an occupational hazard
DOMESTICS AND SEX ABUSE
Bernice Yeung covers gender and race for Reveal
and is the author of the book, In
a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against
America’s Most Vulnerable Workers. Follow her on Twitter:
and pixielike, Myrla Baldonado immigrated from the Philippines
in 2007 when she was in her 50s. She was a longtime human rights
activist in her home country, but after she struggled for years
to earn a stable living, she came to the United States for the
same reason that so many other people do: “It was the poverty
that pushed me,” she says.
landed in Chicago, where she had family, and she was swift and
pragmatic about looking for a job. Through word of mouth, she
found work as an in-home caregiver. Initially, she liked the non-traditional
hours, which allowed her to continue her activism work.
Baldonado had no experience or context for domestic work, and
in joining the industry later in life in a new country, she had
a hard time accepting the indignities that were imposed on her.
“I’ve had nice experiences but it’s hard to
get (good jobs) because there are no rules,” Baldonado says
of domestic work. “There’s no floor and no ceiling.
You can do anything. It’s just luck.”
following is an adapted excerpt from Reveal
reporter Bernice Yeung’s new book, In a Day’s
Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s
Most Vulnerable Workers.
work is the crucial but unseen labour done behind the closed doors
of private homes. It’s the intimate and invisible work that
happens in someone else’s bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.
It takes on many forms, from tending to disabled or elderly clients
to cooking and cleaning and watching an employer’s kids.
Some workers live in their clients’ homes, and some go home
at the end of a set number of hours. But there are few fixed hours
or norms in domestic work, and a caregiver can perform a multitude
of tasks since the way that people run their households or realize
their daily rituals is personal and particular.
broad range of conditions collides with a lack of industry regulations,
so the risk of exploitation is real in domestic work – especially
because it has been purposely excluded from various federal labour
laws meant to protect workers from abuse.
was particularly troubled by the sexual harassment she encountered
on the job, a workplace hazard she had not anticipated. As it
was for the farmworkers and night-shift janitors my colleagues
and I have reported on for years, sexual violence was an open
secret within the industry.
domestic workers face additional challenges to speaking up about
it: They effectively are excluded from federal sexual harassment
laws, which apply only to companies with 15 or more workers.
handful of states fill in that gap, but for most women who are
the lone domestic worker in a household, as Baldonado was, there
was no clear way to seek recourse. And yet sexual harassment was
something that Baldonado and domestic workers across the country
routinely face on the job. In 2012, the National Domestic Workers
Alliance conducted a first-of-its-kind survey of more than 2,000
workers from all over the country and found problems related to
verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
the concerns of night-shift janitors and farmworkers, few of these
abused domestic workers complained because they didn’t want
to lose their jobs, the survey found. Undocumented workers added
that they worried that their immigration status would be used
against them. #MeToo has emboldened many women to speak up about
sexual harassment on the job, but for low-wage workers, practical
the 30 jobs Baldonado has had over the course of six years, she
says she has experienced sexual harassment in nearly a half dozen
of them. All of the incidents were mortifying and upsetting, but
some were especially traumatizing. There was the husband of a
client who made sexual innuendos and who came into her room at
night to grope her in the dark. There was the 80-year-old man
she cared for who constantly talked about sex, grabbed at her
and invited her into his bed when he was naked. There was the
son of a client who wanted to talk to her about dildos.
of embarrassment, Baldonado didn’t do or say anything when
these things happened. Nowadays, she recognizes the irony: “I
was a human rights activist in the Philippines, and I don’t
know why I was putting up with this,” she says.
Illinois, where Baldonado worked, state legislators agreed in
2016 to revise the Illinois Human Rights Act so that it expressly
includes domestic workers, who had previously been singled out
such as this one have come slowly in the form of hard-won state
and local legislation for additional labour protections. In the
past 18 years, domestic workers in eight states, from New York
to Nevada, have successfully lobbied for new local policies, sometimes
following years-long legislative campaigns.
efforts now are headed to the national stage. Later this month,
Baldonado will go to Washington, D.C., along with more than 100
domestic workers and farmworkers, to demand that federal sexual
harassment laws be expanded to include all workers.
Domestic work and activism had begun to merge for Baldonado in
2011 when she started volunteering with Latino Union, a Chicago-based
organization dedicated to helping immigrant workers and day laborers.
