As an undocumented worker in Silicon Valley, I have been able to sustain myself by holding jobs where I was paid under the table. I started cleaning houses at 19. My older sister was already working in the house-cleaning business and she offered me a job. I took the job because as a college student I would be able to have a flexible schedule that would allow me to attend classes.
When I started working with my sister, her business consisted of about 10 to 12 houses. Her clientele was primarily families of Indian decent. After I joined, we were able to take on more houses because we were able to clean faster. Eventually our business grew to the point that we needed to hire an extra person to help us with the houses. After two years of house cleaning our clientele had grown to more than 30 houses. We worked six days a week from eight in the morning to eight at night, sometimes even later. Cleaning houses is not an easy job.
Each day varied. We would usually clean between five to eight houses a day depending on how much time each house took. The hardest part of our job was its physical requirements. Your body never gets used to the up and downs throughout the day. I had to bend under beds to clean the floors, get on top of furniture to reach high drawers, bend again to clean the bathrooms, climb stairs, bend again to pick up the mess in the living room, move furniture around, and repeat everything again in the next house. The worst part for me was when I got home and was able to rest and lie on my bed and not be able to move because of my sciatica pain. The only thing that I could do to alleviate my pain was to lie there and go to sleep.
When I first started, I was eager to work. One of my qualities is that I am a neat freak and like to keep everything clean. Stepping into a dirty house was actually exciting for me because I was able to make a visible difference and show off my skills.
A common thing that most people don’t know about the house-cleaning business is how clients try to set up traps to try to catch you stealing. That would happen to us when we first got hired to clean a house. The family would intentionally leave valuables in open spaces. My sister, our coworker and I already knew that those were setups the owners would leave to see if we would take anything from their house. But our parents raised us right. So the money and electronics that were left lying around in the houses that I cleaned never tempted me. I knew that I would lose more than what I would gain.
The best way to see wealth disparity in Silicon Valley is to be a house cleaner. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell I lived in the same region as the people whose homes I cleaned. I live in East San Jose in a house that is too small for my family and doesn’t have the commodities that other houses have. But when we left each morning to work, we drove to the nicest parts of Silicon Valley to clean houses that we will never be able to afford. The biggest house that we cleaned was in Los Altos, California. That mansion was home to a family of four where both parents were engineers from India. The house was enormous; it had four huge bedrooms, two kitchens, two living rooms, a library, a music room, two office spaces with diplomas hanging from every wall, and an enormous backyard that seemed big enough to raise cattle in, with a swimming pool. The master bedroom was bigger than the one-bedroom apartment in which my sister lives with her husband and two children. To clean the entire house it would take us about five hours.
The first time I walked into the house I was amazed. I couldn’t believe that houses like this existed in real life. It looked like a house out of a reality show. Every time we would go clean this particular house, I always imagined what it would be like to live in a house like this, or be able to afford it. When I would change the bed sheets, I would wonder if the owners ever thought about the people who changed their sheets while lying on their crisp, clean bed. I wondered if they if they ever imagined themselves in our shoes. I certainly imagined myself in theirs.
But despite the enormous wealth, and the amount of work we did to clean that house, we were not compensated right. We were only paid two hundred dollars for the work that we did. For us that amount had to be sufficient because we did not know how to negotiate or let the family know that we needed to be paid more in fear of losing a client. After asking around to other cleaning companies and comparing prices, we learned that for this house we needed to be paid at least four hundred fifty dollars.
But that was usual for us. We were never paid what we deserved; we were paid what the family thought we should be paid. Because we were undocumented workers we didn’t want to upset the families, so we accepted what they offered.
I stopped cleaning houses after I got offered a babysitting position from one of the families that we cleaned for. Although it was a difficult decision to leave my sister, I had to make the decision that was best for me. My body needed a rest from the physical requirements of house cleaning. After I left our company, work was too much for my sister and our coworker. They could not continue on with the same work pace because it was too much work for them to handle. Slowly, my sister started letting go of some of the clients that she had gathered. She stayed only with the houses that paid better. Although it is a demanding job, she continues to do it because it is her way to sustain herself. I continue to help her once in a while when I have the time and energy, because despite my education — I’ve graduated college since then — it is something that I enjoy doing.
This op-ed was adapted from the forthcoming book “De-Bug: Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley,” edited by Raj Jayadev and Jean Melesaine, and published by Heyday Books.