Three months ago a 30-year-old housekeeper from EI Salvdor walked into the front office of the Catholic Spanish Center on Mount Pleasant Street NW and pleaded for help.
The husband of her employer, a Brazilian woman who works for the Organization of American States, had accosted her, she said. She said she had worked seven days a week for the family, with only Sunday mornings off for the past 16 months, but that now she could no longer live in their house.
"When she came here she cried for three days," said the Rev. Father Sean O'Malley, who works in the Catholic Center. "I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown."
Father O'Malley advised the woman to collect her savings, about $250, and look for new employment. The money had been placed in a joint account, opened in the names of both the woman and her employer. When the woman tried to withdraw the money, Father O'Malley said, she found that her savings were gone.
Seeking advice, Father O'Malley called Roberto Scioville, the employee relations director at the Organization of American States. Scioville advised him that there was little he could do; the law did not specify how the servants of diplomatic visa holders were to be treated.
Scioville, a Columbian here on a diplomatic visa, had legal problems of his own. In a Fairfax general district court suit filed last November, he had been accused of underpaying his Columbian housekeeper, Delma Rodrigues, from May, 1974, when domestics were included under American minimum wage standards, until May, 1976, when Rodrigues left the Scioville home.
According to the law suit, Rodrigues was paid $100 per month, plus room and board, until June 1, 1975, when her salary was raised to $120 per month.Figuring in the cost of room and board, her lawyers say the Sciovilles owe her $3,857.50 in pay she ought to have received under federal minimum wage laws. No court has yet decided whether domestic servants on diplomatic visas are protected by these laws, however, and in New York and Prince George's, similar cases are raising the same question.
Although Scioville declined to discuss the case in any detail, saying O.A.S. rules prohibit it, he said that after figuring in room, board, and other items he had paid Miss Rodrigues the equivalent of the minimum wage. "I have my conscience clear," Scioville said.
Most employers hiring domestics overseas are not informed about the minimum wage in the United States, he added. "It's a very difficult problem," Scioville said.
Delma Rodrigues, the young Colombian woman who spend four years working in the Sciovilles' household, spoke last week of her lonely introduction to America. "People said there was equality here, more or less," she said softly, in Spanish. "That you were free in your work. That there were no social classes."
When she accapted the job in Columbia she had hoped to attend school here, she said. In Latin America she might have become a manual worker of some kind, perhaps making paper flowers to sell. Here, Rodrigues said. She had been told that anybody could learn a career in school.
Instead she found herself isolated and unhappy, Rodrigues said. She could not leave the Sciovilles, since it was their promise of employment that allowed her to come, but she could not begin a new life while she worked full time in their household.
For Rodrigues the experience has ended on a relatively happy note. When she left the Sciovilles, taking refuge with friends, she was able to locate another family here on diplomatic visas who also needed a baby sitter and housekeeper. Her new employers took her under their visas, and she now works half days, taking English classes and visiting friends in her spare time. With room and board, she is paid the minimum wage.
There are others, disillusioned by low wages and loneliness, who have not been so lucky. Father O'Malley said they come to the Catholic Center, occasionally in the middle of the night, seeking help he is not always able to provide. A yound Spanish-speaking woman came one night in her pajamas, panicked, saying the man for whom she worked had broken into her room, Father O'Malley said. A 16-year-old African boy came to him, saying he had worked for a year and a half for an embassy official and had never been paid.
"There are just so many," Father O'Malley said.
Sometimes the center helps them find new work, he said. Sometimes he helps them save the money to return home. Sometimes he must simply tell them that the servant's life they thought they left behind is not always different in America.