HOUSTON — In the debate over immigration, they are virtually unheard, unseen: the hundreds of thousands of foreign-born women, many of them in the U.S. illegally, who toil in America's homes as nannies, cooks and housekeepers, changing diapers and scrubbing floors.
They are jobs of last resort for people whose other options are few.
The lucky ones earn decent wages, and build a promising future for their families.
The less fortunate, isolated and apprehensive, suffer a dismaying array of abuses — from exploitively low wages to sexual harassment. Some are forced to sleep in closets; others are threatened with deportation if they complain about overwork.
"These people can be very, very vulnerable, particularly if they're not documented,'' said Sam Dunning, who oversees social-justice programs for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. "If there's any dispute over working conditions, they have very little recourse.''
It is, in Dunning's words, a job sector in the shadows — generally excluded from state and federal labor protections.
Experts and activists agree the ranks of household workers are swelling — likely to more than 1 million — although tallying their exact numbers and regulating their workplaces is near-impossible. Employers commonly seek off-the-books arrangements, avoiding contributions toward Social Security or Medicare, and many undocumented women prefer working in the underground economy to minimize chances of deportation.
In one particularly grim case, a wealthy couple went on trial this week on New York's Long Island, on federal charges related to the alleged abuse of two Indonesian women brought to the United States as housekeepers. Prosecutors say the women were held as virtual slaves, beaten, and paid no wages except for $100 a month sent to relatives abroad.
In a few cities, activists have begun campaigns to organize domestic workers and raise awareness of their difficulties, but traditional labor tactics — collective bargaining, the threat of striking — are not feasible.
Working conditions were harsh enough to drive Tomasa Compean away from a housekeeping job in Houston that she'd held for 18 years. Over that span her pay edged up from $30 to $50 a day, but her assigned cleaning duties kept increasing and she felt pressured to work even when sick.
"They treated me poorly,'' Compean said of the couple who employed her. "They were always asking me to do more and more.''
Compean, 58, quit and took up full-time work as an office janitor. Last year, she helped lead a strike by 5,300 newly unionized Houston janitors, mostly immigrant women, who won better wages and working conditions.
"Now, if any problem comes up, I can deal with it,'' said Compean, who came from Mexico 27 years ago. "But it would be very hard to organize domestic workers. People who work in the private houses are scared to even talk.''
Hiring household help is no longer reserved for the rich. Many middle-class families now feel they can afford to tap the vast pool of immigrants willing to work for modest wages, and many career women rely on a housekeeper to do chores for which they no longer have the time or energy.
Many of the women filling the jobs are single mothers, supporting children they brought with them to the U.S. or left behind in their homeland. Those who work as nannies often devote more time to their employers' children than to their own.
Activists in Houston, just beginning efforts to assist domestic workers, face daunting challenges. Texas is considered relatively inhospitable to labor organizing, and there are no efficient ways to communicate with housekeepers and nannies scattered in homes across the sprawling city.
"The women who live in have the worst stories to tell, but they're the hardest to reach, working in those big houses all day,'' said Annica Gorham of Houston's Interfaith Worker Justice Center. "We need to spend time in the neighborhood, talk to them when they're out with the kids or walking the dogs.''
Activists say some of the women were brought to the United States by traffickers and become virtual indentured servants, receiving room and board but little or no pay. Employers sometimes confiscate a maid's identity papers to maximize leverage over her.
Gorham's organization has launched a pilot program encouraging domestic workers to develop new skills so they could eventually consider different jobs.
For many newly arriving women, career choices are grimly limited, according to Louise Zwick, who with her husband runs Casa Juan Diego, a refuge for illegal immigrants. Often, she said, the options are a low-paying household job or work as a hostess at a bar — a step which frequently leads to prostitution.
"You make a lot more money in the cantinas, but you ruin your life, you get AIDS,'' Zwick said.
