A 'Modern Slave Market': Day Laborers Tell of Exploitation by Hasidim in Brooklyn

Every morning, dozens of hardscrabble women from Latin America and Eastern Europe congregate at a corner in Williamsburg, desperately seeking work as cleaners in the homes of Satmar Hasids. An expose of their plight.

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Women wait for jobs at La Parada, the stop, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Women wait for jobs at La Parada, the stop, in Brooklyn, N.Y.Credit: Natan Dvir
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

NEW YORK – Autumn in this city illustrates vividly how deceitful the sun can be. It shines down on us but does nothing to allay the chill.

One early October morning, a few dozen women are huddling at the windswept corner of Marcy Avenue and Division Avenue, above the expressway that connects Brooklyn with nearby Queens. It’s a bright sunny day, but the cold soon seeps into one’s bones. As hundreds of cars whiz by below, the women try to warm themselves, but to no avail. There are no benches, shelters, heaters, cafes or toilets at this corner – a bustling urban intersection that’s been dubbed “La Parada” (Spanish for “The Stop”), and has drawn unflattering comparisons to the notorious American slave markets of one and a half centuries ago, which were long supposed to be nonexistent.

It’s the day after Rosh Hashanah and about 50 women arrive at La Parada between 6 and 8 A.M. Almost all are migrants from Latin America, principally Mexico and Ecuador. Not far away is a group of five workers from Poland and Russia. Women come here every day in the hope of finding cleaning jobs in the Satmar community, a Hasidic sect that was founded in 1905 by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum in the Transylvanian city of Satmar. After World War II, the community’s center moved to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section. According to estimates from the past decade, more than 40,000 members of the ultra-Orthodox sect currently live in Brooklyn.

From the outside, the cultural encounter between the Latinas and their prospective Hasidic employers looks like a scene from a theater play. A woman with a head-covering pushing a baby carriage approaches briskly. Within seconds, seven women gather around her. Their conversations are a jumble of broken languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and also – how could it be otherwise? – English. “Doce,” one shouts in Spanish, meaning 12, the minimum hourly wage that most workers demand for housecleaning. But the Satmar woman raises both hands, showing five fingers on one, four on the other: She’s willing to pay $9 (the minimum wage in New York State). After a few minutes of bargaining, a Mexican woman in sweatpants and black sneakers starts to follow her new employer. The two soon disappear around the corner as the other women turn away.

Most of the women here – some of whom are in the country illegally and have neither residency nor work permits – are afraid to be interviewed. A few ask for payment or food in return for talking to me. Maria and Victoria, Mexicans in their 40s, who don’t want their full names to be published, arrived at La Parada at about 7 A.M. on this particular day. Maria’s been coming here when she’s needed a job for more than a decade; back when she first came, it was located at the corner of Lee and Hooper, about a 10-minute walk from the present site. But Victoria has been here only a few times. Both women emigrated from Mexico more than 20 years ago.

“There are many problems at this place,” Maria tells me, speaking Spanish, through an interpreter. “I have no idea if there are security cameras, but I would want cameras to be installed. The women told me that something happens to them here almost every day. Some employers say they will pay a certain wage but then pay less than what was agreed on, or find ways not to pay. Another problem is that many men and women take advantage of the fact that most of the workers here don’t speak English. They think that if a woman doesn’t know how to say, ‘I want $12 an hour,’ they can pay her whatever they want.”

La Parada, the stop, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Credit: Natan Dvir

Have you yourself been in situations where the employer refused to pay the amount agreed on?

Maria: “Yes, all the time. They have a regular method: Instead of counting out the money for you, they stuff a wad of crumpled bills in your hand and kick you out of the house: ‘Get going, get going.’ Outside, you discover they didn’t pay the full amount, but by then it’s too late. Last week, there was a woman from Brazil who warned us all not to get into a certain car. She said the man who was driving had invited a young woman to clean house for him and then refused to pay her. When she demanded the money, he came back with two dogs and threatened that they would attack her if she didn’t take off her clothes. I don’t know the woman personally, but I’ve heard similar stories.”

In cases like that, is there anyone to submit a complaint to?

