Petite 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.
She 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.
But 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.”
Domestic work is the crucial but unseen labor 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.
Its 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 labor laws meant to protect workers from abuse.
Baldonado 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.
But 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.
A 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.
Echoing 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 barriers remain.
Of 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.
Out 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.
In 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 for exclusion.
Improvements such as this one have come slowly in the form of hard-won state and local legislation for additional labor 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 yearslong legislative campaigns.
These 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.
She 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 were others.
The 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 their stories.”
In 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.
“It’s the shame,” she concludes.
Baldonado 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 worker.
Afterward, 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?”
The 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.”
As 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 single name.
After two years, a judge found in her favor 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.
Even 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.
Baldonado 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 altogether.
Baldonado 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.”
She 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!’ ”
The 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.
“If 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.
She was there that day, she said, with the intention of being vocal and defiant.