Quantitative studies on the struggles fought daily by social movements contribute a great deal, establishing an empirical basis, as well as offering testimony and a voice to those affected. The report, Living in the Shadows, was published last month on International Domestic Workers Day by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), to do just that.
A fact-based portrait of the difficult conditions domestic workers in the region face— conditions often hidden behind closed doors— it is the first quantitative study of domestic workers on the Texas-Mexico border. And, in another first, was conducted by women in the domestic labor force who have decided to no longer live in the shadows of economic injustice.
In 2016, three community-based organizations and affiliates of the NDWA, Comité de Justicia Laboral, Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center, and A.Y.U.D.A., Inc., trained 36 local women as surveyors. Most were domestic workers, and they interviewed 516 housecleaners, nannies, and care workers in private homes who work with the elderly or people with disabilities.
Opting not to contract unaffiliated researchers, “each organization had an existing core of members whom they wished to engage and develop as leaders,” the report notes. By helping design the survey, being trained in research methods, and having been given practice interview sessions, the 36 team members became community-based researchers.
“That domestic workers took the lead as experts in this investigative project, helped empower them and helped a lot in taking ownership of the fight for domestic workers,” said Rosa San Luis, a community organizer with Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center. She spoke with Neta after a press conference last week at the Unitarian Universalist Church in San Juan, Texas.
Although it is the first quantitative study of its kind, the report and its presentation also contained qualitative data. The panel of surveyors and informants told stories of how the hardships and abuses they experienced brought them into the domestic workers’ movement.
Domestic workers are the “forgotten workers,” says the NDWA. They are rarely protected by state or federal labor laws and regulations, such as those mandating paid holidays, scheduled breaks, and overtime pay. And yet “they care for our loved ones and our homes and homes of our employers . . . our work behind closed-doors is little noticed and little valued,” said Maria Reyes, master of ceremonies for the conference, as she introduced the study and the five-woman panel.
They sat on a table draped with a painted fist and a banner with Fuerza del Valle’s logo. Their yellow shirts sported the logo. A sense of empowerment and solidarity predominated.
Reyes passed the microphone to her compañera, Azaneth Lugo, a member of Fuerza del Valle and of La Unión del Pueblo Entero. Lugo noted that 252 of the 516 surveyed were from the Rio Grande Valley (Edinburg, Brownsville, San Benito, and corresponding colonias). She introduced Mayra Cabrera, who discussed key findings.
Key quantitative findings
Among them: over two-thirds of workers interviewed reported at least one person going hungry in their household in the twelve months prior to the interview, and some could not afford meat, milk, or juice after food stamps run out. Cabrera described other workers buying ten pounds of rice, beans, and flour to prepare for those hunger emergencies.
Only two percent, or 10 of the workers interviewed, reported receiving any kind of benefits. Almost a quarter said they were paid less than agreed to or weren’t paid at all.
Disparities in workers’ ability to get by are dependent on the kind of work they do, Cabrera explained. For example, 57 percent of house cleaners on the border could not pay rent at some point in the last twelve months, whereas for those who cared for the elderly, a third were at some point not to able pay their rent.
Not surprisingly, immigration status played a role: 35 percent of workers not legally authorized to work in the U.S. experience wage-theft. Of those legally permitted, only 15 percent had this experience. Additionally, 99 percent of domestic workers interviewed were Latina/Hispanic women, 87 percent were from Mexico, 5 percent were from Central America; and 85 percent were non-citizens, with 51 percent undocumented.
Reyes asked attendees to imagine what it would be like to lack money for rent, food for their families, or gas and medical bills. “This is inhuman and insane,” she said. “But it’s reality for domestic workers on the Texas-Mexico border.”
Such was the case for Adriana Radillo, who spoke next.
On joining the struggle
For more than two years, Adriana Radillo’s employer regularly underpaid her or paid her late. She cleaned, ironed clothes, cared for two children, at times needing to buy them food with her own money. Hearing about Fuerza del Valle, Radillo “joined the struggle.” She recalled taking the first step of communicating with the employer via phone, then through certified mail when she didn’t get a response.
“The negotiations lasted two and a half months, resulting eventually in a protest outside their home,” Radillo thundered to the audience. “Hector Guzman, director of Fuerza del Valle, was in conversation with the person from whom I suffered wage-theft until a payment plan that I agreed to was decided on.” She ended her presentation by affirming that domestic workers deserve the same labor rights as all other workers.
