The Hired Helpless

March 1st, 2008

Domestic workers neglected by their employers and the law

By Julia Pergolini

Winter break errands brought me to New York City’s Upper East Side for the first time. I’ve gone to private school my whole life, and I was raised in Philadelphia’s socialite suburbs, but nothing can compare to the kind of wealth that lines the streets of Park Avenue.

I gawked without apology. Bare-legged, 10-year-old girls in fur boots and popped collars clumped together after school. With crisply straightened hair, they whispered in one another’s ears and giggled carelessly.

This was a particular society that I knew nothing about. And weaving in and out of them were women, pushing strollers and holding gabbing toddlers’ hands.
At 3 p.m., when the school bell rings, clusters of immigrant nannies line the sidewalk, waiting for “their children” to jump into their arms and tell them about their day at school.

What was initially a row of women’s voices in an array of foreign tongues speaking to one another becomes a mesh of broken English, carrying the familiar weight of maternal excitement. At this moment, their voices do not reveal the anguish, the loneliness, the complete and utter fatigue that many of these women feel.

With more women in the workplace than ever before, many don’t want to choose between having children or having a high-profile job. But in order to do both, they need help from the outside. That is where immigrant domestic workers enter the picture. They provide security for these mothers and love and attention for the children.

Domestic workers in the United States are vulnerable to emotional and physical abuse. Workers leave their own families, seeking economic advancement that could never be offered to them back home. Working in the wealthiest segments of the U.S., they are excluded from basic employment and labor laws and exposed to physical abuse, cultural isolation and the emotional stress of parenting someone else’s child.

The current use of domestic labor stems, in part, from the shift in the burden of domestic work within the household that resulted from the women’s liberation movement. “Ironically, as women’s liberation shifted the burden of domestic work, instead of men beginning to pick up the household slack, these other, less-fortunate women ended up having to move in and take care of the responsibilities. Liberation was not for every woman,” said Margo Ramlal-Nankoe, assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College.
Two hundred thousand domestic workers sustain the most posh New York City families and homes. Domestic workers enable citizens to go to work every day with the assurance that their children and their homes are taken care of. But legal and social structures in the U.S. do not treat these jobs as they do other service industry work.

Domestic workers are considered “casual workers,” which means they are not afforded the federal minimum wage mandated in the Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA also does not provide live-in household workers the right to overtime.

In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Act—which ensures that employers provide their employees with an environment free from recognized hazards, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise levels, mechanical dangers, heat or cold stress, or unsanitary conditions—excludes domestic workers.

Fifty-nine percent of domestic workers are the primary income earners for their families, and 26 percent make wages either below the poverty line or below minimum wage. Most put in 50 to 60 hours in overtime a week, and 67 percent never see a penny of overtime pay.

There is one activist group making huge strides in the domestic work community. Domestic Workers United, based in New York City, is an organization made up of Caribbean, Latina and African domestic workers, all of whom are trying to organize the domestic workforce and raise the level of respect for domestic work. Since 2000, DWU has won over $300,000 in unpaid wages for domestic workers. It has also drawn up legislation in New York state called the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which addresses the exclusion of domestic workers from most labor protections and includes a living wage, health care and basic benefits.

In 2006 DWU gathered statistics and testimonies from domestic workers all across New York City. The results were troubling. Ninety percent of workers do not receive health benefits from their employers, the DWU discovered. Thirty-three percent of workers had experienced abuse of some form or another in the workplace.

“My contract said I was supposed to be paid $400 per week for 40 hours of work. Instead, I was paid $200 and worked more than a hundred hours a week, with no days off,” said Wilma, a DWU member from the Philippines documented in the report.
Another DWU member, Lou, said, “Many times around 11:00 at night [my employer] would wake me up, and she would ask me to clean the floor with Clorox Bleach.”
There have recently been more high-profile examples of abuse. James Jackson, a former vice president of legal affairs at Sony Pictures, and his wife were found guilty of forced labor. The judge called their story a case of “modern day slavery,” in which the housekeeper was hit over the head with a glass bottle and forced to sleep on a dog basket after working 18-hour days.

Republican Congressman Jim Gibbons of Nevada kept his housekeeper and nanny hidden in the basement to keep her illegal status a secret. She worked for the family since 1987, and in 2006 decided to speak up when Gibbons began making statements about “getting tough on illegal immigrants.” She was being paid $4 an hour at the time.
Oftentimes, language and communication barriers prevent domestic workers from expressing their needs and concerns. A DWU survey found that 99 percent of domestic workers are foreign-born.

A DWU member named Maribel was reduced to using sign language and basic vocabulary words with her employers. She was in the house all day and never had the opportunity to engage in adult conversation.

A minority of employers will pay for their nannies to enroll in English as a Second Language classes. But for workers whose employers won’t foot the bill, the classes are often not financially feasible.

The DWU is working to address these problems. They offer ESL courses that integrate workplace literacy and communication with employers. They give courses in infant and child CPR, basic pediatrics and child psychology. They also offer the workers a basic computer literacy course and teach them how to build a resume.

In 2003, the DWU won a major victory when they got the New York City Council to pass the so-called “Nanny Bill.” The New York City Law 33 requires employment agencies that place domestic workers to provide employers with a “code of conduct” which explains existing labor laws. Employers must sign the code of conduct, and agencies must retain the document for three years. The law also requires agencies to inform workers of their rights and provide a description detailing their work responsibilities in prospective jobs.

More difficult to address are the cultural and emotional challenges many of these women face. Immigrant women are often stereotyped as docile and easy to employ. People believe that they will take instructions and will put up with abuse, that they are family-oriented and will excel at a job surrounding the home. That is why families trust these complete strangers to come in and run their households, to love and raise their children.

This work takes an emotional toll. Women develop strong connections with these children—they raise them from the time they are babies, only to say goodbye once the child ages. They have already left their own families, and to lose another family can be too much to bear.

In domestic work, the attention and care that one person cannot provide becomes another person’s livelihood. But too often, those providing the care America’s elite no longer have time for are left unprotected by their employers and the law.

Julia Pergolini is a junior English major. Email her at jpergol1[at]

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