Domestic Workers Join Forces to Fight Sexual Harassment

Blanca Collaguazo (right) talking with María Pérez at Make the Road’s domestic workers support group. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Almost two years ago, Ecuadorean immigrant Blanca Collaguazo was employed as a domestic worker at a family home in Brooklyn. She said that for the first 12 months she was comfortable working for the couple who hired her, but one morning things changed drastically.

She had arrived as usual at 9 a.m., the wife was away on a trip, and her employer asked her to clean the bathroom first. As she was working, she saw him entering with a lustful look in his eye and breathing heavily: “Clean the bathtub well, I want to bathe with you,” he told her. She was displeased by the comment but preferred to ignore it, but after he asked her to climb on a ladder to clean the ceiling, things escalated dangerously for the single mother who was raising her two daughters thanks to that job.

“I want to make love to you,” her boss told her after forcing her to step off the ladder, holding her firmly by the waist. “Give me a kiss, just a little kiss,” he told her, while she was pleading for him to let go of her. (…)

“I thought my boss was going to rape me and then kill me in that bathtub. I was so scared. I was just praying to God that this man would not hurt me. It was a horrific moment. I was afraid of being raped, of not seeing my daughters ever again. He made me feel like a piece of garbage, like an object,” recalled Collaguazo, fighting back tears.

“Then I told him that there are laws in this country and that he needed to respect me because I could report him, and he said: ‘Do you think they are going to believe you? I have friends who are lawyers, with good jobs, what are you going to do? If my wife knows about this she will call immigration immediately. Do it and see what happens.’ I stayed quiet. A couple days later he called me again to keep working and I came back only because I needed the money. But I refused to sleep with him and he retaliated. He got me working for three weeks and never paid me,” said the 33-year-old who is now an activist and advocate against sexual abuse in a domestic workers support group at the organization Make the Road New York. (…)

According to Modesta Toribio, a labor activist at MRNY, cases like Collaguazo’s are not only common in New York, they are getting worse under Trump’s presidency.

“Regrettably, those uncomfortable situations that women are experiencing have increased under the administration,” said Toribio, pointing out that most victims prefer to keep quiet for fear of retribution. (…)

“Most domestic workers prefer to report bad employers for wage theft, but they themselves ask us not to mention abuse because they are really afraid, either because their employers threatened to call ICE, or because they feel ashamed as they are made to feel guilty about the situation,” said the community leader. She added that every week her organization receives 10 new domestic worker cases, but so far only two have reported sexual aggressions.

Toribio, who also has been the victim of sexual harassment by an employer, said that even though Gov. Cuomo passed a series of laws to better protect women from sexual abuse in the workplace, and that the city is running educational campaigns about the issue, more needs to be done.

“We need to promote laws that make employers accountable, because it’s not enough to raise awareness among women if there is not strong action against aggressors. Unless they know they will be arrested they won’t stop,” said the Dominican activist, adding that working in family homes makes them “more vulnerable because they are alone with the employer in the same space, and that makes aggressions easier.”

(…) [Council member] Carlina Rivera, co-chair of the City Council’s Women’s Caucus, said the city must strengthen laws and mechanisms to prevent women from experiencing abuse. “It’s really awful what is going on, especially for undocumented women… We can no longer tolerate these abuses,” she said.

(…) “I am really troubled to hear that these kinds of stories are happening in our city, but what’s worse is that it sadly makes sense for that to happen based on what’s going on in our country,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who urged women who are experiencing sexual harassment to contact his office. “We must ensure that women without papers, like any other employee, are not being abused. But, regrettably, the rhetoric we are hearing from Washington is making many abusers feel emboldened.”

The New York Commission on Human Rights explained that under the city’s law, gender-based and workplace sexual harassment is illegal, as well as acts of retaliation or threats to call ICE when a domestic worker reports abuse.

However, those reports are scarce. Of the 118 gender-based discrimination cases filed last year, only one was for harassment.

(…) “All employees, even if they are the only employee, are protected. Reports can be filed anonymously and we never ask about immigration status,” said Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn P. Malalis.

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