Filipina live-in nanny Edith Mendoza left her Qatar-based job in 2015 to work in the United States for the family of Pit Koehler, Counsellor of the United Nations’ German Permanent Mission to the United States. She says she was promised $10 an hour, 35 hours a week and overtime pay but ended up working 100-hour weeks at their suburban New York home, making what amounted to about $4 an hour. Mendoza became so ill that at one point she had to wear an adult diaper for heavy bleeding.
Mendoza escaped in July 2016 with the help of Damayan Migrant Workers Association. (For more details, click here for our companion story.) While Koehler’s diplomatic immunity may protect him, Mendoza sued him and his wife, Marieke this summer for labor exploitation. Sherile Pahagas, another previous employee of the Koehlers,’ has also filed suit. Here is Mendoza’s story in her own words, as told to photojournalist Dana Ullman and edited for length and clarity.
“When I got this job I felt blessed and filled with hope for my family. They paid regularly until four or five months everything changed. They demanded more work. I [asked] would they add more to my salary. They told me, ‘Edith, everything is free for you.’ Yes [they broke my contract], but I don’t know everything at that time. I don’t know about the [Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights]. I don’t know what I am supposed to do, who to contact, so I just keep silent doing what they told me to do. I was powerless. I was scared I might lose my job or they might send me back to the Philippines.
I was not comfortable…always out of place. I would cook for them but feel hungry and shy. I remember what [Marieke] said to me when I ate some leftovers: ‘You ask me first before you have to eat.’ The worst was the two birds [that were] free to fly all over the house. I think I got sick from the birds. I ask [the Koehlers] to buy gloves, to buy masks. They never did. I bought them myself and they never reimbursed me. [Marieke] ignored me.
I don’t sleep well in my room. The wintertime was very cold and I found out that they turned off the heater during the nighttime. My head is so painful. I am also shoveling [snow] multiple times a day.
After November 2015, it was too long to do this hard work. I would start my day before 6 a.m. and end after midnight. It seemed like I had been in a tournament of boxing or a marathon. I only feel rest on Sunday when I express myself to God and pray, ‘Help me Lord please give me rest I’m so tired.’ So what can I do? Just do the work because this my job. I don’t want to lose my job because I need money.
When my health was OK, I [didn’t think] I’d leave. But by December, my health is really getting worse so I ask Marieke to help me get to the doctor. Then it comes, the snow time again. I’m thinking, Oh God. I have to shovel and my head hurts worse and worse and then my blood [pressure is spiking] nonstop. So I told Marieke, ‘I don’t know what is going on with my health.’ They just ignore it and smile at me. It seems I am talking to the wall. Then Pit cornered me and he said ‘Edith what you are doing is unfair to us. We are paying you and you are not doing your work well. Edith go [see a doctor] but not your working hours.’ I say, ‘During Sunday there is no doctor. It’s been five months telling you that my health was deteriorating. You said it was unreasonable. Out of respect for you I stayed without complaining. But I am not a robot, nor a machine! I am also human.’ [My illness was] not a virus but because of tiredness and stress. I’ve been employed abroad with different families, but I never experience such kind of work. I’m getting weaker and weaker and weaker and I’m spinning around.
I never tell my family what is going on. When I ask the priest to pray over me I knew I [needed] to quit my job. I could have died or maybe collapsed someday. I started applying for life insurance just in case so I would have money to bring my body back to the Philippines. I told the insurance agent, ‘Just in case Edith Mendoza dies, you have to find my corpse and send me to the Philippines.’
In short, I was a slave. I knew when I became sick. They never cared, so I prepare [to escape]. I talked to [Damayan organizer] Riya [Ortiz], [planned] everything and [packed] up my things slowly. I wrote a letter, but I thought the Koehlers would just rumple it and throw it away. They never cared about my health, so how could they read this long story?
In June 2016, I was able to free myself from the Koehlers. I only focused on getting justice, but didn’t even realize they also owe me a lot around stolen wages. Now I know my rights.
The suffering [Sherile and I] are facing now is that it’s hard to get job. I don’t have reference. Sometimes [employers] will use that to pay you less. It’s hard to talk to my family about what is going on. It’s really something that keeps me depressed. If I stayed in Qatar, maybe I’d have paid all the loans that I have in the Philippines and my house and my kids [wouldn’t] suffer. So it’s also pride for me to live without telling my family or my previous employer because I’ve been good to them and they were good also to me. It’s very hard to go back to what is past. It seems that I am fighting a wall. Will I break it and reach there? It is very hard to break that wall.”