One Big, Happy Community?
In a departure from the kind of forum articles that Samar has usually carried, we are reporting on a recent conversation regarding class issues within the South Asian immigrant community. The two main voices in this conversation were those of C and N. C is from India and has worked as a housekeeper and babysitter in the homes of several South Asian families in the New York area. N, from Bangladesh, has also been a domestic worker since her arrival in the U.S. Both women are currently working in South Asian American homes and are also actively participating in the efforts made by Sakhi, a New York based South Asian women's group, to organize domestic workers. The conversation took place in the home of a Sakhi volunteer and was recorded by two members of the Samar collective. The women who were not themselves domestic workers did take part in the discussion, asking questions and offering comments, but it was mainly C and N who spoke. It is their analysis which is presented here.
In drawing upon their own experiences of arriving in the U.S. and seeking work, both women described the mechanisms by which numerous South Asian women are channelled into such occupations. C began, saying,
I arrived in 1992, as a domestic worker or nanny, and I was promised 200 dollars a month. I agreed, not knowing what was going to be the case. She treated me worse than a slave. No proper food, and always saying insulting things like, "You are my servant." What I experienced did not suit me, so I told her after a month that I want to go back. She said, "No. No way. I spent so much money to bring you here." Then I met some people who said, "Why do you want to go back, now that you've lost everything there?" I had had a job in India that I gave up to come here. So they said, "Why don't you run away and make your money?" I said, "How do I run away in this country?" But anyway, I stuck out five months there — troubled, but I stuck it out. Then I met somebody who helped me to run away.
After that I got a similar job. Many people said that if you want to do some office work or any shop work, you need a green card. So I'm doing the same kind of job that I started with. They had advertised in the papers, in Midday in Bombay, saying that they needed a nanny cum housekeeper cum everything. When I converted that 200 dollars, for me it was a lot of money. So I jumped for it. Her mum's a real well-known person in Bombay, so I thought I won't have any problems. But she turned out to be a real nasty person. They had my passport till 1994. Only after I came to know Sakhi did I get my passport back.
They did not sponsor me. She told me that I should go to the American consulate and I will be given a visa. I said, "How do I get a visa unless I have a letter from someone?" Anyway, I did go for my visa and I didn't have a problem getting a visitor's visa.
At my next job, I think I was lucky. I found an ad in India Abroad. He was a doctor and I told him what I was going through. Maybe my honesty took me somewhere, and I worked for them. After some time, I found that his wife — she knew my condition, that I had no one — I found that she too was taking advantage of that. So then I left them in March 1993. Again I was job hunting... All my jobs have been through India Abroad.
N had left Bangladesh under somewhat different circumstances:
I came first on a visitor's visa. I had had a lot of problems with my husband in Bangladesh. I had no money. I saw an ad in the paper and stayed as a roommate in a Bengali house in New York for $300 a month for room and board. Then I got a job for one day a week that someone had told me about. On Saturdays: to cook Bengali food, to teach a little bit of Bengali and singing. Five dollars an hour for eight hours, so I made forty dollars.
I saw a job advertised in a Bangla newspaper. I read about a Pakistani family that was going to have a baby. I talked to them and they told me to come to Elmhurst. I went there and they showed me everything — a private house with a room for me to stay in. At that time, I was having a lot of problems staying at the Place where I was paying $300 per month. Lots of men used to come and go — I was also having trouble with the food. The Pakistani family wanted to know how much I wanted to be paid. I said, "I don't have any idea. You tell me how much you will give me." The woman said, "We'll give you $150." So I asked, "In a week or month?" She said that, including room and board, she would give me $150 per month. I came home and thought about it. I thought it was too much to pay $300 per month as a roommate, so I decided that I would go. When I was on the train going to their house, I met a Gujarati woman who was also looking for a babysitter. She said, "We'll give you $75 a week." It was more than $150 per month — so, I agreed. I didn't go to the Pakistani family's house, I just went to the Gujarati family. Over there, I had to bring the kids from school and do a little bit of cleaning. They only had two rooms. She wanted to cook her own food, so I didn't have to cook. After two weeks, that woman lost her own job. She said "I can't employ you anymore, but you can stay as a roommate."
