When 51-year-old domestic worker Samireh, an undocumented immigrant from Indonesia, wandered into a Nassau County Dunkin Donuts wearing little more than a towel back in 2007, she brought needed attention to the plight of thousands of underpaid and exploited household employees, the people who labor behind the scenes to keep American enterprise afloat.
As Samireh’s story unfolded, we learned that she and Enung, a 47-year-old coworker, had experienced years of almost unimaginable abuse by perfume manufacturers Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani: beatings with rolling pins and brooms; being fed table scraps in lieu of proper meals; and being forced to take repeated cold showers and eat hot chili peppers anytime they did anything their bosses deemed improper. Standard compensation for seven-day work weeks—with 18- to 21-hour workdays—came to a paltry $200 a month.
Prosecutors called it slavery and Varsha was ultimately convicted on 12 counts of forced labor and peonage. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison and had to pay a $25,000 fine. Mahender, who argued that he was blameless because he was at his factories when the worst abuses took place at his home, began serving a 40-month sentence in April of 2010.
The case catapulted the mistreatment of domestic laborers onto front pages across the region and pushed state lawmakers to finally pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights last summer. The bill represents an impressive and hard-fought victory for domestic labor, entitling household help throughout the state to the minimum wage. It also requires employers to provide overtime pay at one-and-a-half times the worker’s hourly rate after 40 hours and stipulates that they must receive one day off each week. In addition, the bill gives domestic workers three paid holidays after one year with the same employer, extends Workers’ Compensation protections to household laborers, and bars retaliation against employees who act to enforce their rights. Lastly, the law provides legal recourse when domestic workers are sexually harassed or assaulted.
While groups such as Domestic Workers United rightly hailed this important legislative win, they understood that their work was far from over. The new challenge? Ensuring that the law is enforced. According to attorney Elizabeth Joynes, head of the Latinas at Work Project (LAW) of Latino Justice, a 39-year-old Manhattan-based legal advocacy group, activists must now make sure that employers understand their obligations and employees understand what to do if the law is flouted.
Joynes, a 30-year-old Clinton Hill resident, began working with LAW—a two-year pilot program funded by the Skadden Fellowship Foundation—slightly more than a year ago. Enforcement of the Bill of Rights, she continues, requires a mix of tactics to educate not only household workers, but also other low-wage immigrant women employed in stores, dry cleaners, restaurants, delis, and laundries.
Among Joynes’s tools are community organizing in conjunction with Long Island groups including Sepa Mujer, The Workplace Project, and the North Fork Spanish Apostolate; face-to-face negotiations with employers; the filing of complaints with the New York State Department of Labor and the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC); and litigation to ensure that rights on paper are treated as rights in fact.
LAW’s focus on female workers is intentional, Joynes explains. “When the funding for LAW came through, we targeted women because, even though there is a lack of adequate legal representation for all low-wage workers on Long Island, the resources that do exist are generally accessed by male laborers. We wanted to target a population that has had almost no access to legal representation.”
The task is not for the faint of heart.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos/Latinas presently account for 26 percent of New York’s labor force. What’s more, a November 2010 report by the Fiscal Policy Institute concluded that immigrants contribute an estimated $30 billion of the $171 billion generated by Long Island residents. Not surprisingly, approximately half of the area’s 351,000 Latino/Latina immigrants are concentrated in low-wage service or blue-collar jobs where mistreatment is rampant.
Joynes’s cases tell the tale:
There’s Consuelo, who has worked 11 hours a day, six days a week, for seven years. Her boss, the owner of a dry cleaning shop, has never ponied up a dime of overtime pay.
There’s Maria Elena, who left her job to have a baby. After 40 days of prearranged maternity leave, when she returned she was told that she no longer had a job. “You shouldn’t have gotten pregnant,” the manager told her.
And there’s Roxana, a homecare worker who did not receive her monthly paycheck from her employment agency. When she inquired, she was told that the payment had been issued and was subsequently cashed. When she assured the agency that she had neither received nor cashed the check, she was fired. Although Roxana was eventually reinstated and received the money she was owed, the upheaval caused her several weeks of turmoil and angst.
Then there’s sexual harassment and sexual assault. “I’ve met with workers whose supervisors have insisted they go to a hotel with them after work,” Joynes reports. “These women understand—sometimes the message is explicit and sometimes it’s implicit—that if they don’t go, they’ll be out of a job.”
Joynes’s voice gets slightly louder and she runs her hands through her long brown hair as she quickly ticks off examples of illegal workplace activity, from underpayment to physical battering. For a moment she looks tired, but then quickly perks up, making it clear that she is eager to expose the heinous conditions she’s encountered.
The problems are not only heinous, but pervasive. An email from Maritere Arce, a state Department of Labor researcher, states that as of September 15, 2011, 763 complaints—many of them on behalf of dozens of workers—regarding wage violations were pending for Nassau and Suffolk counties. Inexplicably, the department does not keep statistics on sexual harassment or sexual violence complaints, but Joynes assures me that these behaviors are more rule than exception.
“That’s why the Know Your Rights classes are so important,” she adds. “We believe that over time, when you train women, the information spreads. We may have 20 people in the room for a workshop, but when the participants go home, they tell their mothers, sisters, and friends what they learned. It’s an effective way to get the word out.”
What amazes her, she continues, is the bravery and commitment of the women she’s met. “These women are taking time out, after really long work days, to find out about workplace protections and are taking a leap of faith to speak out in support of their rights. There are risks because on Long Island public officials like Rep. Peter King are openly hostile to immigrants. Still, the women I speak to want to act. They know something is wrong, that it can’t be right to work so hard for so little, that it can’t be right to be subjected to such blatant sexual harassment. Every time a woman files a complaint because of harassment or to recover unpaid wages, it’s a small victory,” she says.
Joynes’s passionate commitment to using the law to better immigrant workers’ lives—something she says developed during a four-year stint working with indigenous land-rights activists in Ecuador—is quietly but fervently expressed. At the same time, she seems uncomfortable talking about herself, choosing instead to focus on the monumental task of winning justice for her clients.
“Our system as a whole is undermined when large segments of the workforce lack the means to exercise their rights,” she concludes. Similarly, she argues that the right to be paid adequately for one’s work, in a workplace that is free of environmental toxins and predatory coworkers and bosses, should be a given.