Domestic worker Maria Vidania never expected her name to turn up in the executive offices of the world’s biggest financial firms. But on January 31, her supporters began a fax campaign, targeting such companies as Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, in an attempt to call attention to the abuses that Vidania alleges she endured as live-in nanny for corporate executive Edmund Bradley’s family.
The 34-year-old Filipina was hired over a year ago in Hong Kong, where English citizen Bradley resides and is head of emerging markets development for CLSA, a subsidiary of the multinational bank Credit Lyonnais. Vidania was leaving a seven-year stint with another family and remembers hoping that the Bradleys would “treat me well.” But a lawsuit filed on Vidania’s behalf by the nonprofit advocacy group National Employment Law Project (NELP) claims that Bradley and his wife, Vivian, did just the opposite.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in November, focuses on the nearly two months Vidania worked for the couple in New York City, when Bradley was here on company business. NELP lawyers charge that Bradley violated minimum-wage and overtime requirements by paying Vidania just $474 last August and $350 in September for working virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Vidania claims that she shared a bedroom in the Bradleys’ posh, Lincoln Center-area apartment with their one-year-old son and was expected to attend to him day and night. Vidania says that other tasks—cooking and cleaning the house—often kept her up past 1 a.m., although she had to get up and be ready to work by 5:30 a.m. She complains not only of physical exhaustion but also the indignity of having to handwash undergarments for the Bradleys and to eat their leftovers for days on end. They deny these allegations. But Vidania recalls feeling harassed by the Bradleys to the point that she feared they might kick her out.
“How can I leave?” Vidania recalls thinking. “My passport’s not with me. Our [visa] contract is not with me. I don’t have money. I don’t have relatives in this country.” She claims that the Bradleys, who sponsored her for the work visa she needed to accompany them to the States, held her passport and the work agreement she had signed in Hong Kong.
But Vidania finally did leave the Bradleys in August when they were on a short trip out of the country; she managed to regain possession of her passport when the Bradleys took her to apply, unsuccessfully, for another visa to accompany them on a late September trip to the U.K. Vidania says the Bradleys also withheld part of her wages when she refused to turn over her passport. After they departed, Vidania contacted a group she had found through friends, the Women Workers Project, which organizes domestic workers as part of the efforts of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities. With their help, she moved out and found a new live-in position before the Bradleys returned. Soon after, she sought NELP’s pro bono counsel.
According to experienced domestic workers, running away from an employer is often the only recourse for an undocumented household worker who is being exploited. “If you complain, employers threaten to call the police. [They say,] ‘You have no papers,’ ” explains Nahar Alam, who seven years ago arrived in the U.S. from Bangladesh and has been organizing fellow domestic workers since 1994.
Vidania’s decision to file a lawsuit is unusual. One of her attorneys, Andrew Kashyap, says, “Employers like the Bradleys count on [the likelihood] that immigrant workers like [Vidania], they’re not going to come forward.” Although the Bradleys’ lawyer, Barbara Roth, calls Vidania’s escape and lawsuit “a ruse to get into the country,” Kashyap says the nanny is actually putting herself at risk for deportation; there is no guarantee she will be permitted to remain in the country following the lawsuit.
Alam recalls that she did not know about federal wage and hour regulations when she accepted her first job making $50 per week. Some employers try to keep a worker from finding out about her rights, by barring her from leaving home unaccompanied, holding onto her passport, and in some cases, inflicting emotional and physical abuse.
Unfamiliarity with labor laws can mean remaining in substandard work conditions, but Upper East Side nanny Lewellyn Kong adds, “If you speak English, you make more,” and “if you’re illegal, you make less, work more hours.” Live-out nannies typically work 10-to-12-hour days, five days a week, earning roughly $250 to $500 a week. Their live-in counterparts tend to work longer hours but earn approximately the same and housekeepers earn the least.
Women Workers Project Director Ai-jen Poo says that, because of the homebound nature of domestic work, such labor is sometimes seen “more as help than as real work.” She adds, “Vidania directly contributed to her employer’s ability to do his job by working as support staff in his home.” But she calls on Credit Lyonnais and other corporations “to educate executives on local labor laws.” In a January 25 letter, CLSA, which like executive Bradley retains Roth as counsel, responded to a similar statement from Poo, writing, “There has been no allegation of wrongful conduct on the part of any Credit Lyonnais entity with regard to Vidania.”
“[Employers] count on the fact that there’s little enforcement,” Kashyap says. Advocates, who argue for a formal contract stipulating prevailing wages and legal hours, say that such a document would be ineffective without rigorous oversight. Poo also argues that the INS’s voluntary no-deportation policy for abused workers should be made formal and enforceable.
The Bradleys deny Vidania’s accusations and have filed counterclaims, alleging that Vidania took a watch and borrowed money without returning it. “She must think of the lawsuit as a profit center,” Bradley’s attorney Roth said. Yet another NELP attorney, Cathy Ruckelshaus, says, “All the counterclaims are just harassing claims to intimidate [Vidania]. But they’re groundless.”
Vidania sends all of her New York earnings to the Philippines to pay for the education of four younger siblings. “If I go home right now, that’s it. Maybe two of them can go to school, two of them not.” But she remains because “I want [the Bradleys] to have a lesson, so they won’t do it to another nanny again.”