I started looking for another job. Then I got a job, through India Abroad, with Dr. K and went to his house. He was Indian. They told me they would pay me $175 a week for a live-in job. It was a housekeeping job — the husband was ill and I had to look after him as well. I had no place to stay during the weekends, so the Gujarati woman said I could stay weekends with them and give them $100 a month.
But I eventually stopped working there. Through India Abroad, I got another job, my current job. They needed references: I had one from my Saturday job, and Dr. K also gave me a very strong reference. Now they are giving me $225 a week. Before I started, I negotiated with them based on the experience I have gathered in my past jobs. I asked for Thanksgiving off and all the federal holidays. They really wanted me and agreed to the days off. After six months they say they'll bring it up to $250. It's not yet six months.
C's reasons for leaving India were mainly economic.
I'm still going back. My idea when I first came... I never ever dreamt that all this would happen. Soon after I came, I found that I was not treated well. I wanted to go back, but people encouraged me to stay. Then I too thought over things — I'm going back to nothing — there's no job waiting for me there; so might as well make my money and then go back.
I was a telephone operator in Bombay. I worked for 23 years. I just threw that job up and came.
In a way it was a good job, and in a way it was not. No is because family-wise it was not up to my standards. After I had worked for 23 years, I earned Rs. 3,000. In other companies, an operator would have had a fantastic salary by this time. I found it was too little for me to run the house, to educate my kids and save a little money. So I wanted a better job, anywhere — not only in America.
Regarding her move from Bangladesh to the United States, N said,
I didn't really have specific expectations. I left my country because there were not many opportunities for me, especially to study and work. My husband would not let me work. My main expectation in coming here was to study, get trained and get a good job. Babysitting, housekeeping — I don't like such jobs but now I need them. Roommate situations are not good, they cost too much money.
When I compare Bangladesh with the U.S., I feel like I get a sense of freedom here. Today I am doing domestic work but I have hope that I will get a better job. I don't get that feeling in my country.
The Conditions Of Work
The hours can be exhausting. C described her first job thus:
From 6:00 in the morning, right up to sometime at night — 10:00, 10:30, 11:00; whenever they had parties, it was 2:00 in the morning. I had to clean each and every thing before I could go to bed. I couldn't do it the next day.
After I told her I wanted to go back, she started giving me one and a half hours off. Anytime, according to her wishes. Whatever time she felt like it, or whatever the weather was. If it was very cold outside, she'd say, "You can go, just go, just get out of my sight."
The work was too much. This is now my sixth house since I came here, and I can compare it with the first house. 'Me last five houses I've worked in — I've never slogged the way I slogged in the first house. It was just, "You're sitting idle for what? Take some paper and wipe things clean." Saturday, Sunday, wipe all the windows. It was on the 15th floor. Just do it, you have to do it.
Take out all the brass things, clean up all the brass things, clean up all the silver things, and all the chatis, the utensils. Just take them out and clean them up. You have to do it.
As for pay,
They sent the money to Bombay, my husband would get Rs. 5,000. $150 would be sent, $50 1 would get. That was the arrangement.
In the first home where N had worked,
They hadn't really described the job very well in the beginning. But when I started to work, I found that I had to clean all the wood trappings in their house. They have a big private house in Long Island City. I had to clean three bathrooms, six bedrooms, two living rooms and a basement. I had to do a major cleaning two times a week, and on other days I would have to do ironing and a smaller cleaning of the entire house. Dr. K worked out of home, and I had to take care of his papers all the time. He was half-paralyzed, so I had to take care of all his papers. The work kept growing slowly. Their daughter joined them and I had to do her work as well.
N discovered that her pay was not only low; it could also be uncertain.
I used to phone Bangladesh and pay them back the money. I would not really pay cash but they would take it out of my pay. They told me that if they ever went away on vacation, they would pay me half my salary. I never got any sick days or holidays. But when they came back from vacation, they only paid me a third of that money. They claimed that the reason was that I had not paid for my phone bill, although I knew for sure that I did. So I was very upset. I told them after a week that I couldn't work there because they didn't pay me. Then they apologized and admitted that I had paid them.
At her current job, N earns $225 per week. The hours are still very long.
I get up at 6 o'clock and my job starts at 7 o'clock. Until 6 o'clock in the evening. In the evenings, sometimes when they go out, I have to take care of the baby.
