Elder Abuse Hidden Among Indian Domestic Workers

Elder Abuse Hidden Among Indian Domestic Workers

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Part 2 of 2. Read Part 1 here.

Elderly immigrant nannies from India are often exploited by their Indian employers who expect them to work long hours for very little pay. But they have few legal resources available to reclaim lost wages.

“While there are people who do come forward, most domestic workers do not and therefore are very vulnerable to exploitation,” said Christopher Ho, senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco.

Silas Shawver, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, reported that these women are sometimes subjected to physical abuse, such as being slapped by an employer over a minor error.

Older Indian women in areas profiled for this series of articles serve as domestic workers in Northern California’s East Bay and Silicon Valley areas. All said they were paid far less than California’s minimum wage of $8.75 per hour.

One woman, Amrik, said she was paid a flat $1,000 a month to serve six days a week as a live-in nanny, where she sometimes worked as many as 12 hours a day. (Amrik and most other women interviewed for this article preferred only to have their first names used.)

90 Hours a Week

The plight of area domestic workers came to light in March 2008, when Vilma Serralta, a Salvadorenean worker age 71, filed suit against her employers, Sakhawat and Roomy Khan, alleging they had forced her to work 90 hours a week without overtime pay.

Serralta, who had worked for the Khans for four years, served as a live-in domestic and nanny in their 9,700 square foot home in Atherton, Calif. She says she was solely responsible for cleaning while also caring for the couple’s young daughter.

The Khans settled with Serralta in 2009, for an undisclosed amount, and then listed their Atherton home for $17 million. Roomy Khan--a former Intel employee who had earlier pleaded not guilty to insider trading--later turned witness against billionaire Raj Rajaratnam in the Galleon insider trading case.

“This type of thing happens all the time. It is a very underreported situation,” said Ho. “For every case like Serralta that gets attention, there are hundreds more that get no attention,” he said.

Ho added that domestic workers are generally isolated in a household, with their travel and movement usually tracked by their employers.

Amrik ¬– and the many others who serve as the backbone to the Silicon Valley economy – generally have problems getting other types of employment, due to a lack of language skills; traditional credentials, such as a high school diploma; and occasionally a nebulous immigration status, which may not allow them to work.

Legal Protections Too Costly

But domestic workers — even those who are undocumented — are completely covered by the National Labor Relations Act for age and wage discrimination and workers’ compensation, asserted Ho.

Furthermore, retaliation, such as an employer who threatens to report an employee to immigration authorities, is unlawful when an employee is asserting wage rights, he said.

But despite such laws, very few domestic workers are compensated for back wages and similar concerns, said Ho. He noted that “an army” of attorneys is usually needed to handle such cases, at a cost far beyond the purview of most domestic employees.

Legal aid offices generally do not take on wage and hour litigation or other employment-related work, Ho said.

Shawver, of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, observed that even employees working for non-immediate family members have a right to at least the minimum wage.

Shawver, who works in the Community Legal Services Program, said he has worked with two Indian women in the past seven months, who have taken action against their in-laws for employing them without pay.

One of the women has alleged that she is owed $130,000 for three years of unpaid work. “It gives you some idea of how many hours she was working,” said Shawver.

On Aug. 31, New York Governor David Paterson signed into law the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which provides workers’ protection to the more than 200,000 domestic workers in the state.

The bill, passed by the New York State Legislature on July 1, guarantees nannies, maids, cooks and others one day off per week, overtime pay, sick pay and protection from discrimination.

The California State Legislature also passed a resolution this summer — ACR 163 — introduced in the Assembly by members Manuel Perez and Tom Ammiano.

Quintin Mecke, a spokesman for Ammiano’s office, explained that the resolution guarantees no actual rights, but, rather, it encourages the federal and state government to create greater protections for domestic workers.

“We saw the New York effort, but gauged the political winds of California,” said Mecke. He noted that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had vetoed a bill protecting farm workers last year.

Sunita Sohrabji wrote this article as part of a New America Media Fellowship for journalists sponsored by The Atlantic Philanthropies.