She worked six days a week as a live-in nanny and kept going from one household to the next for six years. By Nepalese standards her earnings were good, but her U.S. employers were so bad she had to keep moving on.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, she was among 200 people celebrating a Nepali holiday at a community center in Woodside, Queens. The petite woman sat in a circle with other women who clapped and sang a Nepali folk song.
A few wore flower-printed yellow and red saris while the rest wore fashionable tops, stylish earrings, red lipstick and heels. They laughed during pauses and took turns coming up with their own lyrics.
“Okay, it’s my turn,” said Anju in Nepali and then added her lyric: “Because of you, sisters and friends, I look forward to days like today.” Anju is not her real name; it’s a pseudonym to protect her work security.
The merriment was short-lived for those who visited the Nepali center. By 3 p.m., they were trickling away to catch buses and trains or carpool back to their jobs.
Anju, 42, is one of 1.8 million domestic workers in the United States. The majority are female, persons of color and foreign born, according to the Excluded Workers Congress, a national advocacy based in New York City that represents undocumented workers and others who do not have the right to organize in the United States.
Child care workers in the United States make less than $20,000 a year on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s a very low wage for many Americans, but a fortune for many migrant domestic workers.
In Nepal, Anju worked for a nonprofit that provided local training on child care. It was not a bad job, but she only earned around $350-$550 a month. She worried about not being able to afford a good education for her daughter Ayushma, now 9 years old.
When Anju visited the United States in 2005 on a training program for her employer, she realized she could earn the same amount she makes monthly in a week.
Return to America
She left her daughter with family members and returned to the U.S. in 2006. She quickly found work in New Jersey as a live-in nanny.
In the six years since then, however, she has not been able to find a position she has found acceptable. She came and went from six South Asian families and two Asian American families. Today she takes care of an elderly Iranian woman on a live-in basis during the week, but goes home to Queens on the weekends.
She has taken care of 10 children in all, who called her “aunty.” Besides her main role as a nanny, she also cooked and cleaned.
The hours were long. She says she was often given insufficient meals. Like many immigrants, she suffered emotional and mental abuse from her employers. Alone and struggling with the language, many workers stay in these demeaning jobs out of fear their employers will turn them in to immigration authorities for deportation if they complain about how they are being treated.
Anju had no health benefits at any of her jobs. When she needed medical attention, some of the families would take her to their personal doctors and pay for the visit.
In one case, she says she was initially denied medical care for blisters on her fingers. Instead, her employer accused her of having leprosy. Anju said she had to persist until the employer took her to a doctor who treated her blisters.
Nationally, only 13 percent of in-home workers employed at least half-time or year-round have health coverage provided by their employers, according to a December 2010 report by the Excluded Workers Congress.
Anju has bought a plot of land in Nepal from her savings. She hopes to return home in a couple of years and build a house there for her and her family. This is her retirement plan and major work accomplishment.
Migrant domestic workers make up a large portion of the thousands of people each year who are considered victims of labor trafficking in the United States annually.
Anju wasn’t trafficked, but she recounts inhumane treatment by her employers. Some berated her for taking too long to eat her meals and using too much water to wash the dishes, she said. She would work 14-16-hour shifts without breaks and with little food.
“Most places, I would get to eat two biscuits in the morning and tea. If I ate more than that, they would yell at me,” she said. Lunch was a single piece of bread, and dinner was a small serving of rice, lentil soup and occasionally vegetables.
Safeworld International Foundation is an independent nongovernmental organization that campaigns for the rights of women and children. It documents numerous cases of similar abuse suffered by women who seek foreign employment as domestic workers. Most of the accounts concern women who have worked in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries.
There is no evidence that immigrant families in the United States who come from South Asia are more likely to mistreat live-in child care workers.
For many live-in child care providers, the job is a Catch-22. On one hand, they bond with the children they raise and earn money to send home to their families. On the other hand, someone else raises their own children. Many are wracked with guilt.
Anju sends between $1,500 and $1,800 each month to Nepal for her daughter, but still struggles with the separation. “I get upset when I think of my daughter and not seeing her grow up.”
In 2008, an acquaintance introduced Anju to Adhikaar, the community center in Queens. Adhikaar (the name means “rights” in Nepali) is a nonprofit that offers education in workers’ rights and affordable health care, English language classes and job placements.
At Adhikaar, Anju took English classes, attended seminars and went to Albany, the state capital, with a group of domestic workers in 2010 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed New York’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, guaranteeing workers overtime pay, one day off per week and paid vacations.
Anju says Adhikaar gave her the courage to ask for more money when the work increased and to resist extra hours without pay or the pressure to work on her one day off and after her shift was done.
She continues to miss her family, but weekly phone calls to her daughter are reassuring. Anju believes she is doing the right thing.
“I don’t have to ask anyone for money for my daughter’s education,” she said. “I’m proud I’ve come this far and done it on my own as a woman.”
Kamana Shrestha is a freelance journalist living in New York City. She has written for the New York Daily News and The Record and Herald News in New Jersey.