Although this work fetches her less than the minimum wage, and although N is aware that even undocumented workers are legally entitled to the minimum wage, she says, When we sit to eat, we sit together at the same time at the same table. The pay is still very little when counted on an hourly basis. But their behavior is nice, which I had not experienced in my earlier jobs.
For both women, such things are important when working in an unequal but intimate setting. C, for example, recounted the everyday humiliations that she had suffered at the hands of her first employer.
It's a vast difference. The first place that I came — the Indian family who brought me here — I couldn't even touch a fruit. I couldn't touch anything in the fridge, unless the food was getting bad. She'd say, "C, the food is getting bad. Why don't you cat it?" And wherever else I've worked so far, I've never been deprived of anything.
I was diabetic, and what could I have touched? There was only dal, rice, bread.
Most of the time they were out to dinner, and I would make a sandwich and eat. I was allowed mayonnaise, but sometimes I took cheese on my own. I mean, we get those things in my house. And I've come here all this way for nothing — no way!
I was allowed to make five calls per year that she would pay for, for three minutes. Then the microwave alarm would go, and I had to put the phone down. In three minutes, I didn't know what to talk; I couldn't even tell my husband my story. There was a friend who used to call me from California, and that's what she stopped. She stopped that call because I used to tell him what was happening.
N compared her own situation with domestic workers back in South Asia.
The Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani families treat us like they treat domestic workers in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan — the expectation is that we will work all the time. It is a little better here, because there sometimes some get paid and some don't; some get negligible pay. Here we get a little bit more money. Compared to Bangladesh, the money in dollars is more.
Without entering into a comparison of relative disprivilege, it was clear from both their accounts that moving an unequal relationship from South Asia to North America skews it in surprising ways. The most important new twist is an undocumented worker's inability to leave a difficult work situation. In C's case, her employers actually seized and withheld her passport for almost two years. Further, N pointed out,
Mostly people will stay here in jobs not because there are no other jobs, but literally because there's no other place to go to.
Because if you're a live-in, you don't have any other place where you can live. Live-out positions are also hard because you don't get much money, and then, on top of that, you've got to pay rent.
Basically the problem is that we need these jobs. We are undocumented and cannot work outside. In any case, in the Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants, they make the worker slave the same way. The hours are incredibly long, and they don't get paid.
I think of those who have no education and cannot do office work. They have to work at housekeeping jobs only, and for them these jobs are necessary. They don't speak English and may not be able to write either. They won't get jobs outside. However, even though they may need these jobs, even so — it's too much hard work — there is no count of hours or pay.
N talked about the reasons why more women than men become domestic workers in South Asian American homes.
In Asian countries — I know only about three of them, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — people are just used to seeing women do housework. They don't think of women doing work outside the house. Even when sometimes women do start working outside the house, there are always fights within the family about it. Relationships with husbands may suffer. Sometimes women fight and do it anyway. But why is there a fight? Because people still want to follow the standards set by our grandfathers. When I was in Bangladesh, I did housework — took care of my house, did all the cooking, brought the food to my husband's table; so I got this feeling in my head that that's the work I can do. I feel maybe I can't do the work outside. It is a feeling inside. Even though women can do everything outside and I know it, I feel afraid to try it.
C talked about people's attitudes towards domestic labor.
Most people, in India, if I tell them I worked as a nanny and a cook and a housekeeper, they say "What?!" It's a shocking thing. Some people don't like it. It's like, "What?! You used to work in an office, and now you're doing a nanny's job?"
First thing they say is about cleaning the bathroom. Cleaning someone else's bathroom. But I feel it's not degrading. It's each one's way.
N was of the opinion that the setting up of a clear contractual relationship between employer and worker is very necessary. She felt that domestic work could become a viable professional category, if treated properly.
It is possible here, because in this country, everything is a job. All jobs, outside and inside, are seen as jobs by the hour and are paid on a weekly basis. If people who work at outside jobs get respect, why shouldn't we? There is scope for getting respect for our work if we see it this way.
One Big, Happy Community?
C has worked in South Asian homes ever since she first arrived in the United States.
My last job is with an Indian family. The one before this was an American/Indian mixed. The lady was from Sri Lanka and the husband American. The one before that, again Indian/American. And then Indians.
N compared South Asian American employers with other American employers.
