Immigrant Domestic Workers Test New Ways to Settle Disputes

The World

Anna Amoral (on the left) mediating a mock case. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a dozen nannies and housecleaners, many of them immigrants from Brazil, gather with employers in a living room in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They snack on cheese and crackers, breaking the ice a bit before talking about talking and how to settle some of the troubles that can bubble up in domestic work.

Anna Amoral, an immigrant from Brazil and a nanny in Boston shares an issue that she's been having with her employer.

"They would pay me for gas and mileage," says Amoral, "they did that the first week and it's been ten months now but I'm not getting the money."

As she talks, several women in the room nod their head-and offer advice. Lydia Edwards asks Anna if she's talked about it with her employer. Edwards is a lawyer at the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Boston.

"They may not remember it as you do, Anna," says Edwards.

Edwards has seen her fair share of misunderstanding between domestic workers and their employers. After taking countless disputes to court she began to think about ways in which she could end these arguments without the gavel, so she started a mediation program at the Brazilian Immigrant Center.

The process she's testing out is pretty simple and it's being closely watched by other immigrant centers like this. A worker brings a complaint to the center about, for example, a wage dispute. The center contacts the employer to see if they'd like to meet with trained mediators to find a solution-instead of taking legal action. And the mediators know these conflicts well because they're domestic workers and employers themselves.

"I wanted to figure out a way that workers could be a part of the resolution of their own issues," says Edwards.

Edwards began the project after getting laid off from the downtown Boston law firm where she'd worked. Out of a job, she started volunteering her legal expertise at the Brazilian Immigrant Center, setting up a law office in the center's kitchen.

"I had no materials," says Edwards. She worked with donated pens and law books and two file boxes that she had salvaged from the garbage.

Month after month, she met with hundreds of Brazilians at that kitchen table listening to stories about the cracks they'd fall into.

"Fighting over whether trick or treating time is work time or not, I've had that fight in court," says Edwards, "whether making a meal and eating it negates [a nanny] from getting paid [for that time]."

"At the beginning what I was just looking for actually was for an apology,' says Amoral.

Amoral approached Edwards to get help about unpaid wages, one of the most common claims domestic workers can have. But it wasn't actually money that upset Amoral, rather how her employer had treated her.

"She lashed out at me at the library in front of other friends, other nannies, and librarians," says Amoral.

Amoral did go to court in the end where she won the wages owed to her but the issue never felt resolved. These feelings are natural because of the intimacy of domestic work says Edwards.

"They took care of your kids from birth sometimes, it's an intense bond. I feel like the mediation process there's a sense of closure," says Edwards.

Getting the program started hasn't been easy. In fact, it's prompted some pretty difficult conversations between the women training as moderators.

"Some people asked innocently, 'What am I supposed to do if there's an illegal? Do I call immigration? As a mediator? The person next to her responded, 'There's an illegal sitting right next to you who's been training next to you,'" says Edwards.

For nanny Anna Amoral, these difficult conversations have challenged her as a moderator to leave judgement at the door.

"We cannot take sides. We need to maintain the neutrality. It's hard but it's something that's an exercise."

So far, the center has successfully mediated five cases, a slow start, Edwards she hopes that'll change as word spreads.

As Saturday's course wraps up Edwards gives a final pep talk.

"No one should be undervalued," she says, "and no one should be working in the dark."

Photos by Mario Quiroz: Documenting the Domestic Workers of Massachusetts

Mario Quiroz, a documentary photographer originally from San Salvador has been taking portraits of house cleaners, nannies and caregivers in Massachusetts. The subject is a personal one for him.

"When my family start coming to the States in the 60's, my aunts' first jobs were cleaning houses. I wanted to use photography to start a conversation about recognizing the potential of these immigrant women. Their children and grandchildren are now business people, homeowners, artist, etc," says Quiroz.

The project is part of an advocacy campaign in support of the passage of a Massachusetts Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.