Contractual Slavery – An Illegal Concept

February 15th, 2014

Today’s New York Times describes how girls from poor countries can inadvertently be sold into “Indentured Servitude” by their families in the belief that they will obtain ‘positions’ as domestic servants. In most of today’s contracts, employers specify that the individuals they hire are employed on an ‘at will’ basis. This means workers can be dismissed without a specific cause being cited because an employer doesn’t ‘owe’ a person a job. Loyalty is desirable on both parts – therefore, the act of taking a job ought to involve workers ‘interviewing’ their employers just as employers ‘size up’ applicants for qualities of honesty, reliability and so forth. Many workers have few choices given the need to immediately pay bills for food and lodging. However, the term ‘job security’ is an oxymoron today. Anything might result in your dismissal without it even being a voluntary action on the part of the ‘boss’. When the money runs out or the business’s products and services are no longer in demand, the job is gone.

In the appalling situations reported by the Times, the error here is on the part of the placement firm that matches workers to employers, knowing contracts are being signed which prohibit the domestics (usually young women) to leave. It is slavery until such time as the girl pays off the tuition she is charged in order to learn how to become a ‘domestic’ and long enough for the employer to get their money’s worth for the agency fee charged to them. These women send most of their money home and cannot hope to save enough to cover travel (presuming they are allowed to hold on to their travel documents), to avoid serious abuse in some cases. In such an event, they are slaves to both their employers and to their families.

There is no justice to be found in either situation. Families are full of stories about how educational and job opportunities may be delayed through the need to work low-paying or extra jobs, in order to help family members through school or other essential ‘life passages’. This is not the same as ‘self-sacrifice’, where someone endures beatings, rape or forced labor for the benefit of other family members to escape such hardships. Of course, there are scenarios in which the bodies are never found but that process is more honestly referred to as human trafficking. Human trafficking involving signed contracts through employment agencies should not be given the respectable label of a ‘business deal’. Capitalism is not the same as capital punishment and slavery is much the same as a death sentence of the spirit, if not the body.

What is the responsibility of agencies in such matters? These companies require domestics to apply for jobs before they can profit from placing them in positions. This means there must be clauses added to the contracts ensuring that women placed in danger are released from their contracts immediately upon leaving the premises where abuse is ongoing. Let the employer sue the agency for breach of contract after the ‘domestic’ testifies as to the nature of their employment situation. Then employers can (1) be reimbursed and blacklisted from the rosters of agency clients, or (2) referred to authorities for criminal prosecution. To do otherwise is a state of collusion between abusive employers and the agency, with both profiting from unfair labor practices, to state it ‘gently’. A contract that doesn’t directly benefit a laborer is not a legal concept. But then we know that is true of all contract types – signatories must all enjoy a benefit or have any hazardous results well delineated.

I once rented a house on Long Island through a realtor. I liked the property and met the owner at the realty company to sign the contracts which required me to pay a realty fee of one month’s rent along with a security deposit and one month’s rent to the owner. The lease was for a one year term. The idea of living in a house, as opposed to an apartment, was a dream come true for this life-long renter. I’d become disabled at the age of 45 from exposures to pesticides and so had been unable to save enough to ever own property. However, I’d made enough to live modestly in pleasant apartment settings. I was now grateful for having been adequately insured for ‘disaster’ through Social Security and a private company. This appeared to be a great opportunity since I wouldn’t be sharing walls with neighbors doing things that were a threat to my asthmatic airway. This might include painting with oil based paint, applying polyurethane to their floors, setting off pesticide foggers or having sixteen scented candles burning all at once while they contemplated their navels.

I packed up my things from an apartment in a private home about to be sold to new owners and set off on my new adventure in house-love. The furniture had been picked up and was due to arrive the next day. I was going to arrive a day in advance and do the first day cleaning. My first night could be spent camping out on the floor. Parking the car in my new driveway (WOW), I opened the door with my brand new key only to have a gust of methyl mercaptin hit me in the face as I opened the front door. The amount of this gas leak (mercaptin is added to natural gas to give it an odor), indicated a very serious breach of the lines somewhere.

