Tidying up domestic workers’ rights

It was not yet 7:00 a.m. on an uncharacteristically chilly May morning, and the corner of Mercy and Division Avenues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was already teeming with life. A group of some 30 women were gathered, falling into an unspoken yet understood choreography: the Latinas stood in small clusters chatting just a few feet from the groups of Polish women. Although joined by a common purpose—they were all there to get work—no words were exchanged across this cultural boundary.

Carmen, a native of Tehuacan, Puebla in Mexico, traveled more than an hour from her home in the Bronx to stand here, hoping one of the many Hassidic Jewish men or women who seek domestic workers will give her work. “Generally, the white women are hired first. After they are gone, then we get jobs,” she explained.

Before making “la esquina” (the corner) a weekly destination, Carmen tried to find work through an employment agency, as nearly 30 percent of all domestic workers do. “A few months back, a woman hired me. I paid the agency $140 plus $5 for the application. Assured by the agency that they would protect me if the employer did not pay me, I took the job.”

As a live-in maid, Carmen shared a studio apartment with two other adults and two children. They all slept on mattresses on the floor. Work started at 8 a.m. and, she says, “Sometimes I wouldn’t get to bed before one in the morning.” She cared for the kids, did light cleaning and cooked for them. Rest time was scarce and so was the food. “Some evenings I had nothing to eat.” Payday was no better. “At the end of the first week, she didn’t give me any money. When I asked for my money, my employer handed me $20 or less.” Carmen received $1,400 for six weeks work, totaling more than 460 hours. When she complained to the agency, she was told that their responsibility only went as far as getting her a job, which they had done.

Monica, who arrived here from Argentina three years ago, found domestic work pretty quickly through a recommendation from a local storeowner. “I was promised $6 an hour to clean a woman’s apartment. After a couple of weeks, my employer couldn’t pay me, so she suggested I move in with her to lower my own expenses.” Monica kept her job for 15 weeks and only got paid $600 instead of the $4,064.70 that she was owed. “Now I know that if you don’t get paid that first week, you don’t return to work.” Asked if she had sought help, she replied, “The woman threatened to report me to immigration. I was too afraid to take a chance.”

For most of the estimated 200,000 domestic workers in the New York City area, the City Council’s May 15 approval of a bill protecting their rights has barely created a ripple, given that the majority of domestic workers find employment through informal means. The legislation, sponsored by Democratic City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, demands that employment agencies inform domestic workers of their right to a minimum hourly wage, to overtime pay and vacation. Employers must sign statements that outline these rights as well as the terms of employment when hiring a worker. If an agency fails to comply, it can be fined $1,000 and its officials can face up to a year in jail.

“The idea is really good,” comments Elizabeth, an employee at the Alex Employment Agency in Jackson Heights. “The problem, however, is that there is little work out there. If a woman has been unemployed for several weeks, when a job comes along, even if it pays less than the minimum wage, she will take it. She has bills to pay, a family to feed or she needs to send money back home. And, if we refuse to take the job offer, then some other agency would, which means someone else would be making that commission.” Several other agencies advertising domestic work refused to be interviewed for this article.

Although it is the first such law in the country and it sets an important precedent, community organizers recognize that its effectiveness depends on them. Ai-Jen Poo, an organizer with Domestic Workers United (DWU) and the principal lobbyist for the bill, says, “The law has been put into place; now we are working on an enforcement campaign.”

DWU—an advocacy group—includes the Committee Against Anti Asian Violence (CAAAV); Andolan (Organizing South Asian Workers); Damayan (Immigrant Workers Association); Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees; and Jobs With Justice, another labor advocacy group. The groups are approaching all employment agencies that are licensed to place domestic workers. “We are asking them if they want to set an example of what a good agency can be, with the aim of dividing them into the good guys, the bad guys and those in between. There are four points we are stressing: 1. They must comply with the law. 2. They must stop asking people about their immigration status. Although it is illegal to hire or place undocumented workers, you are not forced to ask about their status. 3. Agencies must use a standard contract when placing workers in jobs, which stipulates paid sick days, paid vacation and national holidays and health care. This provides a context to negotiate basic living conditions. 4. Agencies must post standard guidelines in their offices. Each agency approached will get a report card, which will be publicized in August. The strategy is to give the good guys lots of positive exposure as trustworthy agencies, while the bad guys will get also exposed.”

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer recently printed the “Employment Agency Law Fact Sheet for Domestics, Household Employees, Unskilled or Untrained Manual Workers and Laborers,” outlining the “musts” for agencies: they must be licensed; the fees charged cannot exceed certain percentages; they must provide receipts for all fees; they must provide copies of all contracts; they cannot refer applicants to a job that pays less than the minimum wage or does not pay overtime; they cannot ask about the applicant’s nationality, age, number of children, or marital status.

According to Brad Maione from the attorney general’s press office, “the fact sheets are being printed to inform the tax-payers of New York.” Reluctantly, he admits he is unaware of what sort of outreach is being done or if the fact sheets are being distributed to the employment agencies. Asked if a person who has received unfair treatment from an employment agency should call the number on the fact sheet (212-416-8700), the general number for the attorney general’s office to complain, he replies, “That is totally appropriate.”

Quisia Gonzalez, a former women’s organizer with the Latin American Workers Project in Brooklyn, who spent many a morning at “la esquina” in Willimasburg with the women, says, “The real problem is that undocumented immigrant workers feel that employers are doing them a favor by giving them work. Our task is not only to inform workers of their rights, but to help them gain a sense of self-worth, to make them understand that their work has value.” For Elizabeth from the employment agency, she sees the solution to these abuses clearly. “If the government would open the door to legal residence, than they would not be afraid to stand up for their rights.”

This article was written as part of the Ethnic Press Fellowship of the Independent Press Association-New York.

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