Many undocumented workers have had to endure degrading and mentally damaging experiences in the workplace and are told to keep quiet about them. We all know these things happen, but we accept them to be a part of society. Some believe undocumented workers do not hold the right to speak against their own job if they are being harassed or abused and immigrants themselves are afraid of being deported.
My mother's experience in the workforce is one of the many unheard stories from immigrant women who find themselves cornered in such situations. These women have dealt with physical, mental and verbal abuse in the workplace.
Every evening I watch my mother drag herself through the doorway. Her exhausted eyes behind ill-fitting glasses, her hair coming out of a tired ponytail, and her feet slowly waiting to give out. Over the past years, I cannot recall a moment in which she was proud to say where she worked at and the salary she was being paid. I hesitate to ask her how her day at work was because I know what comes after.
My mother started off as a clerk for a Cafe-Internet place in Queens. As per my mother's request, I will not name any companies. Her job as a clerk was to send money to foreign countries, rent computers and allow people to make calls privately. Even though she was promised overtime pay, when the time came to receive it, it happened to be missing. Instead, she received pay of less than minimum wage. Nevertheless, she treasured those dollars and was able to support three children by herself. The company refused to have more than two employees at each location so my mother would have to work 14 hours straight without a lunch break on the days her coworker called off. You can imagine what 14 hour work days can do to a relationship between a mother and her children. Worried they would fire her and she would have no other place to go, she remained quiet and endured the underpaid job.
After that, she worked at a chain sandwich shop. The smell of freshly made bread only reminded her of the many hours she was forced to stand without a lunch break for less than minimum wage per hour. The company saw her as a liability therefore, they felt justified when paying her less than what was lawful. She recalls a time when she had the flu and was forced to come to work in just two days or else she would be fired. When one of her children were sick, she would try her best to call each hour to make sure we were okay because there was not enough money for a sitter, and taking time out to go to the doctor would jeopardize her job. She also told me of the many times she was scolded by her bosses and customers for speaking in Spanish with her coworkers. I cannot reiterate how many times this has occurred to my mom and how insulted she has felt. She felt as though she was forced to work with no voice. Ashamed to speak to customers in her accent, my mother would say the least she possibly could. Since she was incapable of paying a babysitter for my brothers and me, we often had to sit in the restaurant and nap until she got off work.
My mother tells me she was afraid that working at low paying jobs would set a bad example for her children and it always felt as if she had to compromise. Either she had to deal with physically arduous labor or with below minimum wage positions, or both. She was stuck in the midst of poor jobs and discriminatory attitudes. My mom wanted to believe that it would all be worth it in the end, but it seemed like an endless cycle of abuse, fear or worse, deportation. The only hope she seemed to have was manifested in the lives of her children.
Although she was reluctant to go back to a Cafe-Internet place, it was the only job that accepted her lack of documentation and allowed her to stay seated. She says the events that occurred here are ones she does not like to remember. My mother only has bitter memories of this abusive workplace and was very cautious when retelling the events to me. For starters, the majority of the women employed were undocumented. Their hours were changed weekly, regardless of their availability and child care responsibilities even though the managers were women themselves and very aware of their maternal duties. Throughout the holidays, my mom and the others had to work the same schedule and sometimes overtime (unpaid). This position was a bit different than her previous clerk position. For example, she and a coworker had to stay in a very compact room behind a bulletproof glass with the door locked at all times and had to eat while they took customers.The air conditioning was only outside of their office, where the customers stood.
One day, one of the girls fainted inside the office and hours later, the cleaning lady had to climb through the roof to get inside and rescue her. One would think this served as a wake-up call for the company, but they only threatened the girl to stay quiet about it. There was absolutely no ventilation inside the room and barely any space to walk around. There was even an office in which there was no bathroom. They told my mom that if she needed to relieve herself, she had to walk through a huge hole in the wall and go inside of a bag. I don't think I need to explain how unbelievably traumatizing this situation was. Additionally, as it was at her other jobs, my mother was not paid for overtime hours and always had money taken from her check.
Every day, the women would count their registers and separate by hand, certain amounts of money that had to be sent to other companies. After checking each and every bill, the managers would take the money to the banks. Magically, each week there would be over $100.00 missing from single registers. After threatening to deport the women for "stealing," they would subtract the amount from their weekly salary. Mothers needing to support their children with a below average salary now had to take home less money. As if all this were not bad enough, after a while working there, my mother explained to her bosses that she needed to have weight loss surgery as she was on the verge of becoming diabetic. However, they refused to give her job back once she recovered even though they said they would. Similarly, they gradually terminated another woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was as if these companies specifically choose undocumented women with motherly responsibilities to do as they want with them. Any threat that was made by the workers would be retorted with “where would you go?”
After a long recovery from surgery, my mother's next job was as a receptionist at a cardiology clinic. Her initial duties included making phone calls, filing and obtaining authorizations from medical insurances. Although she performed all her duties as she was told to do so, the cardiologist did not want her calling the insurance companies after he heard her speak on the phone. He was afraid that her accent would provide a bad image for the company and stunt her work performance. She could not understand how this was a possibility if she was doing everything successfully up until that moment. Throughout her entire time at this job, she often heard comments such as, "are you sure you want to work here? You seem to do a better job at serving food and cleaning up after everyone." If she had trouble understanding a process or the mechanism behind something (as everyone at the job did because they were working with a new system), she was told, "well it isn't our fault you chose to have kids instead of going to school."
I am baffled by the fact that these people had the audacity to demean a woman's choice to have children. It was as if she was only allowed to ask questions and make mistakes if she was legal and had schooling. Every little mistake she made was attributed to the fact that she did not go to college. When she was not being verbally attacked, she would also receive sexual innuendos from her boss but then quickly scolded when she refused. She recalls being told at the end of her long days, that the only reason she had not been fired was because she had a “pretty face.” Again, she felt the pain of having to work without a voice, only a pretty face for everyone to look at. Her voice and accent reminded every one of her foreignness and was seen as a fault in her personality. It made her feel incapable and humiliated to the point where she would cry as soon as she walked through our front door. Nevertheless, she went to work every day knowing she is still helping save lives and making people feel as comfortable as they can be. She has a gift for consolation and security. She never failed to make the patients feel at home before their procedures.
After leaving the horrid cardiology clinic, my mother spent a long time trying to find employment until she was hired by an Ophthalmology office where she works as an ophthalmologist tech. Just to be clear, the majority of the population in the job's location are Latinos. She tells me that about 90% of the patients only speak Spanish and prefer to have a Spanish speaking technician tending to their needs. Therefore, my mother spends the majority of her days speaking in Spanish but translating results into English. However, there have been multiple occasions where she is found speaking in Spanish with another coworker and the head doctor comes over to her and scolds her for not speaking English. The man forbids anyone from communicating in Spanish with my mother and reprimands anyone who is found doing so. I would understand if he saw it as a form to sort of help with her English speaking skills but his attitude was too hostile and disrespectful. It seems as though his main purpose is to make her feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. The main reason they hired my mom was because she was bilingual. Her Spanish skills were much needed in the office however now she is being humiliated for expressing herself in the same language.
My mother, along with the other 4 million undocumented women in the United States are subjects to routine exploitation on a daily basis in their workplaces. Whether it is in an office or a field, they are in constant danger of being verbally, physically, and mentally harassed with no assurance that they can legally defend themselves. Instead, they continue to work even harder to support their families and have a chance at a better life.
Enduring these conditions is completely worth it when she sees us off to school and excelling daily, my mother says.