Breaking Their Silence

Profiles of a Hidden Workforce

A growing movement among New York's nannies and housekeepers to win basic labor rights, such as a minimum wage and paid sick days, recently prompted a City Council bill and made headlines. The campaign's public momentum defies an age-old truth: Household workers are not meant to be seen or heard.

Not only are they expected to be tight-lipped about their employers' lives, but they are to be unobtrusive with their own problems and personalities. Immigration worries and the lack of job security help keep them quiet. For these normally hidden, isolated laborers, going public in itself signals major progress.

"When I started, there was no recognition," said Nahar Alam, a worker and organizer since the early 1990s, at a March 24 press conference on the steps of City Hall. "We are now here to show our faces," she said, indicating the 30 women rising in rows behind her. Invisibility, she said, means being taken for granted. "Close your eyes, we are not here. But think about it, if we are not, then how will the city survive? We need people to listen to us."

Ann-Marie Thornhill
Photographs by Michael Kamber
Ann-Marie Thornhill

In the course of several months, the Voice listened as dozens of domestics shared their stories of struggle, family, and hope. Following are some of their tales.

Looking Out for Mom

Caretaking is nanny Jacqueline Maxwell's family trade. The cousin who raised her was a domestic worker, and her daughter, Capryce Watts, who shares her ready laugh and direct manner, worked as a nanny to pay for college. Watts, 34, now counsels domestic violence survivors, and her younger brother advocates for abused children. The family earns a living nurturing others, but they've survived by looking out for their own.

Maxwell entered domestic work in 1979, when she was hired by a family in Brooklyn Heights to care for a newborn. From then, she often juggled more than one household job at a time. A single mother, she herself employed a baby-sitter, a neighbor who lived around the corner in East New York. But Watts, 11 years older than her brother, took up the bulk of his care. "I would come home, make dinner, bathe my brother," she says. "I would do his homework with him. He would be in bed when my mother got home. It made me feel good. My mom raised us, but in a sense, we raised her."

Two decades later, Maxwell, 52, earns $10 an hour caring for two children on Roosevelt Island. The family hired her at $8 an hour in 1993.

Capryce Watts and Jacqueline Maxwell

"Experience means absolutely nothing when it comes to the wage you get," she says. "I tell employers, there's two things you can win in life: me and the lottery. And they'll say, 'Oh, my nanny is great.' But do they really value us? They treat their employees at the office with so much more respect. They treat this profession like it's a hobby."

Her mother's struggles at work have pricked Watts since childhood. "There were times when I wanted to tell her bosses off," she says, "like when they wouldn't give her certain holidays."

Yet even with demanding hours, "my mom made time for us," says Watts, "always, always, always. On the weekends, if it was raining, we would turn on music and put on a show in our home. Or we would all get in her bed and watch a movie." And on an income stretched with public assistance, Maxwell kept her family fed and sheltered. Her daughter recalls, "I thought my mom was the greatest mom in the world, because we would have spaghetti every night." She laughs. "Later, I found out, that's because we didn't have anything else to eat. One day, she got mugged on her way home, carrying groceries. All she could think about was, 'My daughter has all these friends over who want to eat.' She beat that mugger so bad, she got away with a loaf of bread."

To pay her tuition at Hunter College, Watts worked as the nanny and housekeeper for a family in Cobble Hill. "It made me understand how important this work is," she says. And also how trying. The children she cared for "were spoiled rotten" and prone to tantrums—or, as her mother puts it, they were "jalapeños." Between work and four hours of classes a night, she says, "I was exhausted."

"I don't know how my mother did it," she says, and then there is a pause while she breathes away tears. "They don't value her enough. My mother deals with a lot of garbage from them. She takes care of the children like they are her own. It's hard to see your mom working like that." Watts plans to give up counseling, her passion, for something more lucrative, "so my mother's working can be an option, not something she has to do."

First Family

Carmine Wakodikar

Carmine Wakodikar, 45, has been a household worker for 37 years. "When I was eight years old, my parents sent me to a bigger town to work for more money, to do housekeeping, baby-sitting, whatever I can do," she says in a voice as small and thin as she is. "Every two years, I went back for one week" to her native village in Karnataka, India, she says. "I forgot everybody, seven brothers and four sisters. I just forgot them. I don't know what is the love of my daddy. I don't know what is the love of a brother, sister. When my mommy died, I did not cry."

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