Amrik, seen in above photo, arrived in Northern California 10 years ago to be reunited with her husband, a farmer from Punjab, who had come to the United States a decade earlier to find work.
What she never expected was spending her golden years in the ranks of older Indian women, who do backbreaking work as domestics, often exploited by affluent employers from India, who pay them small wages for long hours of childcare and housework.
Once in California, Amrik found herself estranged from her husband of 40 years, with whom she had raised three children. The couple separated: Amrik went to live with her daughter in Union City, and her husband continued to live with their son in nearby Fremont.
Although her husband receives Social Security, he has denied Amrik any portion of his income. Thus, the 68-year-old woman began working eight years ago for the first time in her life, primarily as a nanny to young children, though her range of duties often include housework, laundry and cooking.
“It doesn’t end,” Amrik said through a translator. “There is always something else to do.”
Currently, Amrik serves as a live-in domestic and says she works 10-to-12 hour days and returns to her daughter’s house on Sundays. She earns a flat $1,000 a month, paid in cash, with no benefits except her meals and lodging.
Backbone of Silicon Valley
Amrik is one of an army of domestic workers serving as the backbone to the Silicon Valley economy by allowing their employers to work without worrying about child care, housework or cooking. (Some details have been changed and only first names are used here to protect them from retaliation.)
Interviews with elderly women who work as domestics in Alameda County, east of San Francisco Bay and Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) netted a trove of stories about long hours with low pay, demanding employers, a lack of medical benefits and tenuous employment.
Physical abuse is sometimes also present in such situations. “I’ve had women tell me they were slapped on the hand or the arm because an employer didn’t like the way they were chopping vegetables,” said Silas Shawver, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center.
Although some have a fixed location for daily employment, others cook and clean at several homes each day, enduring long commutes on public transportation.
Limited language skills, nebulous immigration status, along with a lack of employable skills and advanced age, forces women into such employment, where they have little negotiating power over wages, hours or benefits, said Balwinder Khalsa, a volunteer at the Sikh gurdwara, or temple, in Fremont.
“People want Punjabi grandmothers to care for their children. They want people who speak their language and cook their food,” she said. “But they don’t want to pay too much for them.”
Neither Alameda County nor Santa Clara County track the numbers of this unofficial workforce. Asha Chandra, who heads up the Community Ambassadors Program for Seniors for the City of Fremont, explained that domestic workers are a largely underground workforce, hired through word of mouth and paid in cash, and therefore difficult to track statistically.
Hundreds of Elderly Domestics
But Khalsa estimates there are several hundred elderly women in the area who provide domestic services.
She sees many such workers coming in on Sunday afternoons for the free meal the gurdwara provides to anyone, 24 hours a day. Many also use the gurdwara’s weekly free medical clinic: The line of 15-20 people per clinic is usually filled with domestic workers, who have no other health care, she said.
Amrik said she has worked four jobs in her eight years of employment. All have paid her between $6 and $7 per hour, more than $1.75 below California’s minimum wage of $8.75 per hour. Overtime hours are rarely compensated with extra pay, she said, noting that her employers usually prefer to pay a flat monthly salary in cash. She and others are in no position to negotiate over wages, noted Amrik.
When her employers go on vacation, Amrik said, she has been unceremoniously told, “There is no work tomorrow,” and forced to remain without pay until her employers return. In one instance, Amrik’s former employers, young professionals working in the Valley, returned from a month-long trip to India without telling Amrik and hired someone new to replace her.
Jeet Kaur, a Hayward, Calif., resident who immigrated to the United States with her husband 18 months ago, has also been laid-off without notice.
In her last job, Kaur – who hired household help herself when she lived in India -- cared for a preschooler for a little over a year. She was let go the day before the boy began kindergarten, and she is now trying to find a new job in an economy teeming with many out-of-work people.
Kaur and her husband, a security guard at a local mall, are now struggling to make the rent for their studio apartment on his part-time salary alone.
A Million Seniors in Poverty
Approximately 1 million California seniors live at or under the federal poverty level of $10,830 in 2010. Advocates for elders at the University of California, Los Angeles, and elsewhere assert that an income twice that size — about $20,000 — is necessary for the state’s seniors to meet such basic needs as food, utilities, rent, transportation and prescription medicine.
Many living with adult children still struggle to meet basic needs, noted a 2009 report by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
“A lifetime of savings acquired in India and even a pension of maybe $250 a month doesn’t amount to much in U.S. dollars,” observed Vishnu Sharma, vice chair of the Tri-Cities Elders Coaliton. He added that immigrant seniors were especially vulnerable to living in poverty, despite a productive career back home.
“They’re forced to work at a time when the body may not be able to withstand the pressures of working,” he said. Even though many may have assets in India – property, a house – they will retain them for as long as they can as a lifeline to India and a last-resort safety net, said Sharma.
Many elders come over initially on tourist visas, which makes them unqualified to receive benefits, said Sharma, a retired colonel with the Indian army, who now serves as the executive director of the Foundation for Excellence.
Sharma has come to know many elders in his seven years working at the ICC, which runs a daily program for seniors with classes, yoga and lunch. He said he has heard of many cases of children, who have invited their parents to immigrate to the United States to provide live-in care for the grandchildren, but then kick them out once the children begin elementary school.
Relationships Sometime Sour
“Relationships can sometimes sour immediately,” he said, noting that adult children and their parents are used to living independent lives, and can clash when elders attempt to assert parental roles.
Amrik often waits for hours outside her daughter’s home on Sundays, her day off, as her child has not provided her with a key.
Neelaben, who immigrated here five years ago after the death of her husband, found that her brother, who had sponsored her stay in the United States, expected rent, lodging and a return of the attorney’s fees he had spent to facilitate her immigration from Gujarat.
She began working four years ago, but found that her brother increasingly commanded more of her meager monthly salary of $1,200.
Household dynamics are also difficult in Neelaben’s home. Her brother’s family views the septuagenarian widow as intruding in their lives, she said.
“Elderly parents are often seen as low value to their children, and are cast in the role of being a hindrance,” said Jyotsna Kalavar, associate professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University.
In her study, “Older Asian Indians Resettled in America,” Kalavar found many cases of elder abuse among seniors in New Jersey and New York areas. Grandparents were often overworked with the childcare of young children and household chores.
For Amrik, her live-in job is a way to escape the struggles with her own family.
“I don’t like being at home,” she said, noting that the gurdwara serves as a lifeline to her weekly routine, providing friends, food and medical help if needed.
Asked why she does not return to India, Amrik shrugged, “What is left for me there?”
photo credit: Sunita Sohrabji
Sunita Sohrabji wrote this article as part of a New America Media Fellowship for journalists sponsored by The Atlantic Philanthropies.
Following a week of rallies across the nation, a bi-partisan group of senators – known…
Minutes before 3 p.m. yesterday, I spoke with sources in D.C. who told me excitedly…
LONG BEACH – One-by-one, Filipinos with concerned expressions on their faces raised their hands and…
LOS ANGELES – They want humane immigration reform, and they want it now.As many as…
WEST HOLLYWOOD – Dozens of immigration reform activists rallied in front of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s…
Nadine Rogers is the kind of immigrant that Republicans and Democrats say they’d like to…