Samirah took out the garbage and never came back. She was found in rags after five years of being stabbed, starved and forced to sleep on the floor in a millionaire family’s basement in Long Island, New York. Shaku stepped outside for the first time in two years. A Bangladeshi diplomat and his wife forced her to stay indoors cleaning, cooking and babysitting from sun up to sun down. These women are victims of modern slavery, commonly called human trafficking.
Samirah and Shaku are part of the 200,000 nannies, live in maids and domestic workers that are the backbone of New York homes. Over 30 percent of these women face abuse at the hands of their employers. With few legal protections, language barriers and the uncertainty of living in an isolated world, these women have only one thing to rely on: themselves.
Domestic workers are excluded from the right to form a union, to earn a federal minimum wage, the protections of civil rights legislation and important health and safety protections. Unsafe conditions allow employers to traffick these women into the United States and into modern slavery.
The legacy of domestic work is rooted in the aftermath of American slavery. When federal laws to protect workers were first enacted in the 1930s, domestic workers, many of whom were African American women, were not included. Fast forward to today, domestic workers are still overwhelmingly women of color.
Shaku and Samirah found refuge in Andolan, a group of South Asian domestic workers lobbying for legal protections and respect for their work. Nahar Alam founded Andolan in 1998. The women of Andolan fight relentlessly against abusive employers but the cycle of exploitation continues.
Anika found Shanti through an advertisement in an Indian community newspaper. Shanti left Nepal a fired government worker and came to the United States to work as a nanny to support her twin daughters and husband struggling in her home country. She’s lonely but can’t bring herself to leave the middle class family she’s been working for and living with for just two months. Anika is aware of her power as Shanti’s employer.
“For all you know, we might be murderers you know,” Anika said, “It’s so easy behind closed doors to do God knows what. “