Trouble on the Home Front


Imagine getting two dollars an hour for “dusting the furniture and windows, making beds, vacuuming, mopping, watering the many plants, picking up strewn clothing, cleaning and organizing the kitchen, organizing the closets . . . cleaning the bathrooms, . . . [doing] laundry and pressing,” and caring for children, in a home of “three combined apartments, which included five bathrooms, two kitchens, a small hallway, a dining room, four bedrooms, a prayer area, three balconies, and two living rooms.”

That’s what a Bombay-born domestic worker claims she did as a live-in nanny and housekeeper for Arun and Asmita Bhatia at their East 84th Street apartment in Manhattan, often for as little as $300 for a 150-hour week. At no point did she earn the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour or overtime pay, according to a federal complaint filed by the worker, who, fearing repercussions at her current job, chooses to go by the pseudonym Mina Das. Das says she hopes the husband and wife—respectively a Manhattan high-rise developer and a Citibank vice president, according to Das’s lawyer—will agree that living comfortably should come at a fair price.

According to the suit filed on Das’s behalf by lawyers at Washington Square Legal Services, an affiliate of NYU Law School, Das also shopped for groceries and prepared meals daily during her three stretches of employment with the Bhatias, between June 1997 and September 2000. She got the couple’s two young children ready for school, fed them, took them to swimming lessons, and provided them with language instruction. She toilet-trained and frequently shared a room with the youngest child, which meant, she says, that she was on call through the night.

“The people who have the money are often more greedy for money,” observes Das, who despite her full, black hair seems older than her 57 years. Her uneven teeth and lined, rarely smiling face suggest a life without luxury.

It’s Das’s job to make other people’s lives easier. But as with many immigrant domestic workers, she claims her bosses exploited her, not only demanding too many hours of work for too little pay, but also threatening her and capitalizing on her ignorance of her rights. Her employers’ actions and attitudes toward her precluded any camaraderie that might have emerged from their shared nationality.

“Same language, same food—I thought there wouldn’t be a problem; we’d be able to talk and understand each other,” says Das. “But these are very different people. They’re very stingy. They have no mercy in their hearts.”

The Bhatias, she says, micromanaged and routinely harangued her to do more work. “Both physically and mentally, when you do this work, it’s hard,” Das says. “It was like I was a machine. Sometimes I wouldn’t even remember to eat. Sometimes I was hungry and I’d have to think to myself, did I eat, did I drink today? There was a lot of tension. I was scared—are they going to yell at me?”

Worse, she claims, they misled her into believing they were her immigration sponsors and temporarily confiscated her passport. “I didn’t know what to do because they were so powerful. They kept my passport.” Believing they held her fate in their hands, Das says, she tolerated the meager wages and long hours.

Last June, though, she fell on the stairs of the Bhatias’ home and injured her right shoulder and foot while responding to an order from Asmita Bhatia to attend to the children. The Bhatias not only refused to get her medical attention, Das says, but they demanded she continue her daily duties as usual. Her friends in the apartment building urged her to leave and sue, she says, when they saw her carrying bags of groceries with her good arm. But she stuck it out until the Bhatias eventually replaced her with another worker.

The two parties, according to Das’s lawyer, Ranjana Natarajan, are currently negotiating a settlement to address the issue of unpaid wages and, possibly, compensation for the injury. But in their response to Das’s February 27 federal complaint, the Bhatias denied all of her allegations and requested that the case be dismissed. Multiple messages left by the Voice last week at the Bhatias’ offices, their lawyer’s office, and the Bhatias’ home, seeking comment, were not returned.

Das’s lawsuit against her former bosses puts her at considerable risk. Blacklisting, unprecedented public attention, and exposure to official scrutiny are factors immigrant domestic workers must consider when deciding whether to go after employers, according to former domestic worker Nahar Alam, cofounder and organizer at Andolan: Organizing South Asian Workers. It’s not unusual, says Alam, for workers who take action against former bosses to be fired when subsequent employers find out.

Das was also afraid of being disparaged by others in the Indian community, where, she and Alam say, domestic work is widely viewed as dirty work. “In our culture,” explains Das, “they will say, you are doing this job, changing diapers, cleaning bathrooms. They feel this is a shameful job.” Moreover, says Alam, “Women have a hard time speaking out. People think, as a woman, you shouldn’t.” Organizers in other communities say that the characterization of domestic labor as demeaning or unimportant transcends cultural boundaries. Associations between domestic work and traditional notions of women’s roles, they say, complicate efforts to win fair wages and conditions in the industry.

But encouragement from fellow workers at Andolan helped clinch the soft-spoken Das’s decision. Until she met Alam, during an outing with the children to Central Park two years ago, Das says, she knew nothing of the country’s labor laws or her rights under them. Having only recently arrived from India, she says, she was ignorant even of the cost of living in New York, becoming shocked when she realized how her wages stacked up against the high prices. “When you’re new, how are you supposed to know these things?” she asks. She says the Bhatias, whom she found through an ad in an Indian community paper, took advantage of her naïveté.

“When you get the support, then you get the strength,” says Das of her friends in Andolan. “You realize that there are people behind you, and you can raise your voices together.”

So, at an early-morning picket on Sunday, June 3, Das chanted and marched single-file in a circle with a dozen or so other workers in front of the East 84th Street building where the Bhatias reportedly live. South Asian women, some in traditional dress, held aloft signs reading, “Mr. Bhatia, shame on you,” and, “slavery was abolished in the U.S.” Das’s experience with the Bhatias, the protestors declared, amounted to “modern-day slavery.”

In an industry where official enforcement of labor laws is rare, protests and lawsuits are often the only recourse for domestic workers who believe they have been underpaid or abused. Efforts by groups like Andolan to inform and organize workers in New York City have picked up in recent years. But with only one or two employees per workplace, collective action is especially difficult.

That’s why a campaign like Das’s is important for encouraging and informing other workers, according to Alam. “I wanted to do it for my rights,” Das says of taking on the Bhatias, despite her fears. And, she says, “There are so many people out there like me.”

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