Invisible women: Domestic workers underpaid and abused
Women recall the pain of leaving home, only to be humiliated and abused as they search for the elusive ‘American Dream’.
Boston, United States – There are at least two million domestic workers in the United States, and most of them are black Americans or immigrant women.
They are considered so unworthy of legal protections that basic workers’ rights do not extend to them. Now, a political climate and leadership tells them that they are not only unwelcome, but they also should not expect safety because of their skin colour and ethnicity.
Many face slave-like working conditions.
They are one of the only classes of workers excluded from basic working protections, as set forth in the 1935 still-unamended National Labor Relations Act. Many are poor immigrant women of colour, which puts them in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s administration.
Beginning with New York in 2010, eight states have passed their own Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights – legislation to protect workers from racial discrimination and sexual harassment, their right to one day off a week, overtime and paid leave – but the rest of the nation is slow to catch up. Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Nevada, Oregon and California joined New York.
Thanks to the efforts of advocacy groups, Massachusetts passed its Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights in 2014. Regardless of their documentation status, the still-young legislation gives all domestic workers in the state of Massachusetts some rights.
But this does not mean they are now automatically safe. All of the women profiled here have suffered abuse. And while three of them are in better places, one is not.
These are their stories.
In Jamaica, Angella Foster was an entrepreneur, managing a construction empire with her then-husband. But after fleeing domestic violence, she found herself in the role of a nanny in Boston, Massachusetts.
Foster is not unfamiliar with or disdainful of domestic work – her grandmother had been a domestic worker, her mother a seamstress, and her father a maitre d’. She remembers how hard they worked, and understands the difficulties they faced. But her ex-husband grew up “very privileged – to him, domestic help was just domestic help.”
“For me, I took them as my family. I treated them as one of mine, because that’s the attitude I got from my grandmother,” Foster says. “She was my role model.”
When Foster came to the US in 2001, she was undocumented. An acquaintance got her a job as a nanny, but Foster barely knew where, or even how, to begin. Even though she had a son of her own back home, she had had her mother and grandmother to help her care for him.
Foster recalls the first time she changed a nappy.
“I was putting the diaper on backwards, because back in the day we used cloth diapers and those big pins,” Foster says, laughing a little and miming the action of pinning a cloth nappy together. “And the parent said, ‘You might want to turn it around.'”
But most of Foster’s memories of her early days as a domestic worker in the US are not funny. Much of the poor treatment she experienced stemmed from people taking advantage of her undocumented status.
At her first nannying job, Foster was expected to not only take care of the children, but also regularly found herself going back to her employers’ house, after she had already left for the day, to do various chores, such as ironing sheets.
What “turned me against them forever”, Foster says, was the time they told her to work the full day on Christmas Eve – and only paid her for a half-day’s work.
“Not a bonus, nothing. And that house was a three-floor house. I used to take care of the child, walk the dog, do everything, and that was $10 an hour,” Foster says.
But the family knew Foster would not put up any resistance, out of fear of deportation – and they were right. Foster stayed.
She stayed, even though the family did not pay her when the weather made it impossible for her to go into work. She stayed, even though they did not pay her when she had to take a week off for medical care, thanks to a hole in that family’s yard that they did not properly or safely cover.
She also remembers the time the little boy for whom she cared asked her why their skin colours were different. At the time, the question did not affect her – Foster says that there is less of a racial gap in Jamaica than a class gap – but she now wonders: “Was there a conversation around that? Is that why he said that? Because children say what they learn.”
That was not the only time Foster experienced racism, though. A few years later, while interviewing for another job, Foster remembers picking up the family’s baby, and the father saying: “I don’t think he’s ever been held by a black person before.”
But Foster did not say anything to him. She could not, because she was desperate to change her situation. At the time of the interview, she was working in a nanny share, in which five different families called on her to take care of their children.
‘I was dying inside, and you let me go’
A nanny share is exactly what it sounds like: Two or more families come together to hire one person to be a nanny for their children and employ that person different days of the week.
Originally, there were only two families sharing Foster, but the situation was bad from the get-go. She says she had to pick up the children and find somewhere to spend the day. The families did not want her in their homes. When the two families started dropping days, they had Foster pick up their friends’ kids, and the nanny share quickly bloomed into five different families.
Between the hectic schedule and last-minute cancellations, Foster says it felt more like being used “to the 10th power” than being employed. The rate was even lower than it was at her first job, just $9 a child an hour. And because she was undocumented, Foster thinks it was even harder to actually get the families to pay her what they owed her.
Foster’s most painful memory, though, is of her father’s death in 2013. Because of her immigration status, she could not attend the funeral, and did not want to share with the family she was working for at the time that she was undocumented.
