Breaking Their Silence

Profiles of a Hidden Workforce

The family she worked for, while also Indian, was no substitute. "In India, servant means servant," she says. "I had to sit on the floor. We cannot even put a hand on the sofa."

Eventually she went to work for a British family in Bombay. "They sent me to night school to learn English. I met my husband at the school, when I was 19."

Wakodikar had a son and three daughters, one of whom died at five months. "When I was pregnant," she says, "my husband went out with ladies. We had a lot of fights. He pulled my hair. But I had no sense what was good or bad—the husband, how he should be, the wife, how she should be."

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

She says her husband was frequently unemployed, but for the sake of her children she supported and housed him and still does. "I said to my husband, you can come in here, but we are not going to have a husband-wife relationship. The children said, 'Daddy, you do nothing. That is wrong.' I was working as a housekeeper, I was doing stitching for extra money. I understood that there was no one else to take care of my children. I myself had no parents. But I realized it was my duty to be a mother."

Her sense of duty brought her to the U.S. four years ago. "That money I made was never enough. My children and I sometimes starved." Escaping hunger for good, she knew, would require opportunities for real advancement. "I told my children, 'If someone asks you if you ate today, say yes—no one can look in your stomach. But your education, you cannot just say yes.' " She is determined to send her now teenage children through college and, if they wish, beyond. "I said to them, 'Can you three take care of each other?' They said yes." And so she looked for a job that would bring her to America.

Through friends in Bombay, she learned that Clifford and Nora Dias, an Indian couple living in Edison, New Jersey, wanted a live-in nanny and housekeeper. She jumped at the chance to earn 12,000 rupees per month. "I didn't know what was the dollar," she says of the $250 equivalent. Working a 40-hour week, she would have earned $1.56 an hour, a fraction of the $5.15 U.S. minimum.

But in August 2001, she filed a lawsuit claiming the Diases had actually paid her $0.89 an hour for 112 hours of work a week. Her regular duties included "cooking, cleaning, household maintenance, and caregiving" to two children, according to the complaint, and sometimes she would have to shovel snow or sew dresses. In legal papers, the Diases denied her charges and made their own, accusing her of "consuming alcohol . . . thereby endangering the welfare of [the] children." They also complained that Wakodikar, who had no other home, "did not leave the defendants' residence on weekends, thereby causing inconvenience." The dispute is ongoing.

She arrived in the U.S. knowing no one but the Diases and nothing about labor laws, but Wakodikar made friends who helped her leave the family and sue, and they are putting her up in Jackson Heights while she hunts for another job.

More of a parent than she ever had herself, she says, "I am the mother and the father for my children. I really need money, otherwise they have to go work as a housekeeper, too." But her mission carries a high price, tallied in four years of oceanic distance. "The thing is," she says, "I can't see my children."

No School for Hard Knocks

Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown is taking off the next day "to do a safari" in South Africa with some friends. Her boyfriend of six weeks won't be joining them, but not because their future is dim. "We share a love of old cars, treasures, childlike behavior—a love of life," says Brown, 33, a native of Devon, England, whose eyes crinkle pleasantly when she is searching for words. "It's about having fun."

Yet when it comes to her work, Brown, the nanny to two girls on the Upper West Side, is all business. She trained for two years at a college in her hometown, passing the nation's Nursery Nurse Examination Board. "You learn health, psychology, good grooming, child development from ages aught to seven, activities, play therapy," she says.

"Most people [in the U.S.] don't see the difference between an au pair, a nanny, and a baby-sitter. I have a joke with the kids. They say, 'You're our baby-sitter.' I say, 'I don't sit on babies.' The Americans, they don't really respect that you're trained."

Still, Brown's background has given her a professional edge. Her employers pay rent on her Chelsea studio apartment, part of their effort to lure her from the suburbs six years ago. "It's easier for me because I've got a green card and I'm trained," she says. "I'm a swimmer, a driver, an outdoorsy person." Plus, she says, "I look like a parent, which probably gives me a lot more respect than a lot of the nannies." She works 30 hours a week and earns "enough to live, but not save."

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