“No, because in most cases we don’t know our employer’s name, and many times they also don’t tell us their address. They just say, ‘Get into the car,’ and take us to work somewhere. Things are starting to change now. There are attempts to unionize through the Workers Justice Project. They want to set up a permanent office at La Parada, to mediate between workers [even those who are illegal] and employers.”

Social activists who work with the women, including the Workers Justice Project mentioned by Maria, report a significant increase in their numbers since the 2008 economic crisis. In recent years, La Parada has been the subject of media coverage in The Nation, The New York Times and elsewhere. This follows a series of attempts to organize led by the WJP – a Brooklyn-based NGO whose mission is “to address the racial and economic injustice that day laborers and domestic workers face by building collective power,” according to its website. The WJP was successful in a similar struggle involving Mexican construction workers, who unionized and drew up a charter to uphold their rights. In 2010, five Mexican cleaning women who met at La Parada established a “green” cooperative called Apple Eco-Cleaning, which is associated with the WJP: They insist on minimum wage and decent working conditions, and they manufacture and use their own organic cleaning products.

But despite attempts to organize the women and because their numbers continue to rise steadily, the daily routine at La Parada is intolerable. At 10 o’clock, a white van pulls up and dozens of women rush to it. The driver and another man emerge from the vehicle, as a long line of women forms. The doors open, and the men start to hand out white plastic containers with a hot meal and a can of apple juice. Danny Velez, from the St. John’s Bread and Life charitable organization, which has operated a mobile food bank in Brooklyn and the Bronx since 1982, has come to distribute food to the women.

“Today we’ve prepared deluxe cheeseburgers for them,” he says with a smile. “We distribute food in two places in New York every day – we’re here on Wednesdays. As far as I know, we are the only ones who give them free meals. We’re supported by private donations and the City of New York.”

How long have you been coming here?

Velez: “Eight or nine years. Some of the women are regulars and I know them by name; others change every week. At one time there were a few dozen, today there are more than 100 or 150 women each day. Every Wednesday we prepare between 200 and 250 meals, and we usually run out immediately. Maybe it has to do with the 2008 recession and the new waves of migration to the city, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I’m certain there’s been a big jump in the number of women.”

Now, the film version

La Parada has now inspired plans for the making of a short feature film, titled “Division Ave.,” scheduled for production next year. The project was initiated by a 26-year-old Israeli actress and screenwriter named Michal Birnbaum. Born and raised in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, Birnbaum attended a girls’ religious school before doing military service at Army Radio, and then moving to New York to go to Yeshivat Hadar on the Upper West Side, a progressive modern Orthodox institution where men and women study and pray together. Afterward, she studied at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, and appeared in several stage productions. Birnbaum wrote the screenplay for “Division Ave.” and decided to partner with the director Ofelia Yanez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, whose previous, short film, “The Good Kind” (2014), is about a Hispanic lesbian couple who are forced to hide their relationship.

Michal Birnbaum.Credit: Natan Dvir

“In 2015, I lived in Washington Heights, in Manhattan, and I was a member of a Jewish egalitarian congregation,” whose rabbi is a social activist, Birnbaum told me when we met at a café in Greenwich Village last month. “One Shabbat before Passover, the rabbi told us about cleaning women who spend hours standing outside in Brooklyn and said the Jewish community must devote thought to them and to the way they are exploited. I knew immediately that I wanted to investigate the subject and write about it.”

Over the past year and a half, Birnbaum began visiting La Parada and spoke with the women there. Among others she met Ligia Guallpa – a 30-year-old woman whose mother was employed for years as a “casual worker” – who established the WJP. Guallpa took part in demonstrations and kept track of the group’s efforts to organize the cleaning women. She saw, for example, how the organization gives the women practical tools to facilitate negotiations with potential employers. For example, there are leaflets in Spanish with transliterations into Yiddish of such questions as, “How much are you ready to pay?” or “How many hours of work?”, as well as explanations of the strict ultra-Orthodox dress codes and the laws of kashrut.

Birnbaum says that in the last two years alone, there have been dramatic changes at the corner of Marcy and Division: “There is now a clear division into two groups: women from Central and South America, mostly from Mexico and Ecuador – and women from Eastern Europe, the majority from Poland and Russia. Each group blames the other for the worsening of conditions. What happens is that the Satmar women come to the corner and start to interrogate the women. They ask: ‘How much do you take an hour?’ ‘How many hours are you willing to work?’ The veteran workers, who are from Eastern Europe, claim that the Latina migrants have lowered the payments because they are ready to work for less than the minimum wage.”

