WEST MILFORD, N.J. — She came from Guatemala and landed a job as a live-in housekeeper for a family here.

Her workday started at 5:30 a.m. and ended at midnight, seven days a week. She cooked, cleaned, watched children, made home repairs and did yard work. At first she earned $150 a month but after a while her employers started paying her no money at all.

They made sure one of them was with her whenever she left the house. That included trips to the local ShopRite supermarket, the dry cleaners and fruit and vegetable stands in nearby Warwick, N.Y.

Even with her pay discontinued she stayed with the family because she had nowhere else to go. They told her, she says, that if she left them she would be arrested and shipped back to Guatemala.

“I really didn’t know any better,” she said in a recent interview. She asked the World not to use her name because she is undocumented.

A Guatemalan carpenter with a green card talked with her at the supermarket one day. Moved by her predicament, he and his American-born wife helped her find a better job in a home where she says she is now being treated fairly. Her new employer, a family of Indian immigrants in Wayne, N.J., pays her $15 an hour. She works an eight-hour day, six days a week with one day off.

Domestic workers have no legal right to overtime pay, sick time, vacation, health care or workers’ compensation in most states, and the immigrants among them often end up as underpaid or even unpaid indentured servants trapped in their employer’s household.

Increasingly, these workers are pushing aside their fear and mounting an impressive fightback. It includes filing lawsuits against abusive employers, forming groups to demand fair wages, and even lobbying elected officials to change laws that don’t give household workers the labor rights taken for granted by much of the nation’s workforce.

Last June, at the United States Social Forum in Atlanta, immigrant household workers formed the National Domestic Worker Alliance to push for state and federal laws granting them basic labor rights.

This month, the alliance, made up of more than 20 organizations from across the country, held the first-ever national convention for domestic workers, June 5-8 in New York City. Domestic Workers United, a New York organization that belongs to the alliance, is pushing state lawmakers to sign a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Domestic workers travelled to the state capital in Albany on May 20 to push for the new law.

The legislation would require for the first time anywhere in the U.S. that domestic workers receive overtime pay, a guaranteed day of rest each week and advance notice of termination.

“What this law will do is put in place a few basic things. What we are talking about is respect,” said Ai-Jen Poo, lead organizer for Domestic Workers United which includes many Caribbean, Latin American and African workers.

Organized labor backed the May 20 action. Calling for passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, himself the son of a domestic worker, spoke of what workers like his mother experienced, telling the hundreds who gathered in Albany:

“Then as now, domestic workers were mostly women, isolated in the homes where they worked, not covered by most major worker protections, vulnerable to minimum wage and overtime violations. Then as now, domestic workers were legally excluded from the right to collectively bargain. Then as now, domestic work was at best a form of genteel slavery, in many cases not so genteel at all.”

According to government figures there are 1.5 million domestic workers in the U.S. An accurate count is impossible because many of the workers are here without documents and many collect income that goes unreported on tax records.

Domestic workers are building support groups to help themselves overcome fear and to mount a fightback. One such group meets at La Raza Centro Legal, an immigrant rights center in San Francisco.

The group also helps women find new jobs through a labor center it operates. Employers call La Raza’s labor center when they need help. Workers registered at the center are sent to places where they receive hourly wages of $11 to $17 an hour, with a three-hour, $42 minimum. They also get legal support when needed.

Women from Mexico and Central America who were once frightened and powerless now learn English, invite speakers who discuss their legal rights and even organize marches and protests, the center’s organizers say.

In March, 50 women marched through the streets of Atherton, Calif., chanting as they passed the homes of Silicon Valley billionaires, to support a domestic worker who was suing a couple who had employed her for four years.

Local media reported that the marchers came out to support Vilma Serralta, 68, whose former employers made her work 14 hours a day, six days a week, as a nanny, cook and housekeeper at their $17.9 million home, for less than the minimum wage. Serralta, a U.S. citizen, was fired after her employer found chicken bones left in an otherwise empty trash can overnight.

One of the most active members of the group is Maria, who wanted the press to use only her first name because she is working to secure legal residency. She moved to San Francisco from Mexico to work as a caregiver for a family that paid her way to enter the country without documents. They kept her as a virtual prisoner in a house for a year where she cared for a 78-year-old woman in a wheelchair. They paid her only $300 per month but sent the check directly to her family in Mexico so she never had any money.

Maria said she used to be ashamed to talk about her first year in the United States. “Now I know this is the real story of so many women,” she said, “and we are fighting to put a stop to that story.”

jwojcik @ pww.org

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