Chilean Nanny Says She Was a 'Slave' in NYC

PHOTO: A nanny pushes a stroller in New York Citys Central Park, just blocks away from the residence where Felicitas del Carmen Villanueva Garnica  (not pictured) says she was subject to involuntary servitude.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Chilean nanny Felicitas del Carmen Villanueva Garnica, 50, says she was forced into "involuntary servitude" by a Manhattan couple who denied her food, medicine, and fair pay.

Villanueva, who told the New York Post she was residing in the country illegally, filed a lawsuit against the Upper East Side couple who are originally also from Chile, Malu Custer Edwards, 28, and Micky Hurley, 35. Villanueva claimed that she had been "trafficked," forced to work 12-hour days and paid only $2 an hour. She also says that she was locked in a room with the couple's three children who often hit her and once "slammed a refrigerator door on her head so hard she nearly lost consciousness." The couple's lawyer refuted the claims of the lawsuit, in an interview with the New York Post, calling them "completely without merit."

Whether or not Villanueva's claims are substantiated will be decided by the courts. But, exploitation of undocumented laborers is common in the United States and many victims, often scared to come forward for fear of deportation, lack means and incentive to fight abusive employers.

Take Josue Melquisedec Diaz, for example. An undocumented construction worker in New Orleans, Diaz says that when he complained to his boss that he and fellow undocumented laborers weren't provided safety gear to handle toxic materials that other workers were provided, his wages were cut in half. And when he pushed further, organizing a strike, his boss called in the police and strikers were placed in deportation proceedings.

A study by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found that 25 percent of domestic workers in California such as maids and nannies are paid below the state's minimum wage and 24 percent of the workers who had been fired, were discharged for complaining about unsafe working conditions.

For many exploited workers who are undocumented, there is no clear path for justice. Some find some relief in the U Visa, a program which provides temporary status to those who have suffered "substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of having been a victim of a qualifying criminal activity." But many labor abuses don't fall squarely in the U visa category, typically used to provide relief to women of domestic abuse.

For that reason, there's a provision in the immigration bill currently in Congress that would expand U visa qualifying crimes to include labor crimes, including workplace abuse, exploitation, known as the POWER Act.

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who co-sponsored the POWER Act, says that such legislation would not only protect undocumented immigrants but also help cut down on exploitative labor practices generally.

"When some workers are easy to exploit," Menendez told the Los Angeles Times, "conditions for all workers suffer."

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