She had a knack for finding and reaching other domestic workers,
and the group had offered her a job. In her new role, the problem
of sexual harassment in domestic work continued to trouble her.
has a distinct memory of a Latina domestic worker who came to
her and said that she had been forced to have sex with the husband
of a client. The worker wanted to make a report to the police,
but she was undocumented and felt stuck in her job. She was one
of the few who had come to discuss on-the-job sexual violence
directly with Baldonado, even though the organizer knew that there
depth of the silence was obvious to Baldonado; in a support group
that she helped run for victims of violence, women always showed
up but very few wanted to speak. “Sometimes they would sit
and just cry and say, ‘Next time I’ll be able to talk,’
” Baldonado says. “It’s so shameful. The shame
is there. You see so many immigrants who are so ashamed to tell
Baldonado experienced sexual harassment as a domestic worker.
Out of embarrassment, she didn’t do or say anything when
it happened. “I was a human rights activist in the Philippines,
and I don’t know why I was putting up with this,”
2015, Baldonado moved to Los Angeles for a job with the Pilipino
Workers Center, where she continues to assist domestic workers.
She has found that even with a change in job, demographics and
location, the workers she organizes remain uneasy about discussing
sexual harassment on the job.
the shame,” she concludes.
knows firsthand how social, cultural and religious expectations
can make it hard to talk about the problem, and she has felt how
damaging it is to be judged for it. In 2012, Latino Union hosted
an event to honor a Chicago exhibit recognizing domestic workers
on International Human Rights Day, and Baldonado had been tapped
to introduce Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National
Domestic Workers Alliance. During her remarks, Baldonado shared
her experiences of sexual harassment and assault as a domestic
one of Baldonado’s friends, another Filipina, privately
chastised her for failing to be more modest in public. “Why
would you say that?” her friend had demanded. Baldonado
still remembers her response with clarity: “I said: Who
will say it if I don’t?”
domestic worker-turned-organizer says she has been made bold by
her experiences in the Philippines, where she had been an anti-dictatorship
activist. In 1983, she was arrested and tried after the government
accused her of being a subversive. She remembers what it was like
to be scrutinized in court, how indignant she felt about being
on display and having her experiences questioned and doubted.
Her trial dragged on for two years, and she remained in detention
the entire time. “There was a suspension of rights,”
says Baldonado. “They also made up charges like weapons
possession so I couldn’t get bail.”
a political detainee, she was moved from detention centers to
‘safe houses’ so that no one, not even her family,
knew where she was. She was chained to the bedpost of a guard’s
bed and forced to sleep on a blanket on the floor. Her captors
tried to make her divulge the identities of other activists through
weeks of water torture. She is proud that she never gave up a
two years, a judge found in her favour and he released her in
1985.Baldonado says her courtroom experience in the Philippines
is what made it possible for her to speak about sexual violence
in the United States: She had already overcome the devastating
experience of being publicly judged.
so, it remains difficult for Baldonado to confront the issue.
In 2016, a few months before Illinois’ domestic workers
finally gained official sexual harassment protections, she went
back to Chicago for an event sponsored by Healing to Action, an
organization that works to combat workplace sexual violence.
The audience heard from a panel of women who had been sexually
harassed and assaulted while working in a hotel, a casino, a restaurant
and a factory.
was the lunchtime keynote speaker. For weeks, she had fretted
about what to say. She felt especially anxious because she knew
there would be other Filipinas in the audience, including her
sister, whom she had never talked to about the sexual harassment
and assault she had experienced. Baldonado worried that by speaking
about sexual violence, she would bring shame to her community
and her family and that it would turn them away from the issue
decided to make her uncertainty part of the speech. “Of
all of the abuses in the domestic worker workplace, sexual violence
is the one that is less talked about,” she said. “Why
so? Because there is shame, fear of losing a job, retaliation,
fear of deportation, language barriers and ignorance of workplace
laws that make us silent.”
said that she was going to tell the audience about the sexual
harassment that she experienced as a caregiver. But first, she
offered a preface. “Honestly, before I decided to give more
details of the sexual harassment I encountered, I consulted my
friend and mentor Mechthild Hart about the possible embarrassment
that you and I might get from this experience,” she said.
“And she said, ‘Okay, just get over it!’ ”
crowd erupted in laughter but became quiet again as Baldonado
continued recounting the advice she had received from Hart, who
had co-founded the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers.
we don’t get over it, then it means you are still accepting
the blame for what happened to you,” Hart had told Baldonado.
With that, Baldonado began to share examples of the sexual harassment
she had experienced as a domestic worker. She closed by telling
the audience that she was speaking that day to counter the stigma
and shame that society puts on sexual violence victims like herself.
was there that day, she said, with the intention of being vocal