I don't have enough experience but I hear that American employers specify babysitting or housekeeping and pay accordingly. They pay hourly. Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families give less money but make you work much harder. We go to South Asian families because American employers want work permits and legal papers. But I don't have any legal papers.
At the same time, she felt that there were some cultural advantages associated with working for South Asian employers.
I am from Bangladesh and my favorite food is Bangladeshi food. If I stay with an American family they won't know that I need to eat rice three times a day. They won't know what my desire is. Where I am now, I eat the same food they do and when they go out, they bring food for me to eat. My employer's sister, however, treats her babysitter differently. I can't expect my employers to understand everything if they are from a different country.
C has always been employed in the homes of well-to-do South Asian professionals.
In the first house, the husband was working in a good concern, as a vice-president. She was at home. Then there were two doctors. The first one's wife was at the house. The second-both were doctors, Indians. They were out of the house all the time. The third one was a doctor and engineer — both out of the house all the time. The fourth one — the lady was studying and I don't know what her husband was working as. The fifth one and the current one they're both professionals too.
N felt strongly that
I don't think that these people could have succeeded without the cheap labor they hire at home. Those who are established here — got a new house, established themselves maybe as doctors — are usually able to pay for the house and all that by paying people like domestic workers so little. I don't think these people could have succeeded in their jobs outside if they didn't hire anyone to do the work cheaply at home. Because how would they go outside to do the work if they had to do this as well? I also feel that to give a little bit less to the domestic worker or to give a little bit more doesn't hurt these people either way — because they can go out one day and buy a hundred dollar perfume. They can do both these things at will but for a domestic worker $100 plus or minus is a big difference. So it's just a magnitude of difference that separates the two.
Commenting on the fact that the hiring of undocumented workers is itself an illegal act, and that both the employer and the worker are breaking the law in these situations, N said
In the beginning my employer was not very worried about the fact that they had employed me illegally. But once I contacted Sakhi and knew more about the laws, they understood that they could not do what ever they pleased with me. They were afraid that I might be able to know what's right and what's not. So I feel that people in my position should know about the laws and keep contact with organizations that help so that their employers are also warned and won't attempt to get the worker in legal trouble. The employer does try to scare the worker by saying that the worker is illegal. But now they can't, because the worker will know that the employer is also breaking the law and so the worker can hold that over the employer.
Even though her employers have also been South Asians attempting to make it in a foreign country, C felt that their situation was significantly different from hers.
They have their families here so they won't fret for somebody else. People like us, we are without our families, so we fret. They also have their own set of friends, while we would never meet others who are working in the same jobs as us, if it were not for Sakhi.
C was extremely conscious of the strong dividing line between the classes within the South Asian immigrant community.
All the Indian people who are well-to-do here — I would say they're all shit. I'm sorry for my language. They think they're earning too much money, so they can treat their housekeeper or nanny as they want. That's the money which is talking, not them. It's the money which has gone to their head and that's what's talking.
You can make out that they don't want your level. They draw a line. You cannot come beyond this line and I cannot go beyond this line.
N, too, was conscious of the gulf between the working-class and middle-class immigrant populations.
There are all these people from Bangladesh who are here now, and they work as busboys or drive cabs or do domestic work. A lot of them don't speak English; they don't even know the names of language schools. They could be here for four or five years and not know any English. A lot of them don't know that organizations like Sakhi exist. Most of them say, "How can I learn? I don't have money." They don't even know that there are free classes.
Sometimes I sense a difference between people in the community with regard to those who can hire and those who are hired. I don't feel everyone is the same. I feel some people have become established, say as doctors. They don't help other people — those who are taxi drivers or those who do not know English. How can we all feel part of a community?
But she seemed confident that there is a community in the making for people like her.
As far as domestic workers are concerned, if we are united, either through Sakhi or otherwise, then we won't have to suffer so much. We will do babysitting or whatever, but it will happen on an hourly basis with overtime pay
For obvious reasons, C and N have asked us not to use their names in this article. The conversation took place in the home of Cecilia Castelino. Anannya Bhattacharjee translated from Bengali into English. Chandana Mathur recorded and transcribed the conversation, and wrote the article. Satinder Jawanda assisted in the writing of the article.
For obvious reasons, C and N have asked us not to use their names in this article.