A Filipina domestic worker sued her employers for back wages after two years of toil for $1.60 an hour. She is one of thousands of immigrant women employed in U.S. households without government oversight or labor protections.
(WOMENSENEWS)–This week, a domestic worker and her previous employer settled a case brought in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey for $30,000. The worker sued Pui Yin Ma and Sau Chum Ho for back wages and overtime, claiming that they paid her as little as $1.60 per hour.
But the troubles of the worker, who calls herself Evelyn, are far from over.
When Evelyn left her employers last May with the help of Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a New York-based Philippine worker’s solidarity group, she violated her B-1 work visa, leaving her vulnerable to deportation and without permission to work elsewhere. According to the rules of the visa, Evelyn was not allowed to leave her previous employer who sponsored her entry into the United States.
Evelyn has since joined the ranks of undocumented workers, taking a job as a part-time nanny with another family. She now shares an apartment in northern New Jersey with two roommates. Without permission to live and work in the U.S., Evelyn fears deportation.
"You are just afraid, afraid to be caught," she said.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, will rarely pursue for deportation a single worker in violation of their visa, but there are other hardships of Evelyn’s position. She has not seen her children, a son and daughter in the Philippines, for nearly four years. She left them with family when she took a job as a domestic worker in Hong Kong in 1996. Families in Neuva Ecija, a Philippine province known as the "Rice Bowl of the Philippines," earn little more than $1,000 per year, an amount that would not have allowed Evelyn to feed her children and pay their school fees.
Trapped by Visa Restrictions
Evelyn’s case typifies the obstacles faced by migrant domestic workers employed by abusive and exploitative employers because their legal status is determined by an employer-sponsored B-1 visa that prohibits them from quitting or changing employers. Few get as far as winning a settlement for any breach of employment contract.
Of the more than 200,000 workers who enter the U.S. each year using the B-1, a large portion are domestic workers, advocates say. In addition, more than 3,700 domestic workers entered the U.S. in 2002 as employees of foreign diplomats or of officials with international organizations, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
While much attention has focused recently on victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking, the plight of migrant domestic workers, most of them women, who enter the U.S. each year, goes relatively unnoticed. Their troubles, however, are well known to legal advocates.
The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking in Los Angeles, Calif., which provides legal advocacy for workers like Evelyn, found, for instance, that domestic workers made up 40 percent of its cases, compared to 17 percent victims of sexual trafficking.
In 2001, Human Rights Watch reported that wage abuses were common for domestic workers and that the average wage came to $2.14 an hour, from which deductions for room and board might be made. The report, "Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers with Special Visas in the United States," also found, in the worst cases, domestic workers suffered physical and sexual abuse and were kept as modern-day slaves.
Job Began in Hong Kong
In 1996, Evelyn left the Philippines for Hong Kong, where she found a job as a live-in domestic worker. She had separated from her husband, leaving her the sole financial provider of school fees, books, clothes and other necessities for the 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter she left behind.
When her employers and their two children moved to a New Jersey suburb in 2001, Evelyn’s income, by Philippine standards, looked about to skyrocket to the U.S. minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, plus overtime.
But after they arrived, her employers continued to pay her $1.60 per hour, which Evelyn found stretched thin by the high U.S. prices. She befriended another domestic worker who lived nearby and frequently called her children, but isolated in a suburb with little public transit, Evelyn had little contact with the outside world.
She kept little for her infrequent days off. "Here, I didn’t spend anything because I needed to send everything home," she told Women’s eNews. Desperate to avoid deportation, she slept on a thin mattress on the floor of the children’s room and worked 14 or more hours a day for two years, providing child care for two children, now 5 and 8, and doing household chores, such as laundry and dishes.
"I did whatever they want me to do even though it hurt me," she said, adding that the couple were not verbally or physically abusive but that they often asked her to keep working 14 to 16 hour days even when she was exhausted or ill.
Mark E. Tabakman, an attorney for Pui Yin Ma and Sau Chum Ho, did not return calls for comment.
Unqualified for Trafficking Status
Like Evelyn, some exploited workers find that their experience, however appalling, is not enough to qualify for visas created to protect victims of crime and trafficking. These "wage-and-hour" cases–in which employers violate minimum wage and overtime requirements–are a civil rather than a criminal offense and rarely attract the attention and resources of a prosecutor.
The passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act in 2000 created visas for people brought to the U.S. as a result of violence, coercion or fraud. To qualify for trafficking visas, such employees are advised to submit a highly recommended, but not required, affidavit from law enforcement proving their willingness to cooperate. Usually, police and prosecutors have so far been reluctant to give when they are not pursuing a criminal case.
Arguably, Evelyn’s employment contract guaranteeing minimum wage could qualify as fraud. Trafficking advocates have been fighting to have the law broadly construed to protect workers like her and to educate law enforcement that they can attest to a willingness to cooperate with prosecution even if charges remain unlikely.
"We call them our ‘purgatory cases,’" said Joy Zarembka, director of the Campaign for Migrant Domestic Workers Rights (soon to become Break the Chain Campaign), an advocacy group, in Washington, D.C. "They can either be legal and enslaved or exploited or illegal and free."
"When I’m talking with someone on the phone and trying to get the details of their abuse, sadly, I want them to tell me that they’re being beaten and raped because then they qualify for all sorts of services and relief," Zarembka said. "If it’s anything less, there’s no law to protect them in terms of immigration status."
Asjylyn Loder is a writer in New York.
For more information:
Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Complaint Line: 1-888-428-7581
Human Rights Watch–
"Hidden In the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers with Special Visas in the United States":
Institute for Policy Studies–
"Campaign for Migrant Domestic Worker Rights":