Though she had never taken a day off in the past, even when she was not feeling well – “I would go to work, and clean myself up at their gate” – Foster asked for some time off to deal with depression. She did not tell them about her father, because that would lead to questions she did not want to answer.
Instead of giving her the time off, the family told her she would no longer be needed.
“I was reeling with grief from my father’s death, unable to attend his funeral in Jamaica … That time, I was dying inside, and you let me go because I was sick,” Foster says. “I turned to them when they did it, in tears, and I said to them, ‘Nannies are humans, too.’ And I walked away.”
Foster says the family then requested her services later – “If I was unfit to watch them then, why would you want me to do it now?”
But she still did it. “That’s who I am. When people are unkind to you, you kill them with kindness.”
Foster is now officially documented, and is in a much better place, physically and emotionally. She is a member of the Matahari Women Workers’ Center, a Boston-based nonprofit organisation dedicated to empowering women in domestic service roles, to which her current employer also belongs.
Foster describes her current employer as a “sister from another mother” – more of a friend than an employer.
“I can go to them in the dead of night,” Foster says warmly. “Their home is my home. That woman is … my friend. I could not imagine my life without [her] in it.”
Now that she is a documented immigrant, the challenges Foster personally faces on that front have gone away. But that does not mean she has stopped fighting for immigration reform and challenging the mistaken notion that only people of South American or Mexican descent who are undocumented get deported and face abuse.
“Jamaicans get deported, too. They think being undocumented is a Hispanic thing. No. People from Australia, Russia, Germany – you name it. We all get deported … We need more focus on everybody,” Foster says.
Sometimes, Camille leaves her home in the middle of the night to answer her employer’s call.
“When she asks me to sleep over [with her children], I leave my children to sleep there with them,” Camille says.
She has been with the same family since she came to Boston, Massachusetts, 14 years ago. Her employer pays her just $800 a week to work 11-to-12-hour days, five days a week, which translates to about $13 to $14 an hour. At the end of the month, she gets a $120 stipend to take the bus.
This is below what a nanny, let alone a person serving as an on-call nanny and housekeeper, should make, according to Matahari Justice, a domestic workers rights group in Boston, Massachusetts. And recently, Camille has had to pick up another job working at a country club on the weekends, just to pay the bills and continue to put her youngest children through school.
Camille, 52, does not want to use her full name – “Camille” is her middle name – for the same reason she does not want to confront her employers to demand better pay and equitable treatment: She is afraid she will lose her job, or be forced to work for an employer who treats her even more poorly.
“I don’t think I will find anything better than what I am into,” Camille says. “People are people. I wouldn’t want to jump off from there, and get into something worse, because of the colour of my skin.”
So she stays quiet. Keeps her head down. Does not make waves.
Camille’s typical weekday starts at 3am. She likes to say her prayers in the morning, before breakfast. She leaves her home at 4:45am to catch the 4:57am bus from her home in Malden, Massachusetts, to get to work by 6:15am in Chestnut Hill, an affluent suburb of Boston.
Camille has been with this family since the older child of the pair was three months old. She witnessed both the girl and her younger brother grow up. Camille says she loves the children, but her memories of them getting older are bittersweet: As they have aged, the children she has nurtured have started to treat her differently, and not in a good way. The girl treats her as though she does not exist, and acts ashamed of Camille.
“If [the girl] has a friend coming over, and I’m asked to stay late, she will tell her mum, ‘No, I don’t want you to do that.’ She has a problem with me being around,” Camille says. “And her mom allows her to behave like that. But she put up a fuss to her mother to get me a phone, so that if she wants something, she can just text me.”
Camille has four children of her own. Her oldest son is in the US Navy, and her oldest daughter is in nursing school, working at Boston Children’s Hospital. Her other two children are 15 and 12, and they are both enrolled in public school. The time she gets to spend with them is preciously slim, and her need to get another job to keep up with the cost of living has cut into that time even more.
And it is not that her employer does not know she needs more money; Camille told her that she had gotten a second job.
“She said to me, ‘Oh, you need more money?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘If you need more money, go find something else,'” Camille says.
People ‘judge you by your colour’
Camille is used to such treatment at the hands of the family, though. She suspects, again, that it has to do with the colour of her skin. For instance, years ago, Camille planted a tomato garden for the family, because she knows they eat tomatoes – she cooks for them, too, after all. But when Camille harvested the tomatoes, her employer claimed that no one in the family would eat the fruit.
“The mother told me, ‘[Camille], take these tomatoes and take them home. We’re not going to eat them … You can take them and go home,'” Camille says. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t eat them.”
