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Working-Class Struggle 

Three housekeepers and a day laborer take action against deadbeat employers who abuse immigrants

Wednesday, Mar 19 2008
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Gloria Esteva, a diminutive housekeeper from Oaxaca, Mexico, is wearing an orange T-shirt and carrying a large bullhorn. She exhorts a crowd of about 50 protesters who are standing before a gate guarding the home and sculpture garden of technology investor Sakhawat Khan and his wife, Roomy.

"We say this is a big deal because it comes after a long history of exploitation," shouts Esteva, 52, who is flanked by Vilma Serralta, a 69-year-old San Mateo woman who says she worked for four arduous years as the Khans' housekeeper, toiling 14 hours a day, six days a week, with no breaks, and was paid less than $3 per hour. "They've got a new name for 'slave,' and it's called 'domestic worker.'" At the back of the crowd Julio Loyola, a self-effacing Peruvian day laborer with salt-and-pepper hair, holds a placard that reads, "I'm here to demand respect for domestic workers."

"We're here bringing the voice of the community to support Serralta," he says. "We're here to make the legitimate demand that her rights be respected."

At first glance the rowdy protest last week on the quiet streets of Atherton, an elite Silicon Valley town 20 miles south of San Francisco, might look like the haphazard antics of typical S.F. Mission District left-wing rabble-rousers. Esteva, Loyola, and a couple dozen other protesters came to Atherton in an elderly multicolored schoolbus. They marched and chanted for a half-hour while moving along the mansion-and-tree-lined Isabella Ave., creating a megaphone-amplified racket before stopping in front of the Khan residence to shout: "Cut her a check! Cut her a check! Cut her a check!" (Sakhawat Khan did not return a call requesting comment.)

But there was a coolly conceived legal strategy behind the radical rowdiness of Esteva and Loyola, who are part of the small group of volunteers and staff attorneys creating this protest.

The group, operating out of the offices of La Raza Centro Legal on San Francisco's Valencia Street under the rubric Workers' Advocacy Project, has run the nonprofit equivalent of a boutique law firm for the past four years. The project has invented a new type of legal practice to combat one of the most widespread and overlooked areas of crime in the United States, in which employers violate wage and injury compensation laws in the belief that their workers' illegal-immigrant status will make them afraid to approach authorities. Protests like this are just one of the strategies this group uses to get satisfaction for clients whose small-dollar-amount, difficult-to-prosecute cases would be anathema to a more-established employment law firm. The Workers' Advocacy Project opened 125 such cases last year.

Behind the shouts and placards is a sophisticated plan driven in part by immigrant volunteers whose own day jobs bring them minimum wage, if that. The same Thursday morning, project attorney Hillary Ronen filed a federal lawsuit on Serralta's behalf, demanding that the Khans pay more than $120,000 in back wages, overtime, break time, and attorneys' fees. Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center of San Francisco are serving as co-counsel. "It's rare for a woman to have the courage to come forward like Serralta did," Law Center attorney Christina Chung says.

The demonstration was attended by four television cameras and as many notebook-toting print hacks, who'd all received embargoed press materials at 4 p.m. the previous afternoon detailing a made-for-TV news story in which a poor senior citizen was systematically ripped off by a couple whose house is listed for sale at $17.9 million.

The raucous, slogan-shouting march to the Khans' residence was Esteva's idea. It also served a steely-eyed purpose. The organizers were trolling for future clients among the dozens of maids, gardeners, and laborers working among the mansions of Atherton. "We want them to hear us," Esteva says, "so they know there's someone they can turn to."

Lately, increasing numbers of immigrant workers have turned to the Workers' Advocacy Project team, which comprises Esteva, Loyola, and Ronen plus legal-aid volunteers Ines Lazarte and Angela Peña, who did not attend last Thursday's rally because they were at their day jobs as maids. Every Tuesday, the group operates a clinic where day laborers and housekeepers can receive legal advice. Their cases are screened for the possibility that the team may take them to the California Labor Commissioner, to the courts, and, sometimes, to the streets.

The last time the Workers' Advocacy Project made a media splash with such protests was with the case of Abdelmohssen "Mike" Abozaid, a local contractor alleged to have stiffed several workers out of thousands of dollars. Last year he fled to Egypt to avoid trial on charges of felony grand theft. The S.F. district attorney's office said Abozaid is still at large.

Paying rock-bottom wages to illegal immigrants has long been a staple issue in American popular culture and politics, whether in the recent movie A Day Without a Mexican or in the 1994 California Senate race, when it turned out that both the Republican and Democratic candidates had employed undocumented housekeepers during a year when anti-immigration rhetoric constituted the state's top political topic.

"There is a system that has been created on purpose to look the other way to bring them [immigrants] in because everyone knows that we cannot function without them," Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was recently quoted as saying.

But in cases where employers pay less than the minimum wage, fail to compensate for on-the-job injuries, or just plain rip off their workers — an ongoing problem among those who work on San Francisco's construction projects – it's the boss who violates California labor law.

To address this problem, Ronen has built up a legal practice that, in what might be considered an ironic twist, depends in large part on the immigrants who work as maids and in day labor.

Rather than feeling exploited for their unpaid efforts, the volunteers consider the Workers' Advocacy Project one of the most valuable aspects of their lives. Their efforts as negotiators, legal strategists, counselors, protesters, and marketers of the project's services are key to its success, Ronen says. During the team's three years of operation, the amount of wages and injury compensation it has recouped for workers has doubled every year.

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Matt Smith

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