Updated: Jul 13, 2020
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Mornings at the Great Neck Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) station are hectic for a multitude of commuters as they begin their day and wait for trains or buses but for domestic workers (almost without exception women) it is one of the few fixed norms. In an industry with labor performed behind closed doors in the rooms of people’s houses where one of the dimensions of the job pertains to satisfying the personality of a house and those who live within it, which entails understanding ever shifting particularity, it becomes the case that arrival and departure times for trains and buses are something that for the most part provides something to count on. But in the privacy of a home this unpredictable, unseen labor often intersects with oppression in a very real way. Exploitation of the lack of federal and state labor protections and lack of industry regulation enables home owners to prey upon laborers in the safety of their own houses.
For three weeks Erick Alexander has not had contact with his girlfriend, a domestic worker under contract with the Haya’s & Rona Agency. She currently works at a house that has strict rules against cell phone use. This restriction of worker access to the outside world and to information while not an industry standard, none the less occurs all too often in the industry. The European Union-United Nations Spotlight Initiative noted in their research “Mobile women and mobile phones” that, “Confiscation of migrant workers’ mobile phones or restricting usage is a tactic in which employers exert power and control over the workers.”
Alexander stated that this form of psychological deprivation is but one form of abuse. “They tell the girls if they try to leave then we are going to say that you are stealing something to the police. So, they can’t leave if they want to. They can’t speak English so it’s more difficult.”
Psychological abuse like the previous examples are rampant and so is emotional abuse and physical abuse and further, sexual abuse. Alexander recounts a story his girlfriend told him about a friend who complained to the homeowners about not having enough food – they fed her off the floor in response. His own girlfriend worked in the home of a man who had a camera in the changing room. To avoid being unhoused she endured this perversion but fled when that man escalated his tactics to groping.
There exists a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York state and it has provisions that are intended to give such laborers special cause of legal action if they suffer sexual or racial harassment but because of a lack of access to information about rights (being denied access to phones for example) and because many of these women are recent immigrants and further, many are undocumented immigrants, they fear that the consequence of their recourse imperils them more than the violence they experience in their profession. Further, they do not have any guarantees for protection from the agencies and third parties that lord over their labor. They won’t accept responsibility for protecting their workers and they engage in wage theft.
One worker (who will remain anonymous to ensure that she does not receive backlash from her agency) states that at the houses she gets placed at she has to remain for at least one week and only sometimes does she get paid. What that means is that the agency, who the house owners are paying to receive the labor of the worker, are stealing. The New York Department of Labor makes it very clear that the only legal deductions from wages are those:
· Required by law (Social Security contributions and income tax)
· That benefit the worker, which are authorized in written consent from the worker
· Payments for insurance premiums, pension benefits, contributions to charitable organizations, u.s. bonds, union dues and similar payments
When this worker does not get paid, she gets reassigned to a different house. When she does get paid, she often has to start over; meaning, go to a new house and likely face the theft of her first week of labor. But even when she does get paid, she stated that she has limited access to food and often exists in extreme hunger.
Another woman (who will also remain anonymous) who in a sense has a salaried contract does not have the experience of abuse from the house that she works at but she experiences the very same wage theft from the agency. She does not get paid for overtime and in New York state if a worker lives in their employer’s home, they must be paid overtime after 44 hours of work.
A different worker, a Salvadorian immigrant (who will also remain anonymous, held the same view about theft – that it happens and that they are not in positions to do much about it. She stated that she has had little contact with labor organizations and “No help for my medical needs.”
“Pay me and stick to the hours and respect me and give allowances for appointments and give time for me to attend to my needs,” she said.
The GroundUp would like all of these women to be paid and receive respect on the job and not be mistreated and have opportunities to go to appointments and attend to needs. We paid a visit to the leadership of Haya’s & Rona Agency and without revealing any of the names of the workers we spoke with we discussed their grievances.
They were adamant about us reveling worker names. We did not budge. And we believe their strategy exists for the sake of culling their problem workers. And we explained to leadership that the specific workers we spoke with choose not to share their information at this time but none the less, there exists many people who share the same concerns in relation to wage theft and mistreatment. The response of the leadership was “What do you want from us? I’m just [a person] who gives people [to homes] and I get commission.”
Haya’s & Rona Agency leadership utilized a strategy of blame shifting – positioning the house owners as the one’s responsible for any potential mistreatment and the parties responsible for reconciling with the workers. Leadership also blatantly lied about the powers of the workers by saying “They have union, they have everything, they sue everybody, they sue the houses…” In particular the claim that these workers were protected by unions is problematic because there is merely a Report on the Feasibility of Domestic Worker Collective Bargaining concomitant to the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights but collective bargaining as a process does not exist as part of the allowances of those workers’ bill of rights.
We were ultimately kicked out and obtained no more information but the war begins. We want to destroy these oppressive labor practices!