I called 911 immediately and they sent over an engine. The fire fighters were shocked by the size of the leak and found an open pipe in the basement. Apparently, the prior renters had literally ripped out the hose of their gas powered dryer and left the main open. It was going to take quite a while to air the house for occupancy. Sadly, methyl mercaptin is pretty toxic so I was going to have to wait longer than most due to the asthma. However, the worst news was yet to come.

“Do you know you have asbestos all over the basement?” said one of my rescuers.

I write about health topics from time to time and knew well the issues connected with this substance used as insulation for pipes, in ceiling tiles for fire resistance and other handy purposes. Unfortunately, when it became friable, these strands of fiber penetrated lung tissue. Twenty years later, an incurable condition known as mesothelioma might result. Always fatal, litigation is still ongoing with the makers of this substance.

“You kidding me, right?”

“No, Ma’am. It’s wrapped around all of those exposed basement pipes and also hanging down in some places. It looks pretty friable and has to be reported to the state for remediation.”

Feeling the weight of impending homelessness falling down upon my renter’s shoulders, I assured them I’d take care of the reporting. They left after calling the gas company to come and turn off the main under the sidewalk. The rest was up to the owner and the gas company. My asthma and wallet were barriers to any consideration of moving into a cheap motel. Their cleaning products literally took my breath away and the higher priced hotels that were able to accommodate an asthmatic were more than I could afford. I’d just parted with three thousand dollars to move into this place with help from my generous sister.

The problem solving process was simple, if rather unpleasant. I wasn’t about to be enslaved by this contract despite the fact that most standard leases absolve owners from any responsibility for homes contaminated by two substances. One was asbestos, unless they knew of it at the time of the rental and the other was chlordane. That pesticide was banned in 1988 from residential use because it hadn’t yet broken down in the environment. Agriculture ceased using it in 1985 for that very reason but it had remained a popular treatment for ants and termites because it killed very effectively. It also kills parts of the human central nervous system but I’ve got other posts dealing with that here and here.

I understood the issue of owners not being aware of these problems, particularly the chlordane issue. Few people think to test homes and most people don’t even know what is used when they call in an exterminator to treat their home. Other properties become contaminated from drift of chemicals applied to neighboring structures. It isn’t a fault by an owner to rent or sell such a property in these matters.

In this case, I recalled the owner telling me her husband had died of mesothelioma, so she knew about asbestos and its hazards. In any case, she had to be informed that the house had been damaged by a gas leak, likely due to her last renter. At least I’d kept the house from blowing up. Next, she had to be informed of the asbestos which guaranteed that I would not live there for even a single day unless I entered it with a mask and covering for my clothing. I was going to need my three grand back and fast.

I called the owner who sent over a relative to deal with the gas issue. However, she told me that the lease absolved her of any responsibility for asbestos, so not to expect anything from her on that issue. As for the realty commission I paid, I was on my own. I spent the night in my car in my driveway. I wore a mask to use the bathroom and ate out of cans outdoors.

The next day, my sparse array of furniture arrived and I had no money to put it into storage so I allowed the delivery men to put it inside the house. Then I called the NYS Department of Health to inquire about the asbestos issue. Apparently this is considered to be such a life-threatening problem that this agency is required to immediately investigate its presence. Another night was spent in the car and the health inspector arrived early the next day. I remember it was a lovely September morning, the sun shining brightly on my beautiful and deadly rental house.

“It’s a good thing you called us,” said the gray haired inspector. He adjusted the heavy black frames of his eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose. He’d just collected sample of the suspected material for lab analysis. “That stuff is friable and just all over the place. You’ll have to move out right away and we’ll condemn the property immediately. The owner will be ordered to have a certified remediation company renovate the building to ensure no fibers remain anywhere in the house.”

“What about my furniture and my air purifier?” Everything I owned was in there.

“If it’s not a surface like glass or hard plastic you can wipe down completely, I can’t recommend you keep it. Those fibers plant themselves pretty strongly into upholstery but you can probably vacuum it carefully. I’d change the filters in the purifier though.”

