Immigrant Domestic Workers Win In Federal Court

(Miami, August 10, 2009)  Two women brought to the United States to work as nannies won a moral and financial victory in court last Friday when a jury awarded them $125,000 in back wages and other damages. The couple that hired them lost on five counts, including violations of federal labor and trafficking laws.

Alejandra Ramos and Maria Onelia Maco Castro were recruited in Peru by Javier Hoyle, an IBM executive, and his wife, Patricia Perales. The couple hired them to care for children. Once they were brought to the United States, the promised $7 per hour for 8 hours a day of work and benefits did not materialize. Not only were the women paid less than minimum wage, but their duties so substantially expanded that they were cooking and cleaning in addition to childcare. They ended up working at the employers' beck and call from 15 to 19 hours a day, six or seven days per week.

The Hoyles had the women sleep in a converted closet next to a smelly trash chute in the Key Biscayne residence. They withheld the women’s passports and visas and constantly threatened each with deportation, denunciation and arrest if they tried to escape. Ms. Ramos, who has diabetes, was not paid for five months before she left, sick and distraught, never having received the medical insurance the Hoyles had promised. The jury found that the couple engaged in trafficking, acting with “malice or reckless indifference.”

Altogether the jury found violations on five counts: 1) Fair Labor Standards Act wage provisions; 2) Florida Minimum Wage Act; 3) Breach of Contract; 4) Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act; and 5) Fair Labor Standards Act retaliation provisions.

Ms. Ramos and Ms. Maco were represented in the civil lawsuit by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) and Erika Deutsch Rotbart of Deutsch Rotbart & Associates, P.A., in Boca Raton, Florida.

“Domestic workers often are subjected to false promises and threats of deportation if they object to exploitive work conditions. That’s why it is rare to see these types of cases in court,” said Jennifer Hill, of FIAC’s Workplace Justice Project. “We have our clients to thank for their bravery and persistence in bringing these issues to light.’’

Ms. Rotbart added, “Too often we see situations where immigrants and employees are taken advantage of by employers. It is about time that a domestic worker’s voice is heard. This is a victory for two women who truly deserved their fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

Cheryl Little, FIAC executive director, concluded: “Immigrant domestic workers are very vulnerable. They live in other people’s homes, and it’s easy for employers to take advantage of them. We believe this is the tip of the iceberg. There are many like Onelia and Alejandra out there who are invisible.”