BEHIND CLOSED DOORSDomestic Laborers “Make all other work possible”
Dianne is only supposed to work until 7 p.m., but she never knows when she will get a text from her employers: we have an urgent meeting, can you stay late? The Jamaican-born nanny always agrees: it doesn’t bother her after 14 years
Dianne first held the bleached-blonde boy who became like her own son when he was six weeks old. Whenever both his parents traveled for work, it was Dianne who stayed with him for days at a time.
“They are comfortable with me enough to know that they can leave me with their child, day and night,” Dianne said. “Through their financial changes and promotions, I’m here the whole time.”
For 14 years, the 53-year-old has cooked, cleaned, and cared for the boy – and now his dog too – in the 9th floor apartment on the Upper West Side. She earns $640 for a 30-hour work week, studies for her college degree, and supports the daughter and granddaughter she left behind in Jamaica. For Dianne, who overstayed her tourist visa in 2000, Trump’s inauguration leaves her in anxious limbo.
Private households employ the highest percentage of undocumented immigrants of any American industry. Twenty-three percent of the 947,000 people working in U.S. homes were undocumented, the 2014 census reported.
There were nearly 100,000 domestic workers in New York City in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. Most, like Dianne, are foreign-born women of color. Through their labor, these women enable thousands of other workers to contribute to New York City’s economy.
“Domestic work is the work that makes all other work possible,” said Patricia, an undocumented 57-year-old immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago and domestic worker for 15 years.
“Behind the scenes these are the women that allow things to really happen in America,” said Alene Mathurin, an immigrant from St. Lucia, former nanny, and founder of a non-profit supporting domestic workers. “Through nanny care, the doctor who’s a parent can deliver a baby tonight. Through nanny care, the person in Wall Street can go to the meeting early in the morning. Because of nanny care, the CEO is in Japan.”
Flora, a mother of two in Brooklyn, hired an undocumented Nepali nanny after her son was born five years ago. When Flora had her second child, she rested knowing the nanny was caring for her son at home; when Flora’s grandfather died in California, she flew to the funeral confident her kids were in good hands.
Flora pays her nanny $20 an hour, plus an unlimited monthly metro card and $140 for health insurance, but said the woman’s work is priceless.
“You can’t put a value on it,” Flora said. “I couldn’t do my job and my husband couldn’t do his job.”
Domestic work has two values – the labor itself and how that labor enables others to work – explained Hector Cordero-Guzman, a sociologist and economist who consulted a 2012 study by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. But pay doesn’t always reflect economic contribution, he said.
Domestic workers interviewed for this story earned as much as $22 and as little as $5 an hour. In 2016, the average housecleaner in New York City made $15.88 an hour, and the average nanny $13.26, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. In general, undocumented domestic workers earn only 88 percent of what U.S. citizens do, a 2012 nationwide survey reported.
The National Labor Relations Act prohibits domestic workers from collectively bargaining in unions, so advocates rallied to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. The legislation covers the right to minimum wage, overtime after 40 hours a week, a day of rest every seven days and three each year, and protection against harassment and retaliation. But in the intimate and informal workplace of the home, not all employers follow the rules.
“No one is knocking on doors to check on labor rights unless there are complaints,” said Ilana Berger, who founded the non-profits Hand in Hand and Sanctuary Homes for employers to protect their undocumented domestic workers. “Good working conditions and wages benefit the worker and employer alike. It’s not dignified to be an employer who treats the worker poorly, especially when they’re caring for the people that you love the most.”
Some employers value their undocumented domestic workers so much that they try to get them citizenship. Flora recently visited a lawyer to see whether she could help her nanny, without success.
Manhattan immigration attorney Ian Scott, who received several calls from employers who want to sponsor their nannies’ green cards, said it’s impossible to do so unless the worker already has some form of legal status. In the past, when immigration laws were not as strict, employers did sponsor workers – but it came with a cost.
When Sanaa immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago 32 years ago, she lived with a Long Island family who sponsored her green card. She earned $8 an hour and in 10 years working, only got two weeks of vacation and three sick days.
“Most people who hire you take you for granted,” Sanaa said. “There’s still slavery in this job.”
The situation is worst for live-in domestic workers, who stay with their employers and often work more hours than they agreed upon or for which they’re paid. Dianne and her fellow workers call live-in: “slave camp.”
Dianne’s first job in New York City was as a live-in nanny on Long Island in 2000. She earned only $325 dollars for 14-hour days – less than five dollars an hour.
“Live-in never stops. I was hired as a nanny, not a housekeeper. But because I was living in, they were pushing house things on me,” Dianne said. “You become a yes person, it doesn’t even matter, you just want to work. When you’re in the work place, you start feeling ridiculed and exploited. You compromise yourself.”
Some undocumented domestic workers said they’re targeted because of their immigration status. Dianne’s friend Patricia told the story of how she chided her male employer for speaking harshly to his daughter in 2009. He threatened to report her to ICE, called her a “black bitch”, and punched her in the face. With the help of activists and attorneys, Patricia took him to court and won $1300 – although it was only for wage theft, not compensation for assault.
“I’ve been threatened with immigration. They tell you they can take advantage of you because you’re undocumented,” she said. “I won my case, but not justice.”
For undocumented domestic workers, Trump’s presidency ignites terror. Dianne remembered crying the whole night after the election results. She feared being deported before she could complete her college degree – she is only two classes away from graduating – and get a work permit.
When Dianne went to work the next day, she told her employers about her concerns. The couple reassured her that if she ever had a problem, she could come there, it was a sanctuary home. Six months later, she repeated what they said that day.
“America is an immigrant country, so no matter what Trump says, there’s no way he can get rid of all the immigrants. How would America function? That’s how New York is. We need immigrants.”