Volume 5: Number 1, Feb 21 2002
A Victory for Ms. Kaur
by Amitava Kumar
The pages of the classifieds in the Indian newspapers in the U.S. are full of ads like the following: "Professional couple seeks live-in housekeeper/babysitter. Please call ______."
A recent 54 year-old Indian immigrant from Punjab answered such an ad and found herself in a situation where, in the words of one of her advocates, "she was being worked to death."
Manjinder Kaur (not her real name) fought her way out of her situation by answering another ad she had seen in the same paper. This ad was for a group that called itself Workers Awaaz.
Workers Awaaz is an organization of South Asian women based in New York City. Its goal is to fight against exploitation and servitude in the sweatshop industries of New York City. One of the current campaigns of the group is against domestic servitude.
When Workers Awaaz came to Kaur's help, she was employed as a live-in domestic worker for a doctor-couple, Manjeet and J.B. Chadha. At the Long Island home of the Chadhas, Kaur was working 16-hour days, for 6 or 7 days a week. There were few breaks and no overtime pay.
Kaur's duties included getting up at 4.30 in the morning to serve bed-tea to Manjeet Chadha at 5 am; laundering and ironing 3 loads of dirty clothes daily; and cooking and serving freshly-prepared meals to four family members at separate times.
One night last year, on June 24, when Kaur was asked by her employers to prepare additional food for another family's 25 guests, she decided that she had had enough. She refused.
Kaur was fired on the spot and asked to move out immediately. It was the middle of the night.
Kaur telephoned a member of Workers Awaaz. Soon thereafter, with the help of the group, she filed a federal lawsuit against the Chadha family seeking a total of $70,000 in unpaid wages and compensatory damages. The business of going through the legal process was slow and demanding, requiring the presence of a translator during those few hours that Kaur could get away from her current work. But, despite these difficulties, Kaur won victory.
Recently, according to Shahbano Aliani of Workers Awaaz, Kaur received her first cheque after the defendants agreed to settle the case out of court by paying $50,000.
Aliani, who has been active in Workers Awaaz since its inception in 1997, explains that lawyers from the New York University Immigrant Rights Clinic as well as the National Employment Law Project provide pro bono assistance for workers like Kaur.
This victory would not have come from legal action alone. When they demonstrated at the Beth Israel Hospital where Manjeet Chadha is employed, members of Workers Awaaz were joined by other groups like Taxi Workers Alliance, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops. Many other members of the desi community also participated in a letter-writing campaign.
Under the terms of her court agreement, Kaur is not allowed to speak to the press. She is once again employed as a domestic worker. In India, she had worked in a government office. At the home of the Chadhas, according to one of the complaints filed by Kaur, she was "required to clean the grout between tiles in the large kitchen, dining room, and greenhouse, with a toothbrush."
When asked what is the significance of a group like Workers Awaaz to new immigrants like Kaur, Aliani said Kaur has often said to her that "she knows now that she is not alone and neither are the others who would otherwise be helpless."
Commenting on Kaur's vulnerability as well as her bravery, Aliani added, "It was not till she received her first cheque today that Ms. Kaur has really been able to believe that she has won."
(Amitava teaches literature at Penn State.)