Janet Gonzalez, an immigrant from Venezuela, found a live-in housekeeper job in Dickerson, MD imagining it would enable her to support her family and their dreams. Instead, it turned into a nightmare for her. The family she worked for refused to pay her, limited her access to communication, and denied her transport to the nearest metro, 20 miles away from their country home. Alone in the US, with her family and friends miles away in Venezuela, Janet says, “I felt like a prisoner and thought I would never see my family again.”
One day, she saw a television program about human trafficking and wrote down the phone number that appeared at the end of the show. Days later, when her employers had left the house, she secretly called the number that appeared, for the National Human Trafficking Hotline, who connected her to CASA de Maryland for assistance. Hearing her situation, we immediately put a plan into action, and organized a delegation of 15 domestic workers and advocates to travel to the house where she had been working for four months in slave-live conditions and get her out. The women who had been through similar experiences took pride in being able to play a role in assisting another worker’s departure from an abusive environment. We arrived at the house; a small group approached the door and spoke with the employer. Janet came out safely, and was free to leave with the CASA delegation.
Janet was overjoyed to leave, but faced many challenges ahead. We found her housing, referred her to an attorney to fight her case, and helped her find a new job. CASA supported her every step of the way. Months later, when the lawsuit was ready to be filed on her case, Janet had recovered substantially from the trauma of her experience and was ready to speak out.
We organized a press conference under the headline, “Dickerson Housekeeper Sues for Slave-like Conditions; Abuse Continues in Montgomery County.” Janet bravely spoke out on her experience, publicly for the first time, and had an impact on everyone present. Members of the Women’s Committee joined in support, holding signs that read, “Stop the Abuses” and “Domestic Worker Rights are Human Rights”. Leaders from the Women’s Committee also spoke and declared that Janet was not alone, and the group joined her in demanding justice for her and all domestic workers.
It was moving to see Janet speak out publicly, with resolve and conviction. And I continue to be inspired by leaders of the women’s committee who brought forward messages of unity and support. For Janet and other women, such opportunities to speak truth to power are personally transformative and enable domestic workers to take leadership in challenging labor abuses. The press conference brought greater visibility to the group’s work and sent a strong message encouraging other women to come forward, which helps us build the Women’s Committee and grow our efforts. Through support from the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation, we are able to support and train women to stand up and become catalysts of change in their own lives and in lives of others.