Experiences like these are why Camille says she does not want to leave her current employer. In her eyes, even if they do not eat the food she grows, they do not refuse to touch the food she has handled. After she has finished preparing the meal, lighting their white taper candles and filling their delicate wine glasses, Camille says the father of the family often sits back, a satisfied smile on his face, and says, “[Camille], you are the best cook.”
Moreover, the neighbours all know her, and there is a certain comfort in the relative trust of these people. It is better than starting over from scratch, she says, especially in a time of openly hostile attitudes towards immigrants and people of colour.
“People aren’t going to look at you as a person. They are just going to judge you by your colour,” Camille says. “I will stay until [my employer] sits down and says, ‘[Camille], it’s time’ … But I don’t like how they treat me. They don’t treat me with respect.”
At her first nannying job, Claudia Galindo did not realise that being forced to make up hours, after her employer dismissed her early, was a violation of her rights.
“If [my employer] said I could leave, for example, at 3pm, I would have to work the next day at 6am, so I would always have to make up the hours,” Galindo says.
Galindo arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, in 2011 from Guatemala, to meet up with her children’s father, who was already living and working in the US. She says she came to the country because of the security situation in Guatemala.
“I was thinking about the lives of my children,” she says. “Sometimes, we have to leave the comfort of our lives and good jobs in our countries, and come here for the wellbeing of our families.”
But between the city’s strange newness and unfamiliar faces, it was not exactly a welcoming landscape into which she found herself plunged. Of all the challenges she faced when she first reached the US, learning English was the hardest.
And it still is. Galindo has not reached full English proficiency, which worries her. Even though she was an accounts executive for an insurance company in Guatemala, she has found that her lack of English mastery precludes her from being considered for higher-paying jobs. It also leads to a lack of respect.
“When you don’t know English, and someone looks at your face, they immediately think, ‘Oh, she’s not from this country,’ … and also, if they are asking you a question, and you can’t respond quickly enough, it’s also harder,” she says.
Her fears are not baseless. In order to supplement her income from the nannying job, which would last only nine months of the year – the mother worked in the school system, and dismissed Galindo in the summers – Galindo found employment with a Spanish-speaking cleaning agency. They would work in teams, but she found herself left with the work no one else wanted to do: cleaning bathrooms.
“We would clean three or four houses in a day … and, sometimes, the houses would have as many as three bathrooms,” she says.
The agency head also always assigned her to clean the houses’ bathrooms, which meant Galindo would be bent over toilets or on her knees to scrub bathtubs for hours on end. At the end of the day, she says, she could barely move, because everything in her body hurt.
‘We just say yes, accept the job, and work’
She was also shut out of social interaction with the rest of the cleaning crew, who seemed to gang up on the newcomer. For Galindo, this was isolating. She had expected a warmth and sense of camaraderie with her fellow Spanish-speakers, but instead felt shut out.
She also had not had any communication with her friends back home. Except for her immediate family, she was completely alone, for the first time in her life.
“My world was really small because I had no communication,” Galindo recalls. “I had to work really hard to buy a cell phone.”
This was not easy to do on the income from her nannying job in Roxbury, Massachusetts. There, Galindo earned $7 an hour – an illegal salary, according to the Massachusetts Minimum Wage law, which was then $8 an hour as of 2009.
“I think this is the story of everyone who comes to this country. We really don’t know how it is, so we just say yes, accept the job, and work … because even if it’s not a lot of money, we can pay our bills,” Galindo says.
Galindo eventually learned she was not getting paid enough, but when she finally worked up the courage to talk to her employer about it, her employer refused, saying she could not afford to pay her more. After this conversation, the employer even told Galindo that if she wanted to take the children out, such as to a museum or the pool, Galindo herself would have to foot the bill.
My world was really small because I had no communication. I had to work really hard to buy a cell phone.
“The woman said, ‘Either you can buy the pass, or we’ll take it out of your pay,'” Galindo remembers.
And Galindo probably would have accepted it, had it not been for the Matahari Women Workers’ Center, a Boston-based nonprofit organisation dedicated to empowering women in domestic service roles. Thanks to the organisation, Galindo learned she had rights, and finally felt less alone.
During this time, a mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts, contacted Galindo through the profile she had created on care.com, a nannying website, to try to find a better job. The mother was excited that Galindo could speak Spanish, and wanted Galindo to care for her child. For Galindo, this was a dream come true.
“I had said to my daughter … that I really want a family that wants my language, my culture, even wants my food,” Galindo says, smiling. “The mother called me, and we spoke on the phone in Spanish.”
