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USA: For some domestic workers, a life of isolated servitude

USA: For some domestic workers, a life of isolated servitude

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by IDWFED published Sep 06, 2015 12:00 AM
An estimated 67,000 of them work in Massachusetts — equivalent to the employment in Boston’s finance industry. Most are treated fairly and paid lawfully by their employers. But because they toil behind closed doors, these workers are vulnerable to wage theft and other mistreatment, say legal advocates and law enforcement authorities. And for immigrants, who comprise about one-third of this work force, the challenges are greater. Many put in grueling hours and are paid less than minimum wage, while being denied basic rights like time off.

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Read the original article in full:  For some domestic workers, a life of isolated servitude - Toiling behind closed doors, domestic workers are vulnerable to wage theft, abuse, and in the worst cases, virtual slavery. | The Boston Globe

Excerpt:

There are more than 1.6 million domestic workers in this country, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. They clean houses, cook meals, and care for children and elders, performing what advocates call “the work that makes all other work possible.”

An estimated 67,000 of them work in Massachusetts — equivalent to the employment in Boston’s finance industry. Most are treated fairly and paid lawfully by their employers.

But because they toil behind closed doors, these workers are vulnerable to wage theft and other mistreatment, say legal advocates and law enforcement authorities. And for immigrants, who comprise about one-third of this work force, the challenges are greater. Many put in grueling hours and are paid less than minimum wage, while being denied basic rights like time off.

Some report suffering physical or emotional abuse. In the worst cases, employers have hidden the passports of live-in workers, prevented them from contacting family and friends, and held them in isolated servitude that authorities consider a form of human trafficking.

“People think this happens elsewhere in the world, not in the rich, liberal Northeast,” said Quinn Kepes, program director at Verite, a nonprofit in Amherst that investigates worker abuses globally. “These women, and it’s mostly women, have nowhere to go. They’re socially and culturally isolated, and they have nowhere to turn.”

There are no state or federal statistics tracking violations of domestic workers’ rights. Legal advocates and law enforcement officials say only a fraction of the abuses are reported. Among those, some cases settle privately, while others are pursued in court. Many workers simply move on, fearful of reprisal if they complain.

But the stories of individual women, recounted to the Globe in dozens of interviews, show just how bad things can get.

Catherine Piedad

As a nanny and housekeeper for years in Kuwait, Qatar, and Hong Kong, Catherine Piedad knew well the isolation that came with working far from home, all so she could send money home to her two children in the Philippines. But she never felt more alone than in the basement of a $1.7 million house in suburban Boston. She worked long days to clean, cook, and care for a Russian family’s young twins, and slept in a spartan room with little daylight and no bureau for her clothes.

Elvia Morales Cruz

A Guatemalan domestic worker, was employed by Max Borten, a Newton medical malpractice lawyer, to care for his four adopted children — and two more after he got married — from 2006 to 2010. She earned $400 a week, working from 7 a.m. to at least 7 p.m., six days a week, according to records in a lawsuit Cruz filed in Dorchester District Court. While caring for a household of eight, Cruz had to buy her own food and live in a damp basement, according to her lawsuit, which sought to recoup minimum wage pay and overtime. She had only Sundays off, when she went to church.

Noiva Ferreira de Resende

A 40-year-old Brazilian, did seek and get help from the attorney general’s office. She came to Boston in 2012 to work for an executive vice president of Santander Bank and his wife. She lived with them in their Chestnut Hill home, cooking and cleaning, doing all the washing and ironing, and caring for their dogs. She said she was paid $300 a week for 14-hour days, five days a week, or about $4 an hour. That was far less than the $7.25 federal minimum wage promised in the English version of her work contract, a copy of which was reviewed by the Globe. The Portuguese version of the contract — the one she could read — was different in several ways, including not citing the minimum wage.

Piedad

A Filipino woman working for the Russian family in Newton, wondered what to do when she was no longer allowed to leave the house on her own. Under her contract, she was supposed to get 15 days off a year, and work eight-hour days, according to her lawyer. In reality, her days started at 6:45 a.m., Piedad said, cleaning the first floor of the house before the children awakened. She did all the cleaning of the four-bedroom, 3.5-bath house, washed and ironed the family’s clothes, and cooked for the father when he was in town.

Edilene Moraes Almeida

A housekeeper for a Brazilian diplomat, had few options when she fell ill with a brain tumor and debilitating headaches. From 2009 to 2011, she worked for Brazil’s former vice consul in Boston, Jose Marcos Nogueira Viana. She rose most days at 6 a.m. to make Viana breakfast and help him get ready for work, she said, and do laundry and housekeeping, for which she was paid $255 a week. Her employer told her to say she was earning $8 an hour, if asked, according to her visa filing.

“CB”

A woman who began working for a family in her native Bolivia when she was just 16. A few years later, in 1997, her employers, a Worcester native named Richard Smalanskas and his wife, Martha, used faked documents to bring her to the United States, according to filings by federal prosecutors in a 2012 criminal case against the couple. CB, as she’s called in court records to protect her identity, thought the move was her ticket out of poverty and a fourth-grade education, to a better life. Instead, she spent the next 13 years as a captive, first in Sudbury and then in a remote neighborhood in suburban Harvard.

Source: Beth Healy and Megan Woolhouse/The Boston Globe

Story Type: Story

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