David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Escape of a Domestic Worker
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (10/22/96) - Every week workers find their way to the offices of the Labor Defense Network, once part of the Legal Aid Society, in a nondescript building on LA's Crenshaw Avenue. Bitter stories pour out of them - of work without overtime, of wages lower than the minimum, and of the general denial of conditions most people take for granted. Sitting across the desk, attorney Michelle Yu takes careful notes, preparing case after case in a stream that seems to have no end.

These are the invisible workers. Their work is done below the radar screen - necessary jobs that make the world function but which are hardly noticed at all. Their very invisibility makes a commonplace occurrence of the violation of standards and rights most people don't even think about.

Domestic workers are the most invisible of all. For almost three years, Yuni Mulyono , a slender woman, seeming much younger than her twenty-seven years, lived in this hidden economy. She was finally helped out of its modern bondage by another immigrant, Marco Rodriguez, a stocky man from halfway around the world who sits protectively beside her as she tells her story.

"I became a domestic worker in Indonesia because my family is poor. I didn't have a good education, so I had no choice. In the little town where I grew up in Sumatra, my father is a farmer and furniture maker. I have a big family, with six brothers and one sister, all younger than me.

"There were no real jobs there, so when I was fifteen, the girl who lived next door told me she knew where I could find work. She took me to Jakarta, and found a job for me. At first I was afraid; in the big city everything was different.

"In Indonesia, housekeepers work from morning to night, and stop about 9 o'clock. I was the cook, took care of the children, and shopped for the groceries, while two others did the laundry and mopped the floor.

"After I got used to it, and stopped being scared, I thought about getting more education. I wanted to study cosmetology. But I couldn't because I had to work full time. The boss didn't let any of us study, since we were living full time in his house. We didn't have any money, and besides, I didn't even finish high school.

"Then my cousin told me about someone who was looking for a housekeeper and babysitter in the United States, relatives of her boss. I was scared about coming to the U.S., because I had no family and no friends here. But I thought I could get paid more and help my family.

"I have a daughter, and she needs an education. She stayed in Indonesia, with my ex-mother-in-law. It was very painful leaving her behind.

"The family I was going to work for said they would take care of everything. They paid for all the things I needed to come here, like the passport and the ticket. I asked them how much the wage was in the United States for domestic work, and they told me $250 a month. I believed them. In Indonesia that's about 500,000 rupia, which is a lot of money. The family I was working for in Jakarta was paying me 50,000 rupia a month. But when I got here the family said they would only pay $100 a month, because they had had to pay for the passport, the ticket and everything else.

"When I went to work for them, it was the same as it was in Indonesia. I didn't know the way people work in this country, so I just did things the same way I did in Indonesia. I began working when I got up in the morning, and worked until it was time to go to bed at night. In the morning, I prepared the family's breakfast and lunch, and cleaned the kitchen and living room. I mopped and swept.

"I had to wake up their daughter, get her dressed and ready for school, and feed her. She's now seven, so she was two and a half when I started. Then, after they left the house, I had to clean the back yard. They had feed and clean up after their two dogs. Every day I did laundry and washed the bathroom. I fixed the dinner and served it to them, and washed the dishes. Sometimes the wife would ask me to give her a massage in the evening, and I would do that too.

"I'm a Muslim, so I took breaks to pray in the morning, and after lunch I would pray again. Each break took only ten minutes. After dinner and washing the dishes, I would take a shower and then pray again. And around nine thirty I would go to bed.

"That was my life.

"I didn't speak a word of English when I arrived. The wife of the family I worked for is Chinese-Indonesian, and she married an African-American man. They speak English all the time, so I began to learn. I watched TV, and that forced me to learn more English too. After I lived with them a year, I started going to school once a week on Saturday for two hours.

"It was at school where I began to understand my situation, and realize that my wage wasn't fair. When my teacher told me about the minimum wage in the United States, I was surprised. I told my boss about it, but she didn't say anything.

"Of course she knew how much the minimum was. I didn't show it to them, but I was angry when I found out they had been lying to me. I wanted her to know that I knew the truth, but I was afraid to ask her for a raise. I thought she would pay me more, but she didn't.

"I kept working for them because I had no family and no friends here. I was afraid to go out, and I was afraid they would throw me out of their house. I didn't know what to do.

"When I met Marco at the English classes, at first we were just friends. He's from Mexico. He began asking me if I wanted to eat lunch with him and his friends. I told them that I had to ask my boss, because I couldn't go anyplace without telling them.

"So I asked my boss if I could go with a friend to eat lunch. They said no, you can't go out without us. That made me very angry. I'm no kid - I was twenty-six years old. I was so angry, I finally asked them for the minimum wage.

"'If you ask for a raise,' they said, 'we'll send you back to Indonesia.' I told them I wouldn't go back. They said you can't work here if you don't work for us. "Who will be responsible for you here?" they asked me. I told them, "I will be responsible for myself."

"They finally agreed to let me out once a month, until six in the evening. The third time I went out, I was at Marco' home, cooking dinner for his uncle and aunt. At six o'clock I called them and told them that I didn't feel good about leaving before the food was cooked.

"The wife hung up on me, and when I got home only their daughter spoke to me for three days. Marco said he would help me if I wanted to leave, so I decided to move out. I packed my stuff, and at lunchtime the wife suddenly came home. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her I was leaving. She said I didn't appreciate what she had done for me. "You don't know who you are," she said. She meant that I was from a poor family, and they are a rich family, that they were helping me, and that I didn't appreciate them. She thinks I am less than they are.

"She took all of my things. I just had my purse and the dress on my body. I had to go back to the house with the police to get my stuff. I asked for my passport, which they had kept, but they said they didn't have it anymore.

"When I first lived with them, they said I was a part of their family. But that's not how they treated me.

"In the end, I filed a legal case for back wages. What they did wasn't fair, and I want them to pay for the work I did. I've heard that a lot of people have had the same experience I've had. I don't want what happened to me to happen to other people.

"None of my family does domestic work besides me. My brothers and sister finished high school, and I think the money I sent back helped them. I support my daughter. My mother-in-law is poor too, and I don't want my daughter to have a bad future, the kind that I've had. I don't want her to be like me.

"Now I have the opportunity to study, and I have a part time job. Marco supports me a lot.

"And I'm finally studying cosmetology. It's what I always wanted to do."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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