Thanks to her education with Matahari, Galindo was more informed. She and her employer talked about everything from a contract to paid vacation to day passes for the child Galindo would be caring for.
Even though she no longer works for this family, she still keeps in touch with them, cleans their house, and occasionally babysits the little boy.
Galindo now works for another family in Boston’s South End. She says the family understands the importance of her connection with Matahari and sticks to the negotiated contract, which includes a raise every year. She now makes $21 an hour.
As far as working conditions go, Galindo’s current job is a far cry from her first. She does not miss it.
Once, Lucimara Rodrigues asked for more than just $20 for 12 hours of work. The response?
“You’re not even documented. Why are you complaining?”
Rodrigues, a Brazilian immigrant who works as a house cleaner, says this is not an uncommon problem for newly arrived undocumented immigrants – especially those who do not know English very well or at all – to encounter in the US.
Rodrigues, 32, came to Boston, Massachusetts, 13 years ago, following the man who would eventually become her husband. The pair started dreaming about going to the US to make better lives for themselves.
Eventually, in 2003, her now-husband hired a coyote – a person who ferries undocumented immigrants across the Mexico-US border, to take himself across the border.
“It was a really, really hard trip. Three days and three nights, and no water. He had to run from Border Patrol twice … but he managed to get there,” Rodrigues says. “A year later, he saved up enough money so I could go.”
So Rodrigues made the trip. But the “American Dream” was not as idyllic as she and her husband had imagined. In Brazil, she remembers learning from television programmes that everyone in the US who works hard deserves to make a living – period.
This turned out not to be true. Instead of reasonable hours and good pay, Rodrigues found herself working for “hours and hours to make no money.”
Rodrigues made just $300 a week, working six days a week from 7am to 7pm. It was not what she had come for. But because she was undocumented, the homeowners thought they could get away with it.
“They used to tell me, ‘You have no experience, so you don’t deserve to make as much as everyone else,'” Rodrigues recalls. “It was just this idea of, ‘I can pay whatever I want. They just have to accept it.'”
She did not find camaraderie among other Brazilians, either. In fact, it was at the hands of her fellow workers, particularly the cleaning agency heads and intermediaries who provided the language bridge between homeowners and Rodrigues, that she suffered the most directly.
“Those are the ones that really want to exploit you – not the owners of the house, but the workers, and they are usually also Brazilians,” Rodrigues says. “I think most of them also suffered so much [when they first came here], that they think this is natural. A lot of women are harassed by these people.”
‘My pregnancy was treated like a contagious disease’
Rodrigues has been sexually harassed by the male intermediaries, including unwanted sexual contact. One even refused to pay what he owed her, because, after having a child, she wanted to work at houses closer to her own home.
“He got extremely angry, and told me that he wouldn’t pay me what he owed me,” Rodrigues says. “I went [to see him] with my husband, and just because I was with another man, he paid me … It’s a cultural thing. Brazil is extremely sexist. There’s this mindset of, ‘Men know more; men are successful; women need to accept whatever a man says.'”
Female intermediaries were not much better. One woman told Rodrigues she was “too fat” to work at a house. Another time, as she was leaving a house she had been cleaning, the female intermediary stopped her and asked her to open her bag. The intermediary then proceeded to pat her down, to make sure Rodrigues did not have anything from the house on her body. The implication, of course, was that she did not trust Rodrigues not to steal.
“I was really surprised because it never even crossed my mind to steal anything,” Rodrigues says, the hurt in her voice palpable.
Rodrigues says she was even fired from an agency once because she had gotten pregnant. She remembers being treated “like a contagious disease”, and was told she was “useless”.
The abuse stretched to working conditions, too. Rodrigues was never provided a mask or gloves to protect her from the caustic chemicals she used and she started suffering respiratory problems.
Despite her building rage at how she was being treated, Rodrigues felt she could not say anything, because of her undocumented status. She did not want to get deported.
Her luck changed in 2006, though. A small newspaper caught her eye.
It advertised a training session, so she went with her son. What she learned fundamentally changed her and taught her that she wasn’t “crazy” – in fact, she had a right to be angry. It was one of the best days of her life, she says.
By 2010, she was fully engaged with the Brazilian Women’s Group and working better jobs, thanks to their training and influence. She and the other centre members also joined the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which helps domestic workers nationwide.
After attending one of the alliance’s conferences, Rodrigues helped to draft what became Massachusetts’ official bill of rights for domestic workers, as of July 2, 2014. The law ensures domestic workers get everything from vacations to maternity leave to protection against retaliation.
Rodrigues’ personal career life has gotten significantly better, too. She now makes at least $130 cleaning between seven and nine houses – and yes, she always gets a mask and gloves.