Have you encountered stories about sexual harassment?

Birnbaum: “Yes. One woman told me that one employer suggested she give him a massage in return for payment, or lie on the bed. Sexual harassment is almost inevitable in these situations.”

Asked via email after the U.S. elections whether she expected changes in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory and a tougher policy against illegal immigrants, Birnbaum wrote, “It’s too soon to know. In the first days after the election, there was a sharp rise in violent incidents against minorities in the United States – even here in New York, which is considered one of the safest and most tolerant places for those populations. New York is a small, exceptional island in terms of the attitude of the law-enforcement agencies toward work migrants. The worst-kept secret in the city is that the restaurant, construction and cleaning industries will collapse without them. The previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was aware of this and introduced a tolerant approach that enabled migrant workers to integrate into the community. Probably the city’s policy will not be something that Trump will want or be able to change anytime soon. The truth is that in the past he himself hired undocumented workers for his construction sites in New York.”

At present, the WJP is trying to move La Parada to a site with a roof and a toilet, which would offer protection from the elements. At the same time, the women are trying to fight for a $12 minimum hourly wage (by comparison, most cleaning women who are employed via agencies in New York earn between $20 and $25 an hour). Another demand is for time to eat. According to Birnbaum, “The problem is that the food the women bring with them is usually not kosher, so some of the employers forbid them to bring it into the house. As a result, they sometimes work for hours without eating.” She adds, by the way, that, “there are also many employers who treat the workers with dignity, offering them food and paying them fairly.”

The film Birnbaum has planned will be a short feature about a cleaning woman from Mexico whose services are hired by a young Satmar woman (to be played by Birnbaum herself).

Birnbaum: “Even though it’s not a documentary, all the dialogues are based on conversations I held with these women and on stories they told. The protagonist is Fernanda, a cleaning woman whose salary is not paid by the contractor who hired her and who tries to enlist the help of a Satmar woman named Nechama.” Within weeks, the filmmaker raised more than $15,000 for the movie project via Kickstarter.

“When I wrote the script, it was important for me to take note of the complexity of this situation – it’s not a case of masters and servants,” she explains. “The Satmar women are buckling under the burden. Many of them have between six and 10 children, and have no real possibility to [clean thoroughly and] ascertain, for example, that there is not a crumb of hametz [forbidden food] in the house before Passover. They have to hire help, or they will collapse completely. Because of the complicated kashrut laws, not all employers will allow the hired help to approach the kitchen, but they can clean the rest of the house. I spent quite a lot of time on that street corner and I saw the women who come there looking for workers. They are not especially rich; they are housewives who can afford to pay no more than $8 to $10 an hour for cleaning help.”

Birnbaum says that, despite her efforts to speak with Satmar women, she was not successful in penetrating the highly insular community.

Above and beyond Birnbaum’s investigation, last year a first-ever comprehensive report about La Parada was published by Cornell University following lengthy cooperation between researchers from that institution, the organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the State of New York and the WJP. Based on more than 80 interviews with Spanish-speaking cleaning women, the report paints a gloomy, in-depth picture of what Birnbaum terms a “modern slave market.”

Among other things, the report points out that the female day-laborers and domestic workers in Brooklyn “are uniquely vulnerable to enduring substandard working conditions and employer abuse because ... they are excluded from many of the legal protections granted to most other workers in the U.S.” Indeed, domestic workers around the country “are also excluded from most states’ labor and employment laws, but in New York, worker advocates achieved the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2010. The bill covers domestic workers who work in another person’s home, but those workers who are related to their employer or person they are caring for, or are working on a casual basis are not covered,” according to the report.

Latina kashrut experts

When La Parada came into existence 20 years ago, at its previous location, it drew primarily white women from Eastern European countries (many of them from Poland and the former Soviet Union). In the past decade, with the waves of migrants from Latin America, the demography of these workers has changed radically (though not that of their employers: women from the Satmar Hasidic sect).

