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."

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."

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."

Her relative success may be due as much to her easygoing nature as to her qualifications. "I made it my business to be as flexible as possible," she says. In her line of work, "there's never a regular day." She can afford to be spontaneous without a family of her own. "I've seen other nannies bring their own kids along with [their employers'] children," she says. "That must be difficult.

"I'm not really hard up, because I don't have to support anyone else. But I want my own children. That's when I'm going to get concerned about my future, really. I imagine I'll still have to work. But I don't want to.

"Even with the trained girls, there's still exploitation. Ultimately, you don't have a lot of job security and benefits. With any other job, you do. You're relying on your employer's sympathy. And you just can't rely on that.

"You'll never be rich being a nanny, no matter how trained you are. Typically, you don't get a pension. I don't worry about the future. I'm sticking with this for now, because I'm enjoying it. I'm not the type of person who worries. But maybe I should."


Talking About a Revolution

"I can relate to Sidney Poitier," says Ann-Marie Thornhill, a proud, reserved woman whose scattered smiles are like sunbursts. "He said he didn't know he was a black man until he got here," after a youth lived in the Bahamas.

Since 1990, Thornhill, 55, who lives in Flatbush, has worked as a domestic in New York to support four children and an elderly father who live in Trinidad. Early on, she says, "I tried living in. It was my worst experience. I slept on a pullout couch and worked 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Every night before I went to bed, I had to go down on the floor and mop with a cloth, because she [the employer] said a mop just pushed the dirt around. I did it for two weeks, and then I told her slavery was over and done with 200 years ago.

"Then I worked as a baby nurse for this family on Ocean Parkway. The father had a grown son, who was away. But he didn't want me to sleep in his son's room, dirtying his son's bed. He walked around in his underwear in front of me. No respect. That was the meanest man. He would curse his wife in front of me."

All told, Thornhill has worked for about 12 families, several with more than one child. Since her early trials, she has developed one absolute rule: "We must be equals in the sense that we're human together. The only one above me is God.

"I've never had handouts. I've had hand-me-downs. But I've always known what it is to work to achieve. By age 21, my mom had six kids. She just couldn't take it, and she left us with our father. He couldn't raise us, so my grandmother, the product of a white overseer and an African woman, raised us. She planted a lot of what we ate. She sewed our clothes with her hands. I helped. That is what shaped me.

"To this day, I don't mind if I have to wear a skirt the whole week, as long as it's clean. I like good music. I like good books. I can't afford to buy paintings, but I go admire them. When it gets warmer, you'll find me in Prospect Park with a blanket and a book. I like nice things, but I don't really spend. I economize so that not having money doesn't stifle who I am. I got my children swimming lessons, music lessons, and they all had birthday parties until they were 10."

Her children are all now 18 or older. After a decade of seeing them only in their brief visits from Trinidad, she says, "I feel so guilty. It is hard on a daily basis. But you don't dwell on it. I can't do the things I want without working in this country, like send my children through university. You can work here for $300 a week, which in my country can be $1800 or more. You can send a barrel of foodstuffs every few months."

She is proud that all four children have either finished or are headed for college. "I was fortunate enough to hear my daughter say one day to her husband that she doesn't know what hard times is. It's true, they've always had three square meals, two uniforms for school, which is more than I had.

"When my grandmother passed, my mother took us. She was a domestic worker for this white, corporate family that lived on the island. She had two weekends off a month. She worked for these people for 17 years, but when they let her go, they didn't give her one penny of severance pay. That's one of the things that drives me.

"Change must come about for domestic workers. It must. But change must come about with us. Some of us still get on as if we're in bondage. I'll say to someone, 'You don't have to put up with that.' She will say, 'Well, I have to pay my rent.' I say, nobody should tell you what your labor is worth; you should know that when you walk in the door. I'm not afraid to say, I'm outta here."

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