Yesenia and Teresa Bucio have called New York City home for longer than they lived in their native Michoacán state in Mexico. The sisters have lived, worked and raised children in the U.S. for the past 17 years. As undocumented immigrants, Yesenia and Teresa took whatever work they could find, which was often cleaning houses.
Most mornings found the pair among as many as 100 women waiting to be picked up by employers on the corner of Marcy and Division avenues in the South Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. It is a scene that repeats across America, where women now make up the majority of immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Many find work as housekeepers or nannies in the largely unregulated, informal domestic industry. Forty-six percent of domestic workers are immigrants, and 35 percent are non–U.S. citizens, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
And many, like Teresa and Yesenia, face the twin dangers of low wages and abuse.
“Someone says they are going to hire you for $10 an hour, and then when you finish cleaning their whole house and ask for your money, they say ‘No, now I'm not going to pay you,’” Teresa said.
“The situation on the corner is very sad, very difficult,” Yesenia said. “There is no shelter there, we have to stand outside in the heat and the cold, and there is also a lot of sadness. We think we are going to have a job, and there are times when we go and are only hired for two or three hours, and that’s not even enough money to pay for the train there and back.”
The National Domestic Workers Alliance estimated that in 2012, wage theft — underpaying workers for overtime hours or simply failing to pay them at all — accounted for an estimated $105 billion. Stolen wages aren’t the only dangers female day laborers face. Many are picked up from the corner by employers and work alone, making them especially vulnerable. Yesenia said one of their fellow workers was drugged and sexually abused.
“We leave after abusive experiences like that, but then necessity brings us back to the corner,” she said.
Faced with such experiences, Yesenia and Teresa turned to the Worker’s Justice Project, a nonprofit that helps male and female day laborers organize. The group runs a community job center out of a recycled shipping container behind a strip mall. With its help, the sisters formed their own cleaning business with four other women in 2010. Their firm, Apple Eco-Cleaning, is a environmentally friendly cooperative in which each woman is a co-owner and is responsible for paying taxes on her share of the profits. The business is a registered as a limited liability company (LLC) with New York state, and the women pool 10 percent of their monthly earnings to buy supplies and to pay a secretary, who organizes the formal contracts they make employers sign. After four years in business, Apple Eco now has 200 clients, Yesenia and Teresa said.
“Under the LLC entity, female day laborers were able to create a democratic governance structure. Each worker-owner owns and votes a single share. No nonworker can hold a voting share,” said Worker’s Justice Project director Ligia Guallpa, who helped the women form the company.
Undocumented immigrants who do not have Social Security numbers can pay taxes to the IRS using an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN). Guallpa said many pay taxes this way — irrespective of immigration status — to contribute to Medicare and Social Security in the hopes that they will be able to access the programs once the immigration system is eventually reformed.
Yadira Sanchez, a community organizer who works with female day laborers, said immigration reform is key to improving working conditions.
“The kind of work these women do is not valued, not recognized, and they are treated like they don’t deserve to get better wages or working conditions. One of the solutions that is going to help lift working conditions in terms of salary and wages is if we have a just reform for everyone in the United States,” said Sanchez.
But in the meantime, cooperatives like this one allow undocumented workers to take control of their labor and their lives, she said.
“The reason we think it’s important to organize is that we can create alternatives, and women can understand and fight for their rights now,” she added.
It’s a model the women hope will spread. Currently, Apple Eco is one of four worker-owned cleaning cooperatives registered with the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives.
At a recent open house in Queens, more than 20 other women expressed interest in joining Apple Eco-Cleaning. But the biggest obstacle was getting enough work to ensure each woman steady pay and compete with bigger cleaning companies.
“We are still united with our fellow women on the corner in Williamsburg, and we are trying to get them to join up with us,” Teresa said. “When I was working on the corner as a single mom, it was difficult. But now working in the cooperative, things are better. My salary is higher. I don’t have a life of luxury, of course, but now with what I make, I can support myself and my son and move forward.”