, officials

Justice Department officials said they are trying to educate law
enforcement authorities about to how deal with such situations rather
than treating them as isolated immigration, labor, or assault cases.

"I don't think there's any way at this point to measure the entirety of
the problem," said Stuart Ishimaru, deputy assistant attorney general
for civil rights. "But by providing a forum for law enforcement to deal
with this, I think we're seeing the beginnings of what might be a very
serious problem, and taking steps to address it."

Meanwhile, the State Department this year tightened oversight of visas
allowing diplomats and employees of international organizations to
bring domestic workers into the United States. The department now
requires those employers to submit a contract stipulating workers'
hours and wages, said Christopher Lamora, a spokesman for the
department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Despite such changes, activists say it has done little to change the
lives of women who are already in this country, and instances of women
coming forward for help remain rare.

Marjina fled, but she did not find refuge. Despite the second family's
promises to pay her $400 a month, they kept putting off payment, she
says. Just as in the first house, Marjina says she was ordered never to
leave on her own.

The new employer, she alleges, expected her to work similar hours and
to care for their mentally impaired son. But the petite woman says she
was no match for the teenager, who hit her, spit in her face, and bit

After three months, Marjina told the man's wife she wanted to leave and
demanded her back pay. At 8 that night, after she had spent the day
locked in the basement, the woman stuffed cash into Marjina's hand and
pushed her out the door, she says.

When Marjina climbed aboard the bus the next morning, she had no idea
how to pay the fare, let alone where to go or how to seek help.

Her unlikely saviour turned out to be the bus driver who, realizing his
passenger did not speak any English, looked at her clothes and her skin
and asked her if she spoke Hindi. Yes, she replied, and he took her to
an Indian store where the owner called for help.

Advocates for domestic workers are trying a variety of strategies to
curb exploitation of domestic workers.

The Workplace Project, which assists Central American immigrant women
on Long Island, last year started Unity Housecleaners, a cooperative of
domestic workers that sets fixed rates for services. The Women Workers
Project, targeting Filipina workers, is considering writing up a
standardized contract for such workers to protect their rights, said
Poo, the director.

Meanwhile, groups like Andolan and Worker's Awaaz, which focus on South
Asian workers, say they are trying to spread the word about worker
exploitation not just to reach workers, but to sway employers.

"We are trying to educate people . . . that they should respect their
workers, that they should pay whatever the rate is in this country. But
they treat them like in their own country. They treat them like
servants," says Nahar Alam, who directs Andolan.

Marjina says that when she was employed in isolation, she was convinced
that her situation was unique. But now, she worries about other women
like her.

"If I suffered that much," she says, "I don't know how many women are
still suffering like that."

Staff Writer Adam Geller's e-mail address is

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