Dozens faced extreme weather in New York City on Aug. 7 to rally in solidarity with two Philippine migrant domestic workers who have filed a lawsuit against their former employer, German diplomat Pit Koehler, for unpaid wages.
They allege he lured them to work for him promising $10 an hour for a 35-40 hour work week. Instead, they were expected to work 90 hours a week under harsh conditions, and paid $4 an hour.
The two women, Sherile Pahagas and Edith Mendoza, are demanding that Pit Koehler pay them their unpaid wages, issue a public apology, and promise never to mistreat his workers again.
“They fooled me into thinking I could come to the U.S. to make good earnings for my family at home but it was all lies,” explained Pahagas. “The Koehlers treated me like a slave.”
Pahagas and Mendoza worked for the Koehler family at different times, but both ended up in the same situation. Not only were their work hours more than doubled, but the work load was much heavier than described. The women were expected to work all day long and were responsible for cleaning the entire six bedroom, six bathroom house, vacuuming, laundry, grocery shopping, preparing meals, chauffeuring family members, caring for their children and practically all domestic labor needed in the household. They felt they were treated more like robots than human beings.
Mendoza eventually quit because of the taxing physical demands. Pahagas was fired for taking time off to see a doctor!
Workers fight back
Both women now organize with DAMAYAN Migrant Workers Association, an organization that fights for the rights of migrant workers. DAMAYAN helps provide mistreated workers with the resources they need to fight back and protect themselves.
Tito Sinha, a senior staff attorney at the Community Development Project at Urban Justice Center, who is representing the two women in their claim for unpaid wages, called their suit a “courageous act” that “send[s] a statement that this type of abuse and injustice cannot stand.”
Another co-counsel, Reena Arora, stated, “This isn’t just about getting the hard earned money they’re owed. Sherile and Edith want justice.”
Taking it to the streets
The action was called by DAMAYAN, and attended by representatives of different organizations including ANSWER, by religious leaders, and by concerned individuals. Protesters marched to the German consulate where DAMAYAN organizer Kerbie Joseph told the crowd, “We are here to show the German consulate, that we as a community will not let their employees
Both Mendoza and Pahagas spoke, reiterating their commitment to justice and working hard to ensure these abuses will not continue.
The crowd then marched to the United Nations where speakers made it clear that “diplomatic immunity” is not an excuse for mistreating workers and that all institutions that enable the behavior will be held accountable.
The rain did not dampen people’s high spirits. Stories like those of Mendoza and Pahagas are all too common in this society where workers’, women’s, and immigrant lives are not valued. People left the action with hope and determination to change our system to one where everyone’s life is valued.