The report notes that there are about 30 similar “corners” throughout he five boroughs where so-called casual workers or illegal immigrants gather to find jobs. However, La Parada is the only one where all the job seekers are women. The researchers found that 70 percent of them are the primary providers in their household, and that their average monthly wage is about $900 (which is $200 below the poverty line). As a result, many are obliged to seek help from charities, donations or shelters for the homeless in order to feed themselves and their children. One-fifth of the women (21 percent) – who refer to themselves as “jornaleras” (literally “female day workers,” in Spanish) – are considered “veterans,” meaning that they have been coming to the corner for between six and 10 years consecutively. One-third (34 percent) report that they can stand at the corner for between six and eight hours a day, in the event that they aren’t hired. A large number of the women report that they have developed health problems due to the lack of toilets and benches at the site, among them seasonal illnesses, inflammations of the urinary tract, leg and knee pains and exhaustion.

Underlying the phenomenon is a troubling situation that for many evokes darker periods in American history. For example, a report on La Parada that appeared in The Nation in March 2013 mentioned an eye-opening investigative piece written in 1950 in a newspaper called The Daily Compass by the African-American journalist Marvel Jackson Cooke (1903-2000), who posed as a cleaning woman looking for casual work. Cooke wrote about joining the march of black women on 170th St. in the Bronx who were known as “the paper bag brigade,” because they carried their work clothes with them in brown paper bags. After being hired herself by white women (most of them Jewish) and scrubbing floors “on my hands and knees” for a dollar an hour (less than the minimum wage at the time), Cooke described the phenomenon as a humiliating and hurtful “slave market” that enshrined racist, discriminatory norms.

Women wait for jobs at La Parada, the stop, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Credit: Natan Dvir

There are many laws today against such offensive hiring practices, but the women at La Parada have never heard of them. These are women from across the city (most of them live in rented apartments in Brooklyn, the Bronx or Queens) who arrive at the corner at 6 or 7 A.M. and stand there for an average of four hours before being hired by temporary employers. The article in The Nation quoted many women as saying that their rights were being violated on a regular basis. They also noted that in many cases they were astonished to find that their employer refused to supply them with a broom or a mop, and demanded instead that they clean the floor on their hands and knees.

Most of the worker-protection laws passed in recent years in New York State and elsewhere in the United States do not apply to casual workers. In fact, only those who are willing to register with a cleaning agency or work for a contractor are eligible for legal protection. According to a U.S. Department of Labor report from 2015, some 35,000 women work in cleaning jobs or housemaids in New York on a temporary and daily basis.

For the women, the risk entailed in casual work is tremendous. They may not be able to afford travel by public transportation on a daily basis, and if they have small children, they may have to pay for improvised babysitting services that sometimes cost more than what they earn.

Researchers from Cornell are now working with the women to develop a cellphone app that will make it easy for them to report employers who have violated their rights. No blacklist has been made public, but the women hope that the very fact of its existence will deter employers from exploiting them. In light of the fact that 42 percent of the women reported that they were paid less money than had been agreed on, and no fewer than 89 percent reported that they were not given time to eat or rest on workdays of more than five hours – the need for the app is crucial.

Another problem, deriving from cultural disparities and distinctive Satmar customs, relates to the dress code. According to Birnbaum, many of the women are told they must wear long sleeves and dresses that reveal no cleavage. “Recently,” she adds, “the employers have become more sophisticated and come up with a new gimmick: cloaks without pockets to ensure that the women don’t steal anything. The worker is asked to change into the cloak when she arrives at the apartment.”

Still, Victoria and Maria were cautiously optimistic in our conversations. Says Maria: “I am cooperating with the workers organization in order to get women to sign a petition calling on the city to budget a permanent station where mediation between employers and workers will be possible. The idea is to have every employer sign a short form that will include name, address, hours of work and payment. That will make it easier to monitor problematic employers and file complaints when needed. We are also updating workers about their rights: the minimum wage in New York, a meal break, the right to refuse to clean a particularly filthy apartment within a short time.”

After more than a decade, Maria is planning to cut back as much as she can on her visits to The Stop.

“My husband and I have been in debt since we came to the United States,” she says. “Last year, many men from Mexico and Ecuador were deported, while their wives stayed here to provide for the children. But my husband and I have managed to pay off most of our debts, and I hope that in a little while, when winter starts, I will be able to work only through agencies or to come here only once or twice a week, instead of every day. Maybe by then they will build us a shelter or at least a place in which to hide from the cold.”

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