Juana Sierra Trejo

(WOMENSENEWS)–Five Latina hotel maids have sued a New York City hotel, alleging sexual harassment, discrimination, wage abuses and forced labor.

The five may be the first to bring a forced labor charge in civil court, using a new law permitting victims of forced labor to bring civil claims.

Martin Gringer, lawyer for the Broadway Plaza Hotel denied the charges, saying the women were motivated by money, not justice.

The federal Trafficking Victims and Protection Act of 2000 was amended in December 2003 to allow individuals to bring forced labor claims in civil court. In criminal court charges, the government must bring the claims, and it is uncommon for such a charge to be brought, said lawyers for the women. A win in this case may deter other employers from similarly exploiting workers, the lawyers said.

Cleaning Hotel Rooms for $5.25 an Hour

Juana Sierra Trejo, the youngest plaintiff in the suit, worked at the Broadway Plaza Hotel for 19 months beginning in 2002. She began working there at age 16, after crossing the Mexican border into the United States and making her way to New York City, where her aunt had found her a job cleaning hotel rooms for $5.25 an hour, 10 cents more an hour than New York state’s minimum wage.

There, Trejo met Felix Ramirez, a supervisor.

"He was friendly at first. After a couple of months, he just really started to yell at you a lot," said Trejo. "He’d yell at you if you went to the bathroom," she said in Spanish. Her lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union translated.

Trejo says he demanded more hours from her and her coworkers without paying overtime and insisted that they clean his home for no pay. Ramirez responded to complaints by threatening to have the women deported.

Ramirez began to make sexual advances to Trejo, touching her face and trying to grope her breasts, she said.

"If anybody responded to him, he’d get really, really mad, and give you more work and yell at you even more," Trejo said.

Another plaintiff, Ines Bello Castillo, 24, alleged that Ramirez tried to hug and kiss her shortly after she began working there in July 2003. The women say Ramirez called them "puras chismosas," or pure gossips, and told them the hotel owner would not believe them. Ramirez retaliated by assigning Castillo extra duties. Then, he fired her, according to the complaint.

"We did an investigation and our investigation shows that Mr. Ramirez didn’t do any of these things," said Gringer, attorney for the hotel. Ramirez was been fired this spring for unrelated reasons, Gringer said. He declined to specify those reasons because of pending litigation, but said they were "performance issues" unrelated to the case.

The case, which may take more than a year to come to trial, is still pending before the U.S. District Court, southern district for New York.

Trejo, along with Gabriela Flores Viegas, Ines Bello Castillo, Carmen Calixto Rodriquez and Lucero Santes Vazquez, are seeking damages against Ramirez, the hotel and the president and vice president of the hotel. The complaint asked for no specific dollar amount, but sought compensation for unpaid hours and overtime, attorneys’ fees and punitive damages. The case was brought in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York in May.

Immigrant Women Vulnerable to Labor Abuse

Immigrant women in low-wage jobs remain particularly vulnerable to labor abuses, said Lenora M. Lapidus, director of the women’s rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the five women.

"Many of these industries rely on immigrant workers because they know they can exploit them more easily," Lapidus said.

Women comprised 58.3 percent of the 1.4 million workers in traveler accommodations last year and Hispanics made up nearly a quarter of that workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One in four women working in hotels in the United States is Latina, but Latina earn the least and are the least likely to be represented by a union.

"Immigrant workers and immigrant women, it’s always said, if you don’t want it, a lot of other people will take your job," said Rocio Saenz, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 615 in Boston.

Across the board, women earned less than their male counterparts. Latinas working full time in the accommodation industry earned a median $346 a week, $27 less than their male counterparts and $72 less per week than white women in the same industry, according the bureau.

Latinas Underrepresented in Unions

Despite the increasing efforts to organize low-wage and immigrant workers, Latinas remain underrepresented in unions. Only 11.6 percent of Latinas in the workforce had union representation in 2003–the lowest rate–compared to 16.9 percent of black women, 12.2 percent of white women and 13.1 percent of Asian women.

"When you survey non-union workers about their interest in unions, women are much more interested than men," said Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Among women, Latinas and African American women are the most interested. The question is: Can unions capitalize on this?"

Latinas, however, showed half a percentage point increase in union representation over 2002, the largest single increase in a year when the general trend showed eroding union representation.

"It is a trend, especially in the lower wage industries and in major metropolitan areas," said Hurd.

The fear of losing even low-wage work–compounded by fear of deportation, language barriers and ignorance of U.S. labor protections–heightens an immigrant worker’s risk of abuse, Lapidus said. With women who experience sexual harassment, the fear and humiliation makes it even less likely that a worker will confront their employer, she said.

Leslye Orloff of Legal Momentum, formerly the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, said immigration status was often a weapon wielded by abusive bosses. "The fact that the power dynamic exists, that fosters a lot of the problems that immigrant women face in the workforce," she said.

Trejo says she brought the lawsuit because she wants to set an example. "I want women who are suffering like this to come forward and not be scared," said Trejo.

Asjylyn Loder is a reporter for the New Jersey Herald News.


For more information:

American Civil Liberties Union–
ACLU Sues Manhattan Hotel Under ‘Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act’:

Legal Momentum: Advancing Women’s Rights–
Immigrant Women: