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Latina domestics get a raw deal in California.

SAN FRANCISCO--Adolfo Aguilar (not his real name) is a specialist. The middle-aged pollero (literally, "chicken catcher") prowls his lakeside Michoacan, Mexico, village, soliciting young Indian women and promising them a golden future up north, where, he claims, they can earn hundreds of dollars weekly as domestic servants in the California homes of rich Anglo families.

On the other end of the pipeline in the affluent San Francisco Bay area, undocumented Latina domestic workers are hired to cook, wash, clean house and tend children for as little as $50 a month of 12-to-14-hour work days, explains Maria Olea, a former domestic worker who now organizes maids for the self-help group Women-United & Active!.

Some live-in maids are lodged in attics or basements with only a bucket for bathing. Other women, who have managed to bring their children from their home countries, spend hours commuting to and from their jobs and never get home in time to see them before they go to bed.

Moreover, Latina domestic servants are caught up in the anti-immigration sentiment sweeping California. "We clean their bathrooms. We prepare their food and take care of their kids, and they don't even know our names," declares Olea.

One study done by the Bay Area Coalition for Immigrant Rights indicates that 55 percent of undocumented Latinas interviewed earned less than $700 a month (35 percent, less than $500), with 40 percent of them supporting at least three people.

But the exploitation of Latina domestic workers goes far beyond miserable wages and working conditions. Maria de Jesus Ramos was recruited by a pollero in her home village of Sayula, Jalisco, to work as a live-in maid for a Petaluma, Calif., chiropractor. After being repeatedly raped by her employer, Ramos summoned police and her employer was convicted. Ramos, who had taken the job to raise money for an infant son's heart operation, was threatened with deportation so she returned to Mexico.

Undocumented Latina domestics are routinely threatened with deportation when they object to abusive working conditions. Sara Correa was cleaning the home of an AIDS patient last winter when she accidentally pricked herself with a syringe needle. When Sara asked her employer to pay the cost of AIDS testing, the maid service fired her.

Correa's lawyer, Robert Jobe, suspects that the employer notified immigration authorities. Agents entered Correa's San Francisco apartment without a warrant to detain her and her roommate and deportation has been upheld by immigration authorities. "Unscrupulous employers are encouraged to have a troublesome employee deported," Jobe said.

Undocumented domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by employers and retaliation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Typically, they work alone and are isolated from other domestic workers -- unlike undocumented restaurant, factory, or field workers, who labor in groups and develop a sense of on-the-job solidarity, even joining unions.

Efforts to organize undocumented maids seek to break down such isolation. One Bay Area group, Alas (Wings), conducts classes to stimulate "economic literacy" and teaches maids how to record hours and calculate wages. Options for Domestic Workers, a co-op of 18 Salvadoran women, runs an electronic hiring hall and has a hot line for those whose labor rights have been abused.

In Los Angeles, CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights) organizers ride the buses from the barrio to posh Beverly Hills, passing out leaflets describing labor rights to hundreds of maids who travel the route each day. CHIRLA's Nancy Cardenas said that because the maids are so subject to on-the-job pressures "we try to find areas of common ground, like child care, around which to organize."
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Author:Ross, John (American tribal leader)
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 24, 1993
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