Thursday, October 29, 2009

Legal Victory Fuels Domestic Workers' Movement

Legal Victory Fuels Domestic Workers' Movement


New America Media

Laura Goode, Josue Rojas

Oct 15, 2009


SAN FRANCISCO -- Vilma Serralta, a 71-year-old U.S.

citizen born in El Salvador, recently settled a lawsuit

against her employers for labor abuses, strengthening a

growing movement of domestic workers.


During her four years of employment, Serralta alleges

that her employers, Sakhawat and Roomy Khan of

Atherton, Calif., paid her between $3 and $4 an hour to

work 14-hour days, six days a week, without breaks,

overtime pay or vacation time. Serralta also says that

she routinely endured verbal abuse and other

indignities that made for a hostile work environment.


"My job was very hard," Serralta said. "It was a really

big house, I would do all the housework and they would

really exploit me. one time they called me stupid, and

they would yell at me."


When Serralta was fired by the Khans in 2006, she

contacted Social Services to see if there were

resources available to her to take legal action. She

was referred to La Raza Centro Legal of San Francisco,

where co-counsel Hillary Ronen took on Serralta's case

and joined forces with senior staff attorney

Christopher Ho of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law

Center (LAS-ELC).


"I began to speak in public about this abuse because

they would pay me monthly, but they never paid me

overtime or holidays," Serralta said. "Employers should

not exploit us domestic workers."


As Serralta's lawyers began to build her case against

the Khans, the Khans' defense worked to call into

question Serralta's honesty and work ethic. However,

Serralta's team received a boon shortly before the case

would have gone to trial, when her lawyers demonstrated

that the Khans had fabricated critical evidence in

their defense case. As a result, the Khans were forced

to settle.


Lawyers declined to disclose the amount of the

settlement, but the lawsuit sought unpaid minimum and

overtime wages, penalties and damages.


Serralta's case represents a watershed moment in

organizing domestic workers to unite against labor



"We were very pleased about the outcome, because

typically these cases aren't brought at all, and

because Vilma was brave enough to come forward," Ho

said. "She could well have been blacklisted by being in

the press and having her name associated with a

movement like the domestic worker movement as someone

who'd be too uppity for a lot of people who'd want to

hire, but she came forward despite that, and I think

that it is to her credit that this case has been able

to accomplish what it has."


Serralta's case was also unique partially because of

her U.S. citizenship. Though undocumented workers also

have rights under U.S. law, the attorneys note, it is

more difficult for them to press charges. ICE can be an

intimidating force, Ho explained.


"It's obviously much harder to bring cases such as this

on behalf of people whose immigration status is

tenuous," he said. "There is more to be afraid of."


Ho continued, "Although the workplace laws both at the

federal and state level almost without exception are

exactly the same for undocumented workers as they are

for documented workers, the fact is that undocumented

workers are much more vulnerable to deportation, to

threats against themselves and their families."


According to Ho, even when undocumented workers are

brave enough to raise civil prosecution against their

employers, employers often initiate deportation

proceedings in retaliation. ICE runs independently of

the court system, so workers' ability to remain in the

United States to press their case is curtailed.


Domestic workers can be a difficult community to

mobilize. They are often isolated in the homes in which

they work, they are often undocumented immigrants, and

they often don't know that they have legal rights

regardless of their immigration status.


Another obstacle to more domestic workers reporting

abuse can be many employers' use of the attachments

that household workers form with the children they look

after as tools of emotional manipulation, Ho explained.

Serralta was overcome with emotion when she remembered

her relationship with the Khans' daughter.


"You know I always cry, right? When people ask me about

the girl," Serralta said, choking back tears. "I loved

her, that girl, I still love her. She is always in my

thoughts, the girl. She was so beautiful. I would take

care of her, I did everything for her. They [the Khans]

didn't know if she got dressed, what she ate, nothing.

I was always taking care of her.I was like a mother."


Despite the emotional complexities of leaving the Khan

home, Serralta's fight has inspired other domestic

workers and organizers to follow her example.


"For us, Vilma Serralta's case is very important,

because this creates a great precedent at the

international and state levels and across movements,"

said Guillermina Catellanos, an organizer at the

Women's Collective of La Raza Centro Legal, and a

member of the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA),

a driving force in the labor movement behind domestic

workers. "That is what we want employers to know-that

domestic work is dignified and should be recognized

like any other job."


The economic crisis has intensified the need for

domestic workers to organize in order to protect

themselves, Catellanos said.


"In these times of crisis, abuse in these types of work

just increases.There are many Vilmas locked up in

houses suffering what Vilma went through, and we want

to tell the entire world-don't let this happen to you.

Just like Vilma made this change, they can do it too."


Serralta intends to continue speaking out on the issue.

Next month, she'll be a featured speaker during a

convening of domestic workers, organized by NDWA.

Though the fight continues, Serralta's satisfaction

with the results thus far is apparent.


"We won," Serralta said, with quiet pride before the

press conference, raising a fist in the air. "We won,

and we came out victorious."




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