Photos by Dana Ullman
NEW YORK – At the Justice for Edith and Sherile March and Rally, Edith Mendoza stood in front of the United Nations building and told the crowd of fellow domestic workers, allies, and supporters, “We are here to demand a public apology… We are here today to end modern day slavery!”
Edith and Sherile Pahagas, two domestic workers and Damayan members, are suing their former employer and German diplomat, Pit Koehler, for stolen wages. Edith and Sherile, who worked for the Koehlers at separate times, were forced to work grueling hours, six days per week, and were paid well below the minimum wage, with no overtime pay. Edith’s and Sherile’s experiences are unfortunately not uncommon, due to widespread abuse of domestic workers by diplomats. The dozens of people who gathered on a rainy day to demand justice and dignity were doing so not only for Edith and Sherile, but also for the entire domestic worker community.
Edith and Sherile are among millions of immigrant women from poor countries like the Philippines who are pushed to leave their homelands because of structural poverty and unemployment. Edith and Sherile both migrated to the U.S., leaving their children and families behind, to find work abroad that would allow them to support their loved ones financially. The women were recruited through a website, interviewed before they were hired, and promised $10 an hour for a 35-40 hour work week by Koehler.
“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. The Koehlers treated me like a slave,” Sherile said.
Edith and Sherile are active organizers with Damayan, and Edith is on the Board of Directors for Damayan Workers Cooperative. Damayan connected them with the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center which provided attorneys for their case. Members of the Urban Justice Center as well as allied organizations attended march and rally, including Adhikaar, Answer Coalition, Caring Across Generations, Carroll Gardens Association, Domestic Workers United, Enlace, Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, Hand in Hand, MinKwon Center for Community Action, National Domestic Workers Alliance, NSSR, Progressive Technology, Project, Rude Mechanical Orchestra, and, T’ruah, among others.
The march included two stops, the German Consulate and the United Nations headquarters. At both locations, Edith and Sherile, Damayan organizers, faith leaders, and members of the attending organizations spoke, all calling for Pit Koehler to pay Edith’s and Sherile’s stolen wages, issue a public apology to them, and pledge to never mistreat workers again. The rally also called for Koehler’s employers, the German Consulate General New York and the United Nations, to hold its own representatives accountable and suspend the protection and security provided through diplomatic immunity to human rights violators.
In front of the United Nations, Damayan Executive Director and former domestic worker Linda Oalican told the crowd that the rally was about more than Pit Koehler.
“The roots of our problem is not just the bad employers and the bad diplomats… It is the economic and political system that we live in and we need to expose and fight this system though organizing and movement building,” Linda said.
The Justice for Edith and Sherile March and Rally represented a crucial step in the grassroots movement to expose and fight abusive employers who benefit from modern day slavery. ##