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, 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 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, nor holidays,” Serralta said. “Employers should not exploit us, the 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 abuse.
“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 America 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 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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