Maria Sandoval had a similar story. Sandoval lived with her sister in Alamo and found a job working in a home where she agreed to weekly payment and bi-weekly travel back home, as she would be a live-in worker. But when she started the job, she said, “Everything changed.” She was not paid weekly or allowed to return home every two weeks. “They had me like a prisoner,” she explained. “There were no homes nearby and there was no house phone; they had a cell phone, but would not lend it to me to call home.”
Waking up every morning at 4 A.M. to begin cooking for the day, she regularly suffered sexual assault from the husband at night time when the wife would take sleeping pills and not awake until the following day. Sandoval wanted to tell the wife, she said, but was afraid of retaliation from the husband, who might have turned her over to Immigration enforcement, she feared.
The family made Maria clean their grandmother’s nearby home. Unlike her employers, however, the grandmother paid her. She also lent Maria her phone. “Era buena la señora” She was a good woman.”
After seven months of total isolation from her family, Maria learned, from speaking with her brother-in-law, that her relatives thought she was dead. Her mother had become ill at the thought, and Maria begged her woman employer to let her visit her mother.
The wife dropped her off somewhere in Pharr, refusing to pay her until she returned. She had to ask an “older gentleman for a quarter to use the payphone.” Maria even needed to borrow money to take her mother to the doctor, she said tearfully. This is why she joined Fuerza Del Valle: “to help so that others do not experience what I did.”
And help is what the report’s recommendations aim to offer. Strategies for federal, state, and municipal governments include federal programs that guarantee freedom of association and federal overtime protections; state inclusion for domestic workers in workers’ compensation programs, and vigorous enforcement of wage theft laws; and, municipally, reliable transportation to workplaces and strategies to “combat racial profiling by law enforcement in low-income communities.”
The NDWA affiliate organizations have passed domestic workers bill of rights in eight states, and just recently in Seattle. In El Paso, where FVWC’s sister organization is based, Comite de Justicia Laboral led a victorious effort to pass a city ordinance aimed at cracking down on wage-theft. Locally, FVWC has been working with the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s office on wage-theft cases.
Attending the press conference was second-term Hidalgo County District Attorney, Ricardo Rodriguez—who won nearly 80 percent of the vote in 2018 against a 32-year incumbent, Rene Guerra.
Rodriguez hoped to establish trust, stressing in his remarks that the county is there “help, not hurt” the victims of wage theft. Since the beginning of his term, Rodriguez’s office has worked closely with groups like Fuerza del Valle on the issue of wage theft. “Under the law, there are many options for victims to guide them during the process,” he assured the audience, adding, however, that the DA’s office needs their help. “In prosecuting a crime against an individual, we need details, evidence, we need that for us to work either with local police, state, or federal. It is very important that we educate ourselves in what we need to do prosecute a crime and bring that person to trial.”
Marcela Alejandre and Maria Romero are domestic workers who were among the surveyors. They could not attend the press conference, but I caught up with them Sunday morning as they broke the fast, part of a 24-day effort to end family separations, where they offered praise for work the district attorney has already done with Fuerza del Valle.
“I was very happy to see Mr. Rodriguez continue supporting us come out of the shadows,” said Romero. “I hope that more attention is placed on employers who don’t pay and who abuse of us.”
“I know that in the past, he has always supported better wages and working conditions,” said Alejandre. “And I know that this time he reiterated that he will continue in the fight and support . . . so I think he’s doing a good job.”
A Caring Economy
Finally, the report makes a structural recommendation: to build a caring economy. In the hard work of managing home, work and family life, assistance from domestic workers is essential. However, the report concludes, “their household labor connects the economics of the home and the economics of the workplace.” Caring is more than a feeling. It is a service to the community and economy that should be treated with the dignity it deserves, especially as the need for care workers is expected to increase due to demographic changes in aging populations, argues Ai-jen Poo, executive director of NDWA.
Neta has reached out to county, state and federal officials in Hidalgo County and will provide updates with their responses to the report and its suggestions for what governments can do to achieve justice for domestic workers.
For Ana, Julia, Kim, and all trabajadoras, who—with their cariño and strength—are the corazones del hogar y la fuerza del valle.