Filipina nanny Edith Mendoza moved to the U.S. to care for a German diplomat's family. She ended up working 100-hour weeks for $4 an hour and becoming seriously ill.
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Portrait of Edith Mendoza, 51, in the hallway of her apartment building in Queens, NY. Filipina nanny Edith Mendoza moved to the U.S. to care for a German diplomat's family. She ended up working 100-hour weeks for $4 an hour and becoming seriously ill. She made it out in 2016.
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Edith Mendoza, 51, catching the 7, nicknamed "the train of immigrants" by locals in Queens, NY.
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Edith Mendoza, 51, heads home after work in Queens, NY. Filipina live-in nanny Edith Mendoza left her Qatar-based job in 2015 to work in the United States for the family of Pit Koehler, Counsellor of the United Nations’ German Permanent Mission to the United States. She says she was promised $10 an hour, 35 hours a week and overtime pay but ended up working 100-hour weeks at their suburban New York home, making what amounted to about $4 an hour. Mendoza became so ill that at one point she had to wear an adult diaper for heavy bleeding.
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Edith Mendoza, 51, at the apartment she shares with three roommates in Queens, NY.
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Edith Mendoza, 51, in her neighborhood in Queens, New York. Ms. Mendoza supports her son, daughter and husband in the Philippines.
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Edith Mendoza, 51, in Queens, NY. “When I got this job I felt blessed and filled with hope for my family. They paid regularly until four or five months everything changed. They demanded more work. I [asked] would they add more to my salary. They told me, ‘Edith, everything is free for you.’ Yes [they broke my contract], but I don’t know everything at that time. I don’t know about the [Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights]. I don’t know what I am supposed to do, who to contact, so I just keep silent doing what they told me to do. I was powerless. I was scared I might lose my job or they might send me back to the Philippines.”
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Edith Mendoza, Sherile Pahagas and Ms. Pahagas's son catch up in Queens, New York.
After a chance meeting in a Manhattan park with Sherile Pahagas, another domestic worker who had been employed by the of the Koehler family, the two women joined forces. They are now suing the Koehlers. The complaint alleges breach of contract, unpaid wages and labor violations.
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The suffering [Sherile and I] are facing now is that it’s hard to get job. I don’t have reference. Sometimes [employers] will use that to pay you less. It’s hard to talk to my family about what is going on. It’s really something that keeps me depressed. If I stayed in Qatar, maybe I’d have paid all the loans that I have in the Philippines and my house and my kids [wouldn’t] suffer. So it’s also pride for me to live without telling my family or my previous employer because I’ve been good to them and they were good also to me. It’s very hard to go back to what is past. It seems that I am fighting a wall. Will I break it and reach there? It is very hard to break that wall.”
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Mendoza escaped in July 2016 with the help of Damayan Migrant Workers Association. While Koehler’s diplomatic immunity may protect him, Mendoza sued him and his wife, Marieke this summer for labor exploitation. Sherile Pahagas, another previous employee of the Koehlers,’ has also filed suit.
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Edith Mendoza, 51, prepares dinner at the apartment she shares with three roommates in Queens, NY. I was not comfortable…always out of place. I would cook for them but feel hungry and shy. I remember what [Marieke] said to me when I ate some leftovers: ‘You ask me first before you have to eat.’ The worst was the two birds [that were] free to fly all over the house. I think I got sick from the birds. I ask [the Koehlers] to buy gloves, to buy masks. They never did. I bought them myself and they never reimbursed me. [Marieke] ignored me.
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Edith Mendoza, 51, cleans offices in Manhattan, NY three times a week.
After November 2015, it was too long to do this hard work. I would start my day before 6 a.m. and end after midnight. It seemed like I had been in a tournament of boxing or a marathon. I only feel rest on Sunday when I express myself to God and pray, ‘Help me Lord please give me rest I’m so tired.’ So what can I do? Just do the work because this my job. I don’t want to lose my job because I need money."
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Edith Mendoza, 51, at work cleaning offices in a Manhattan building. For organizers and legal aid workers, connecting with these workers, who are rarely aware of their rights, is a big challenge. “People like Edith and Sherile are living in these mansions super isolated and there’s no way for them to interact with the community and have access to resources,” says Arora, who also started the Wage Justice Program in Westchester County. “That was part of the problem when Edith was trying to seek medical care as well. It’s extremely important for these cases to be brought to light and create accountability because right now so much happens undercover in private households without anybody knowing.”
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A view of Manhattan from the floor Edith cleans. In July, the Senate unanimously passed the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act allotting $520 million towards the prevention of human trafficking. Yet, with limited resources to advocate for themselves, survivors of human trafficking and labor exploitation escape their situation only to find themselves undocumented and at risk for more abuses.
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Edith Mendoza, 51, at work cleaning offices in a Manhattan building. The State Department in its 2017 Trafficking in Persons report found “that some foreign mission personnel evade current protection measures for foreign domestic workers” and noted a call “for increased efforts to prosecute domestic servitude cases involving diplomats when possible, the inclusion of all domestic workers in federal labor and employment law protections, and strengthened protections under state laws.”
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Edith Mendoza, 51, at work cleaning offices in a Manhattan building. For civil servants like Koehler, asserting diplomatic immunity begets impunity allowing employers to evade protections for foreign workers and commit the same worker abuses the U.N. is trying to stop. Bringing cases against diplomats remain uniquely challenging for workers’ rights advocates. Under the Vienna Convention, diplomats enjoy almost unconditional immunity from criminal proceedings. However, the women’s attorney maintains that in this case Koehler is not entitled to diplomatic immunity.
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Edith Mendoza, 51, heads home on the E train after work in Queens, NY.