D.C.'S Indentured Servants
Honey, Martha, The Progressive
The brick townhouse with its aluminum front door blends into northern Virginia's suburban sprawl. From the outside it doesn't look like what it is: a modern-day underground railway station for runaway domestic workers imported from the Third World. The smell of spicy food and the sound of high-pitched chatter drifts out of the kitchen. A cluster of about eight women--runaway nannies and housekeepers, most of them from the Philippines--gathers here. Among them is twenty-three-year-old Marilyn Caracas. Here is her story: A distant relative brought Caracas from the Philippines to clean her Fairfax, Virginia, house and care for her three children. Before getting her visa from the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Caracas signed a contract with her employer, who promised to adhere to U.S. labor laws.
But when Caracas arrived in Washington in March 1994, things were not as she expected. On weekends she cleaned the woman's house and took care of her children. Monday through Friday she stayed at the house of the woman's mother-in-law, where Caracas ran an unregistered day-care center for eleven children, in addition to taking care of the older woman. Caracas says she worked from 6:30 A.M. to 11 P.M. seven days a week, and received a mere $230 a month. (Each child at the day-care center paid the mother-in-law $600 a month.) Caracas's employer took her passport and threatened to dismiss and deport her if she complained, Caracas says.
Caracas was exhausted and sick. She says she didn't know where to turn for help. "I was very sad and afraid. I didn't know anyone and didn't know the regulations, the laws," she says. "They told me they don't want me to talk with others, even my co-Filipinos."
One evening she was allowed out to go to the store to buy sanitary napkins. By chance, she met and talked with two other Filipinas who told her about the brick townhouse. For months she plotted her escape. Then, when the mother-in-law went on vacation, leaving Caracas alone, she searched the house and found her passport, which her employer had hidden in the back of a closet. She called the townhouse and one of the residents there came and got her.
For several years, this townhouse has served as a clandestine way-station on a modern-day underground railway. The owner, "Rose" (not her real name), is part of an informal network of people involved in helping foreign domestic servants escape illegal, exploitative, and sometimes abusive employment situations. Rose gives them a place to stay, counseling, and a community.
Scattered around Washington are other way-stations, mainly churches and social-service centers, that have aided hundreds of foreign domestic workers to escape bad situations, find other employment, and get legal help.
In Caracas's case it didn't work. Through a Washington immigration attorney, Edward Leavy, Caracas filed a $600,000 suit against her employer. But the employer contacted Caracas' father in the Philippines, protesting that his daughter was making false accusations and bringing shame on the entire family. Under this pressure, Caracas dropped the lawsuit and returned to the Philippines. Nothing happened to the employer, who works for the International Monetary Fund and repeatedly refused to discuss the case. So did officials at the IMF, who argue that this is "a private not an institutional matter."
Caracas and the other runaways are some of the thousands of foreign domestic workers who enter the United States legally to work for diplomats or executives with the World Bank, the IMF, the InterAmerican Development Bank, and other international agencies. Some employers are American. Most are from overseas. Their employees come with the help of special State Department programs that permit international bureaucrats and diplomats to "import" household help (housekeepers, nannies, cooks, gardeners, drivers, etc.) on either A-3 or G-5 visas. The visas are good for a year, and can be renewed as long as the servant is working for either a diplomat or an international civil servant. …