Some Domestic Workers Face Double Abuse

On weekends, when her husband got drunk, he beat her in front of their two teenage daughters.

The next morning, María Hernández had to reach deep into herself before she could go out to clean homes and babysit children, sometimes for 12 hours at a time in an exclusive South Florida neighborhood. Her employers sometimes did not pay her the full salary they owed her, and many times they shouted at her and humiliated her.

“All my life, I cleaned houses in my country, and here when there is work. It depends a lot on the family that hires you, whether they will treat you well,” said Hernández, a 53-year-old Mexican immigrant who lives in Little Havama. El Nuevo Herald used a fictitious name to protect her identity.

She’s not the only woman who has faced abuses both at home and in the workplace. Her story reflects a pattern that has drawn the attention of activists who defend the rights of domestic workers. They claim that many of the women who work at these types of jobs – many of them undocumented migrants – are victims or survivors of domestic violence.

The pattern is important in South Florida, where, according to the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, there are more than 95,000 workers in the sector. An analysis by the publication Business Insider, using data from the American Community Survey, indicates that “domestic worker” was the most common job reported by migrants in Florida and eight other US states.

The double abuse of domestic workers – and their fear of reporting the mistreatments to authorities – arises from the lack of labor protections, economic shortages and the migration status of many of them, said Andrea Cristina Mercado, director of the Alliance’s campaigns.

“They are very vulnerable because they work in an area that lacks virtually all labor protections, and many of them are migrants, many of them undocumented, and they are afraid of going to the authorities to denounce their abusers,” said Mercado, a founding member of NDWA, created in 2007 to fight for the rights of domestic workers.

Their jobs are usually informal, without a written contract or a supervisor who guarantees adherence to the minimum standards for labor rights, such as the payment of a minimum wage and payment for all the hours worked.

“As part of the cycle of domestic violence, the abuser isolates [the victim] from work outside the home, so when the victims leave that cycle, they do so without any money,” said Marcia Olivo, an organizer of domestic workers in South Florida and coordinator of the Council for Gender Justice at the Miami Workers’ Center, an NDWA affiliate. “They don’t have a work history and wind up in jobs earning minimum salary. So the most feasible job for them is domestic work. Very often that was what they did in their own homes.”

The activists say labor laws are less specific when it comes to domestic workers, and therefore the workers in the industry do not receive health insurance or retirement benefits, the payment of overtime after eight hours per day or a clear definition of their duties.

“The government should create conditions and protections for them, because that would allow them to defend themselves against the abuse,” said Olivo. “Meanwhile, they should document their incidents and hours worked.”

Workers also should report the theft of wages to the Wage Theft Program in Miami-Dade, one of the three counties in the state of Florida that make it a specific violation.

Organizations that assist domestic workers, such as NDWA, also offer help such as support groups and legal assistance to help the victims navigate the justice system.

In the case of undocumented workers, many of them don’t know that police must protect them from abuses, even if they are in the country illegally. In fact, the US government offers a special visa to victims of serious crimes, such as sexual assault, who cooperate with authorities.

Hernández, the Mexican immigrant, has been without a regular job for about four months after she dared to stand up to an employer in Broward County who had demanded that she work more than 13 hours without pay.

Her situation turned worse after her husband left their home at the beginning of this year, after their neighbors called police following a number of fights.

Hernández said she never dared to report the abuse, in part because of fears that she would be deported, because she had stayed in the United States undocumented after her visa expired.

“My marriage, the whole time we were together, the 17 years, was a tempestuous relationship,” she said.