NEW YORK — Filipina labor trafficked survivor–Dema Ramos, 53 used to be too exhausted, her back ached , her knees shook, as she had worked 22 hours a day for almost a year, between 2009 and 2010. She scrubbed the floor, and mopped it, cleaned all the rooms, kitchen, did the laundry of her employers, took care of the diplomat’ s five children, cooked, served them food, washed dishes, ironed clothes, organized things, and other household works. She had no day off, had to work seven days, and was only paid 69 cents per hour. She felt she was trapped in an oppressive work as her Kuwait diplomat Boss confiscated her passport so she could not transfer to another job. Tears were formed in her eyes as she recalled how she escaped from her employer and was rescued and given legal protection by Damayan (help one another) Domestic workers group in New York. Ramos got scared out of her wits to fight back her diplomat employer as they threatened to deport her. But Damayan lawyer helped Ramos to assert her right as a worker.
Ramos took a deep breath as she shared her terrible work ordeal to fellow domestic workers at New York Domestic Workers Convention at Barnard College Sunday. The Kuwaiti diplomat family brought Ramos from Kuwait as she had worked for them since 2006 to do household work and to care for their children. She said she didn’t know her rights as most domestic workers in Kuwait have no right to voice out their problems. She said her experience has taught her to be courageous and resilient. In 2012, Ramos won her case at the Labor Department and was awarded a T-visa, with Greencard, special kind of visa, for trafficked victims. She was able to bring to the U.S. legally her two children and her husband as she works now as a freelance house cleaner in Manhattan. She is now a board member of Damayan and is helping to organize domestic workers in NYC. Her work is inspiring other domestic workers. “I am hoping to share my story to tell domestic workers to be braved, to reach out with other workers so as to be freed from abusive employers,” Ramos said.
Filipina Leah Obias, chairperson of Damayan Migrant Workers group explained that people worldwide are trafficked into involuntary servitude, slavery, debt bondage, and forced labor in mostly low-wage industries: domestic or household labor, agricultural work, restaurant work, factories and construction. Foreign victims of traffickers usually come from Thailand, Philippines, Mexico, India, Haiti , Honduras, El Salvador and Dominican Republic. Labor trafficking survivors experience the most egregious, most inhumane form of labor exploitation. Workers are allowed to enter the U.S. as domestic workers of foreign diplomatic or consular personnel, or foreign employees of international organizations under the A-3 of G-5 visa categories.
An earlier Government Accountability Office (GAO) study in 2008, reported 42 allegations in the U.S. of unlawful abuse, exploitation or human trafficking by foreign diplomats with immunity privilege so these diplomats cannot be arrested or prosecuted. Most of these diplomats had worked at the United Nations.
Damayan wants to end this modern-day slavery and the group is mobilizing the grassroots to push for these demands:
- Waive diplomatic immunity of the Philippines and other countries’ government officials in cases of labor trafficking and severe exploitation;
- Suspend countries of diplomats who have trafficked women workers in the A-3 or G-5 visa program.
- Protect immigrant women by broadening the U.S. government legal definition of labor trafficking including severe forms of labor exploitation;
- Enforce labor laws in the homes of diplomats , corporate or consular employers.
- Create committee in the Philippine Consulate to formulate protocols to prevent, identify and protect potentially trafficked A-3 and G-5 visa holders, with representation of Damayan in the committee.
There are over 200,000 domestic workers in New York City , toiling each night and day, and their protection has been strengthened with the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010 with the strong campaign of National Domestic Workers’ Alliance. The law includes new rules about pay, time off, and other important workplace protections. There are about 1.8 to 2 million domestic workers across the US, many of them are working under the shadow of oppression. Majority of them work in California. Domestic workers jobs are crucial so that their employers can work as they care for their families , keep homes clean, and children safe and healthy. They are contributing greatly to uplift the economy. The Bill of Rights also ensure that domestic worker should have paid days off, to be paid with overtime, workers compensation insurance and now a healthy balance as domestic workers have right to paid sick days in New York City. This means, they can take time off work and still be paid if the worker or a family member is sick or needs to go to the doctor.
As labor movement campaigns for $15 minimum wage per hour in New York and across the nation, it is ironic that many workers still don’t receive the $8 per hour minimum wage. Workers union struggle has continued.
Leticia Castaneda, an immigrant from El Salvador, spoke like she had fog in her brain as she felt that her work and journey to the U.S. had been treacherous. She was confused why her pay was below the minimum wage and why she was laid off. She recalled that she had worked for 10 months at Elisa’s Food and Plus restaurant in Port Chester, NY and was only paid $7 per hour, below the $8 minimum wage. When workers at the restaurant rallied this October to demand fair wages, most of the workers, including Ms. Castaneda was laid off by the employer. The owner of the restaurant – Elisa Parto–owes $35,000 wages to her employees and she was arrested a week ago. Ms. Castaneda is being helped by the Catholic outreach Don Bosco Workers to stop wage thefts in Port Chester and other cities. But Ms. Castaneda’s future is uncertain as she is an undocumented immigrant. She is hoping that President Obama would issue an executive order to legalize hard-working immigrants and ignite his compassion to immigrant workers. Immigration law could face rough sailing in Congress as many legislators are opposed to it. Meantime, the Obama administration deports at least 1,000 illegal immigrants each day, a betrayal of America’s compassionate values.
During the convention, domestic workers listened to each others to these circle of caring women, they shared their ups and downs of their challenging work. They listened to speakers to empower them with labor rights, learned topics like health and safety at work, they wrote poems and expressed solidarity with fellow domestic workers. Domestic workers did story-telling, dancing , singing, and drawing. They vowed to organize more . They pledged to do outreach to isolated workers and to win more rights they deserve.
Domestic workers ponder on this poem by Emma Lazarus which was inscribed at Statue of Liberty in NY. “ Give me your tired , your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these homeless, tempest-tossed to me , I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”