Some newcomers sign up with employment agencies, which assign temporary housekeeping jobs. But immigrant-rights activist Maria Jimenez said some of these agencies routinely take a larger-than-promised share of the wages.
Still, at Jimenez' headquarters — the Central American Resource Center — several staff members offered upbeat anecdotes of housekeepers who'd been treated well.
Hamilton Gramajo said his mother, Erica, earned enough from housekeeping so he and his sister could concentrate on academics during high school rather than take after-school jobs.
"I graduated from the University of Houston because of her efforts,'' said Gramajo, whose family came from Guatemala in the mid-1990s.
Sometimes the employer-employee relationship blossoms into something deeply and mutually rewarding. In San Francisco, for example, Steve Goldberg and Sandee Blechman — both busy professionals — hired a Nicaraguan woman, Marta Castillo, in 1982. It was shortly after the birth of the first of their three children.
During more than two decades with the family, Castillo helped all three children learn Spanish, attended their bar and bat mitzvahs, attained U.S. citizenship and encouraged the Goldbergs to establish lasting bonds with her own children and grandchildren.
When the Goldberg children were young, Castillo accompanied the family on vacations as baby sitter. Later, she joined them as a guest — not an employee — on a trip to Rome and Israel, enabling her to realize her dream of seeing the Vatican and the Holy Land.
San Francisco is one of several cities — New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. are others — where campaigns to organize household workers are more advanced than in Houston.
However, Ai-Jen Poo, lead organizer of New York's 1,700-member Domestic Workers United, said housekeepers and nannies face unique hurdles in trying to collaborate.
"In other workplaces, you can get together with your co-workers to bargain collectively or to withhold labor,'' she said. "A domestic worker has no negotiating power — she can just be fired.''
Domestic Workers United and its allies in New York are lobbying for state legislation to improve working conditions. The Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights would provide for paid sick days and vacation, advance notice of termination, and severance pay.
In California, a bill giving nannies the right to overtime pay cleared the legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The bill resulted from years of work by groups like CHIRLA — the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Its field workers try to educate women on their rights before they start household jobs and conduct awareness campaigns aboard buses carrying housekeepers to work.
Angelica Salas, CHIRLA's executive director, estimates there are at least 90,000 domestic workers in greater Los Angeles, perhaps 70 percent of them illegal immigrants. Even those without legal residency are entitled to California's minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, but enforcement agencies are understaffed and exploited women are often too scared to report abuses, Salas said.
Among the women now working as CHIRLA organizers is Juana Nicolas, 49, who came to California eight years ago from Mexico, where she was a teacher. She worked as a housekeeper and nanny in five homes, and said she was routinely underpaid.
"Because of my background, I knew what my rights were,'' said Nicolas. "Can you imagine the people with no information, what they go through?''
Another CHIRLA organizer, Guatemala-born Telma Gutierrez, 44, worked for 16 years as a live-in housekeeper before wearying of abuse. She said her last job paid less than $50 a day for six days of work that included cleaning, baby-sitting, raising chickens, and gardening duties that left her back aching.
Her employers, she said, had two sides.
"In front of other people, they pretended to be nice — they'd say you're part of the family,'' she said. "But in the end they still abuse you.''
For some women, however, domestic work is a path to self-sufficiency.
Esperanza Sanchez, 43, came to Houston from Monterrey, Mexico, 16 years ago and has worked in more than a dozen homes as a housekeeper. She now has two steady clients and can make up to $550 a week.
Her practice is to inspect a house firsthand before accepting a job, then negotiate wages.
"I prefer a business like relationship,'' she said. "When employers cross the line and try to be my friend, there's often an attempt to have more control over me.''
Despite her success, Sanchez is frustrated, wishing she could go to college and find a more challenging career. In Mexico, she was an accountant — but says she earns more as a housekeeper than she would doing bookkeeping in Monterrey. And yet, as a non-citizen, she has no medical insurance and no prospect of Social Security.
"I don't know if I can save enough for retirement,'' she said. "There's no safety net at all.''
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