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Study documents Latina domestic workers' economic hardship

Almost four-in-ten Latina domestic workers in the Texas border region reported hunger in their households, even while being employed by an agency.
by Carmen Sesin and Suzanne Gamboa /
Image: Marilu Fructuoso
Marilu Fructuoso from Austin, Texas, a domestic worker, at her job at a client's home. She is a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.Les Talusan / National Domestic Workes Association

As a caretaker for the past 10 years in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Nora Gutierrez has had to endure low wages along with numerous injustices including sexual harassment at one point.

Currently, she cares for an elderly person, which means doing laundry, cooking lunch and dinner, sweeping, cleaning bathrooms, and many other tasks she is given.

“If a relative arrives to the house while I’m doing this, they want me to serve them as well. But it’s not in my contract,” Gutierrez said.

Making $7.25 an hour, her salary tallies up to $280 every 15 days. She works through an agency, so she is limited to the hours they assign her.

Gutierrez is one of many Latina domestic workers facing severe economic hardship in the Texas-Mexico border area, including hunger, housing insecurity, and not being able to pay basic expenses, according to a study released Tuesday. The report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance in conjunction with several local organizations, is the first quantitative study involving a sizable number of domestic workers in the Texas-Mexico border area.

“This report is very important,” said Rosa Sanluis, of Fuerza del Valle Worker’s Center and one of the lead staffers on the project. “We all knew about the exploitation, but no one had ever documented it before,” she said.

Almost four in 10 — over 37 percent — of those surveyed said someone in their home went hungry in the past year. More than half said they were not able to pay for a family member's medical care if they needed it and 44 percent could not pay rent on time. Almost 60 percent were unable to pay the electric bill and 42 percent could not pay a phone or water bill.

Women who clean homes have the highest levels of economic hardship. Around 57 percent said they couldn’t pay their rent on time in the past 12 months, compared to 33 percent of elderly caretakers.

The report found exploitation based on immigration status. A little over four in 10 — 43 percent — were legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens. Though almost 70 percent of those who cared for the elderly had legal status, 80 percent of house cleaners did not. Unauthorized workers were twice as likely to be threatened by an employer and three times more likely to be pushed or hurt on the job.

A.Y.U.D.A., Fuerza del Valle Worker’s Center, and Labor Justice Committee – all community based organizations from the Texas-Mexico border area – along with the National Domestic Workers Alliance collaborated on the report.

The organizations trained 36 women, mostly domestic workers from the community, as surveyors. In turn, they interviewed 516 house cleaners, nannies, and caretakers for elderly and disabled people who work in private homes.

Training women from the community was key in order to gain the trust of workers during interviews.

“For many workers, it was difficult to say there is hunger in their family,” Sanluis said. Instead, they would say “'my food stamps run out on the 20th and after that, 'I can’t buy meat for the family.'”

Domestic workers, especially house cleaners, also battle against wage theft. Almost a quarter of those interviewed reported they were paid less than was agreed upon for their work or were not paid at all.

The workers also endure other kinds of abuse. Being yelled at and threatened are current occurrences, the report found.

Live-in workers are the most exploited, according to the report. Around 45 percent said they had been paid less than agreed or not at all and 60 percent were pressured to work more than the scheduled hours.

Some of the most difficult moments for Sanluis was having the workers recount traumatic incidents like sexual abuse because she felt they were reliving the event as they described them. “I felt impotent seeing all the injustice, the pain, the tears. That was very difficult,” Sanluis said.

They hope the report will help with advocacy to help improve workplace abuse and also to help shape policy.

“We are going to elevate these stories of domestic workers from their perspective and not the perspective of those who oppress us,” Sanluis said.

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