Great. There was at least two pounds of charcoal in that purifier and the other layers of mechanical filtration material that cost a couple of hundred dollars. My file cabinet might be salvaged but the couch-futon was going to be history. Bye-Bye possessions. Hello, car hotel. The owner had two grand of my money that I wasn’t going to legally recover. If I was successful in getting back my commission that would serve as security deposit on my next place. New landlords would need to wait for the first month’s rent when it was time to move in. I turned back to the inspector.

“Listen, can you do me a big favor and not condemn the property for one month? I’m going to have to live in this driveway in my car for that period of time. If you tell the owner about this right away, I’ll be in the gutter without a refund.”

He was wonderfully understanding and agreed to the delay. At the end of a month, she was going to get a condemnation notice and I was going to be free of the lease. It was time to call the realty agency. The head realtor was most upset to hear of this since she’d worked with that owner for a while. She spoke to the owner and then called me back. Apparently, the owner refused to deal with this problem. The commission had already been paid to the agent who’d handled the contract. However, the agency was an honest one and they’d get back to me shortly.

The next day the agency called and offered me a full refund for their fee. I’d have enough to go apartment hunting again without battening on my relatives. I settled down into camping mode and lived in my ‘personal driveway’ for a month. This included numerous alarums including a hurricane that descended upon NYC and vicinity that month. I learned that my car didn’t leak during downpours and that one could find kind landlords willing to accept a security deposit and wait for the first month’s rent. Two weeks into my camping experience, the owner sent a relative to object to my staying outdoors. She felt it looked bad to the neighbors, despite my driveway being bordered by high hedges. I told the relative that his aunt was free to refund my money at any point if she wished me to vacate the premises. Otherwise, the presence of asbestos prevented my sleeping indoors. He left without further discussion.

On the last day of September, I called the health inspector and gave him the go-ahead to send his notice to the home owner. Then I moved my remaining possessions into an ‘in-law’ apartment elsewhere on Long Island and left a message with the landlady about terminating my lease for cause – her house was about to be condemned. This lapse in ethical business dealings was happily an exceptional circumstance. As a life-long renter, I’d never had an owner object to resolving health-related issues with a house or apartment, as long as they were documented.

Most importantly, I was neither the owner’s servant nor a dependent relation, to be trapped into a hazardous situation. I did not sue for the inconvenience to me or for the damage/loss of my property. I had willingly signed a contract freeing her of responsibility should asbestos be detected and now I knew enough to check for it in future rental situations. The rental agency had been generous in adhering to a higher ethical standard than that imposed upon them by law. In most situations, real estate agents do not have a duty towards renters but offer contracts specifying that they represent the owner’s interests. Despite this understanding, the rental agency in this extreme situation made it possible for me to move out of this hazardous building without requiring the aid of others.

Passing by the house some weeks after moving, I saw a sign on the lawn that said ‘Condemned’. A couple of trucks were also outside and most of the inside of the house was now located outside of the house. A major refit was ongoing before that house was going to be considered ‘fit’ to live in or to sell.

A careful accounting of responsibilities between parties in the workplace or regarding tenancy issues are essential, but this is only possible if you don’t deny your right to be treated as an individual with basic human rights. Hopefully, agencies hiring domestic help will realize they have a responsibility towards both parties signing their contracts. Any promise they make on the part of a domestic to remain longer than they wish to be employed (apart from giving notice if they wish to take another position), cannot be mandated. Abuse is sometimes hard to prove, particularly if the agency doesn’t see the servant’s quarters in advance (some are unhealthy) or do a check on their clients for criminal records including molestation or child abuse. Therefore, no guarantee can be made that is enforceable when it comes to residing in a place somebody determines to be a threat of to their health and welfare.

Lastly, there are things no family should ask of a friend or relative. That includes being beaten, robbed or sickened by unsafe living conditions. ‘Live to work another day’, is the rule of thumb here, whether or not the work is immediately gratifying. You aren’t a soldier at war in these matters. The health of a family depends upon all members being regarded as equally valuable members of the human race, if all are to ‘rise together’ in a very harsh world.

Categories: Letters

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