Over the past few months I have discovered that while California may be the state with the second highest deportation rate in the US (Texas is number one) , there are actually many laws that protect immigrants, documented and undocumented. While undocumented immigrants cannot benefit from state or federal welfare, they can obtain a driving license just like anyone else and it is illegal for a prospective landlord to ask your immigration status when applying for an apartment. The driving license part seems like a no-brainer to me and should be widespread across the US, I think it’s more important for everyone to follow driving rules than it is to flush undocumented immigrants out into the open. It makes me pretty happy to be living in a state that actually tries to protect us with basic human laws.
Anyway, I was at the Capitol last week and my mind was immediately drawn to a tent on the grass and people camping out peacefully beside it. There were signs all around and flyers at our disposal, all with the word “immigrant” clearly visible. Of course I couldn’t help taking a closer look to see what was going on and have to admit that I felt both horrified and so privileged. I was lucky. I came here as an immigrant into a good job, and even when I left said job and lost my visa I still worked and had no problems finding work. I got a SSN the first day I arrived in this country and still have the same one. I haven’t suffered from any more discrimination than your average white female does (meaning not much), and I have never been afraid of the law, or of reporting anything that may have happened to me.
This is not how it is for many female immigrants.
Writing this is actually making my eyes well up with tears. My first jobs as a teen were working in the janitorial industry, cleaning hotel rooms, offices and even a factory, and we were all female employees, often working alone. I never felt under threat, just usually looked down upon. If I had ever felt threatened I had immediate access to the union, the police and to a myriad of laws set up to protect the worker from harassment of any kind. I didn’t live in the US at the time, but in a country where the employee is majorly protected (France). Let’s just say that last week I learned that in the US a huge percentage of female janitorial workers still work for extremely low wages, have no ability to apply for benefits and are often confronted with sexual harassment and rape in the work place. Many janitorial workers are immigrants, and rather than lose their job or expose themselves to a system that may denounce their lack of status they suffer in silence.
While there has been a Justice 4 Janitors movement around for over quarter of a century now, women janitors, and specifically women immigrants, are not protected by any sexual harassment laws in their place of work. Can you imagine going into work every night, fear tying your stomach into knots, wondering if you will get through the night without being raped? Not being able to speak up out of fear of reprisals? When you don’t exist in a system it leaves you completely open to exploitation, whether that be working for much less than the market wage, doing the jobs no one else wants to, working without breaks or being exposed to violence, assault and rape.
On September 12th the SEIU United Service Workers West started a Survivors 5-day fast where women janitors who have suffered in silence over the years fasted in front of the Capitol, requesting Governor Jerry Brown to sign Bill AB 1978. Basically the bill, amongst other issues, pushes for the creation of a registry for janitorial contractors and super importantly, mandates training for both janitorial supervisors and employees on sexual harassment, sexual assault and human trafficking.
I briefly talked to a couple of the volunteers at the tent to find out what was going on and was horrified that first of all I was completely unaware of how entrenched and ongoing these situations are, and second of all by the fact that in this country so many women are still reduced to suffering in silence at the hands of men in their workplace. The women who were fasting last week were only a small number of survivors, the faces of many, many women who are still behind them in the shadows.
On September 15th, four days into the fast, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB1978, giving many families a sense of relief and accomplishment. While this will hopefully make life a lot better for female janitorial workers, we still must think of all of the pain, guilt and shame that so many women have had to suffer through to get here. I hope this will help all women, especially those who feel like they cannot speak up because their immigration status is not stable, to report abuse and to therefore help bring the abusers and rapists out into the open, where they will be tried and sent to jail.
For more information on the subject, including some extensive coverage of the fast last week and some bone-chilling survivor stories, please visit SEIU United Service Workers West’s Facebook page here.
There is also a harrowing PBS documentary entitled Rape on the Night Shift, that was released last year and can be viewed online right here.
I also picked up some leaflets on My Sister’s House that were available at the volunteers’ booth. My Sister’s House is a safe haven set up for women and children of Asian and Pacific Islander descent (as well as any other women and children) where they can find help against domestic abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking. These issues, and those of underserved women and children, are issues that are very important to me and I will be joining in with their sponsored run/walk on October 22nd, and if anybody would like to join me please let me know.