Hired in India, she was treated as a prisoner here until learning ‘I can fight’
by Carol Amoruso, Hispanic Village Feature Writer
Hired as a babysitter, Satwant was forced to do all the household chores in addition to child care. She has three university degrees and worked for the Ministry of Agriculture in Delhi before emigrating.
“Her employer brought her here from India — she was hired there — and they told her they would pay her salary to her husband in India. She was feeling like a prisoner. They were not allowing her to talk to anybody. Then she started talking to us and she learned, ‘I can fight.'”
Satwant Kukreja was speaking of one of a number of South Asian women who had come to the States as domestic workers with illusions of prosperity and deliverance from oppressive conditions at home. But they only found humiliating and abusive situations here. Satwant is staff organizer at Workers Awaaz (“the workers’ voice”), an organization of workers and concerned community members founded in 1997 who fight, through activism and organizing, to redress unfair practices facing low-wage workers.
It is hard to estimate their numbers. Immigrant South Asian women are often isolated and invisible. Yet, there are easily thousands of such women in the New York area alone. They work as live-ins — often for up to 17 hours a day with no days off, no privacy, and earning far below minimum wage. Some employers will even retain a worker’s passport, thus insuring her complete dependence on the host family.
Satwant understands these women’s plight. She found Workers Awaaz through her ESL class. Satwant came to Workers Awaaz when, hired as a babysitter, she was forced to do all the household chores in addition to child care.
Her arduous working conditions were paradigmatic, but her background atypical. She has three university degrees and worked for the Ministry of Agriculture in Delhi before emigrating.
Her resolve to better her situation sprung from innate feelings of entitlement. “It was inside always that I am a woman, but I can do everything as the men are doing,” she explains. “Throughout my life I was feeling that. When I was facing the problems here… I saw a weaker person, which I was not going to accept because of my inner tickings.”
She continues: “I was doing babysitting, then I did business and lost my business and went back to babysitting and had my problems with that family. I was looking around for who I can talk to and come out of all these problems.”
Because of her association with Workers Awaaz, she has found some answers. “I was learning, learning. Feeling better. And my powers, which I felt before, I felt them coming out again. I feel today I am an example, even being a babysitter earning just a little money.”
The Workings of Workers Awaaz
The primary employers of aggrieved domestic workers are South Asian professionals who command respect in the community, so building support for Workers Awaaz’s is a struggle
I met with five of Workers Awaaz’s approximately 35 members one evening in their office, a small apartment, the second floor of a private house in Jackson Heights. A working-to-middle class neighborhood with a high concentration of South Asians, Jackson Heights also serves as the commercial and cultural hub for South Asians throughout the New York metropolitan area, dispersed now as they move up the economic ladder. Most of the organization’s clients come to it through the ESL program in Jackson Heights, Queens.
At the meeting were Satwant and Shahemsa Begum, each having come to Workers Awaaz with workplace grievances, and three young women, volunteers with professional careers and activist agendas.
While I found the setting adequate and comfy, the members apologized, saying it had been difficult finding professional space in Jackson Heights, as Workers Awaaz had the reputation of being disloyal to the community, or subversive. Volunteer Krittika Ghosh, community organizer at the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, commented, “I have to be careful, because shop owners…see Workers Awaaz [on the flyer] and they’re like, “They want to start a revolution.”
While their ESL classes are the most immediate vehicle for reaching out for clients, Workers Awaaz also uses other methods. It takes out newspaper ads, networks through other organizations, approaches women on railway and subway platforms.
Most cleverly, volunteers scour the domestic help wanted ads of outdated community newspapers, then call the home during business hours, trying to reach the newly-hired domestic worker. They then strike up a conversation and hopefully a confidence. In that way, if things are found inequitable in the household, the worker can be brought into the organization.
The primary employers of aggrieved domestic workers are South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Nepalese) professionals, doctors and lawyers. Some may even feel it is their privilege, coming from an exalted class, to treat inhumanely the women who serve them. Nonetheless, these employers command much respect in the community, and building support for Workers Awaaz’s efforts is a difficult struggle.
Krittika told of one case involving a woman who worked in a doctor’s family. When she became a client, Workers Awaaz received calls from a number of prominent physicians asking them to “work it out” on the hush-hush and prevent the community from being “tarnished.” The doctors even offered to mediate.
Krittika said she reminded them that Workers Awaaz’s first interest is always to seek resolution privately, worker to employer. But, when this is unsuccessful, other measures needed to be taken. These measures include appealing to the Workman’s Compensation Board and other government agencies, litigation, and widely publicizing the case, including, in some instances, chanting against the employer at his/her place of employment.
The largest settlement to date for a case generated by Workers Awaaz has been for $50,000 paid in back wages. This was in January, 2000, and involved a worker who charged her two physician employers with gross wage and hour violations during a three-year term of servitude.
Facing Many Obstacles
WA doesn’t “have support group meetings and sob stories,” but tries to build leadership in each client to help further broader social change
The local press has been a fair-weather friend of Workers Awaaz. It is all too happy to promote their various community events, such as the health fair and entitlement efforts for victims of the World Trade Center attacks. But it is also loath to report on cases of exploitation of women at the hand of other South Asians. Says Linta Verghese, a Ph.D. candidate and parent volunteer coordinator for the NYC public schools, “The dynamic is to present the community in a successful, non-threatening way. Then we can get in the paper, but if it’s anything that’s somewhat subversive…no.”
Another obstacle — to both client and organization — can be presented by the few families who’ve been able to accompany workers to the States.
Satwant spoke of her son-in-law. “I feel my son-in-law, he is keeping some distance,” she said. “So that she [my daughter] should not know all the rights, the same rights which before I didn’t know.”
Shahemsa spoke of another example. She works in a child-care center and comes from a progressive background. Her father was a university professor and ecumenicist in Bangladesh, and the family was raised respecting human and women’s rights. But she says that at times her family feels that her deep involvement with the group takes precious time away from them.
The non-immigrant members also deal with the disfavor of their families. Says Monika Batra, a public interest lawyer, “My family emigrated in ’69 and achieved the American dream. They see my work [with Workers Awaaz] as contesting what they are striving for, so there is that silence, that lack of interest, that kind of lack of support and worry that I’m not going to be doing the work I should be doing.”
Cases are only pursued if the client agrees to proceed as one of a class of the aggrieved and not as an individual. Says Krittika, “We don’t go there and embrace her and have a support group meeting and have sob stories said, but we try to bring about change by figuring out how we can stop this from happening to everybody not just one individual.”
Each client is seen as a potential leader, with the broader goal of social change overriding even the immediacy of the work situation. Monika posits, “Somebody says they want to get out of their situation. It’s really not about that. It’s about trying to develop that person as a leader, to become more involved in the campaign itself and recognize that her case is not just her case, but is actually part of changing the system for everybody, and changing working conditions for everybody.”
“Changing the system” was the salient phrase of the evening. Linta said she’d worked with socialist groups as a framework for change. Monika talked about building the leadership for changing the system amongst all who identify as workers. And Shahemsa spoke of changing the global system of inhumanity where “industrialists and factory owners…ruin the workers before middle age.”
Perhaps the protectionist press, shorter-visioned shopkeepers, reticent family, and offending employers, will insist that Workers Awaaz is “tarnishing” the community with their loudly-voiced campaigns on behalf of women workers. Others, such as Ms. Kaur, who won the $50,000 settlement, Seema, who is petitioning now after being forced to sleep on the bare floor with no mattress, no blanket, no salary, and many more exploited South Asian women, would say Workers Awaaz is adding luster.