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Migrant women clean houses in bid for American dream

Written by: Staff

LOS ANGELES, Nov 20 (Reuters) For Mexican housemaid Estela, the day began before dawn feeding and changing the six-month-old baby of her American 'patrona' or boss in a Los Angeles suburb.

After making breakfast for her employer's other four children, she would walk them to school and then set about scrubbing and cleaning the house before finally finishing her chores more than 15 hours later -- all for 125 dollars a week.

The 34-year-old from Oaxaca state is among thousands of Hispanic illegal immigrants for whom scrubbing, mopping and dusting in private homes is the first, and for many, the only, job open in the United States.

Immigrants' rights groups say as many as 900,000 female illegal immigrants work as maids in the country, where some 10 to 12 million undocumented workers live in the shadows.

They are hired by private employers and labour agencies despite not having visas or social security cards.

Millions more work as store, office and restaurant cleaners throughout the country.

They face an array of problems including long hours, low pay, intimidation and even sexual harassment as they toil in a hidden workplace where the employers make up the rules.

''It was like one of those fairy tales where you have endless tasks to do, only this was real,'' said Estela, who is no-longer a live in maid but rather does freelance cleaning, which she says gives her more control over her life.

''I put up with it because I had just arrived in the United States and I didn't know a soul,'' she added.

LIVING IN FEAR Immigrants' rights workers say most women find work by word of mouth after a tough overland trek from Mexico and Central America, or through employment agencies which often charge a non- refundable registration fee of between 20 and 100 dollars.

''They are extremely vulnerable, and the exploitation starts from the moment they are hired,'' said Juana Nicolas, the head of the household workers' committee of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights.

Nicolas said many put in long hours in smart suburban homes, cleaning, cooking and looking after children, earning as little as 3 to 4 dollars an hour over a six-day week.

While some employers are sympathetic, many use the women's illegal status as leverage to get more work for less pay, often threatening to turn them over to the ''migra'' or the police if they step out of line.

''The bad employers subject them to psychological pressure so that they have them where they want them, that's to say terrified,'' Nicolas said.

Compounding the long hours and low pay, an unknown number also suffer sexual harassment that leaves them in fear as they head off to work in private homes.

''You never know who is going to open the door to you,'' said Gladys, a mother of three young daughters who has cleaned houses in Arizona since she came from Guatemala 15 years ago.

One ''patron'' in a comfortable Phoenix suburb, she recalls, started offering extra payments for folding clothes and ironing, and one day emerged from the bathroom in a towel demanding a massage.

''I never went back,'' she said. ''I felt helpless.'' UPHILL STRUGGLE A recent report prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that many domestic workers in the United States were deprived of sleep, food and medical care, in violation of codes on working conditions.

They also found that they were commonly denied the rights to meet together and organise, in violation of an international covenant on civil and political and rights.

Nicolas is hoping to raise the consciousness of domestic workers from Latin America to show them that they do have rights, but she says she faces an uphill struggle.

''The first barrier they face is fear and disinformation.

They think that because they have no papers, they have no rights, which isn't true,'' she said.

''But we are handing out fliers explaining what their rights are, how many hours they can be asked to work, and explaining what they should do if they are victims of abuse,'' she said.

Many domestic workers feel that they are trapped in a round of long hours cleaning homes and offices, with little chance of betterment while they remain in the United States illegally.

''You can train to be a lawyer or a doctor, but without the right papers you are stuck,'' Gladys said with a weary shrug.

''We came looking for the American Dream, but what kind of dream is this? It's a nightmare,'' she told Reuters.

Reuters AKJ GC1000

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