* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
This story was collected and edited by Pardis Mahdavi, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College, for Stories Beyond Borders, a database of first-person accounts about human trafficking and forced labour. Launched with support from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the project aims to build a body of testimony about the nature and scale of modern-day slavery.
“I’m tired. I don’t want to work, but what to do? That’s it,” said Sandhia with a laugh, shortly before leaving for her second house of the day at which she would cook and clean.
Switching between English, Spanish and Hindi - remarkably sometimes in the same sentence - Sandhia explained the challenges, pressures and ambitions that brought her to be a domestic worker in Panama.
She is a short, slightly stout, dark-skinned Hindu woman with black hair neatly oiled into a braid, and she has a wide smile that comes easily to her lips. A Panamanian citizen, she works at three households regularly, at which she cooks, cleans and assists with dinner parties. She also takes odd jobs as necessary, particularly for cooking.
“I born in India, in Mumbai. Where is the place? In Mulund. On 7 September, 1983,” said Sandhia confidently and smilingly. Her mother worked in various homes, and her father was also a cook and driver for a different family. Sandhia also began her career in domestic work at a very young age.
“When I’m seven years old, my mum said that I have to work and study also… I started school at seven in the morning and I left at one o’clock. When I left, I came to the house. I went to work with some family house, to wash clothes, all the house-cleaning.”
At 10, her mother sent her to Dubai to work in the home of her own employer’s brother. According to Sandhia, she was paying off a debt through her labour.
“My mum took some money from someone, like borrowing. She had to pay it back, but she didn’t have money to pay for that. Then she sent me to Dubai. I worked with them.”
Sandhia recalls being a “little bit” scared, though she felt she had little choice in the matter considering her family’s finances. “But what to do? Because it’s my mum who said she had no money.”
Reflecting on her experience in Dubai, Sandhia said matter-of-factly: “Mhm, they were nice. … My madam… When she got angry, she hit me! But what to do? I had to work and I did it. I took so much, and sometimes she did it very badly. I worked with her four years, but under force because I had to pay. And then she got some problems with her mother-in-law, she didn’t give me food to eat, and I had to work at five in the morning, like three in the morning. I was working, just sleeping one hour.”
After years of backbreaking work, only speaking to her mother once a month on the phone, Sandhia insisted that she be sent home. This was difficult because the employers had confiscated her passport.
She recounted her eventual departure from Dubai: “They kept my passport. When I left, they gave me my passport, but they told me I had to come back. I said: ‘OK, no problem.’ So I signed a paper saying, ‘OK, I’m coming back.’ But I never went back! Because I don’t want to! Who wants to go back?”
Upon returning, Sandhia immediately went to work with her sister at the house of another employer, though she had remembers feeling that she didn’t want to work anymore or go anywhere.
Unfortunately, a mere 15 days later, her mother sent her to Panama.
“In the morning I went with my sister to work. I helped her. I came back. My luggage was ready. And I was surprised! Why my luggage is ready?” said Sandhia, her voice wavering as she spoke.
“My mum’s said: ‘No, you have to go, because they told me, and they offer you very nice money. Two years staying, you can work, and like that we can… It’s good for us,’” recalled Sandhia.
Though she was told that two years of her work would be “cancelling” out her mother’s debt to the Panamanian family, and that she was “paying for” a house that her mother bought in a village, she ultimately worked with the family for eight years without earning a cent.
Sandhia’s voice became animated with frustration and sadness as she related the experience of being suddenly sent abroad again.
The day of her flight, Sandhia said: “I came six o’clock in the evening in the house, and I saw my luggage was ready.” She continued, “I wanted to ask them… But they never replied to me. I always said, ‘My two sisters and my brother, they are also there! They were also young. Why only me? … I suffered four years. You know. Again, you’re sending me?’”
She added: “I thought she’s like selling me. I felt like that because I was 10 years old. I wanted to study. Then she told me no. I had to go to work because she didn’t have money. So I feel like she had sold me to someone.”
Sandhia worked with an Indian family in Colon, Panama for eight years before things went awry. She learned Spanish there, explaining in Hindi: “In their house, there was a lady working alone at first. She talked to me. So I would ask her, ‘What does this word mean?’”
Sandhia’s female employer was cheating on her husband with his best friend. Sandhia knew for a long time, but she did not tell her boss. “Where she went, what time she’d come… I couldn’t answer. And it wasn’t my business. But a lot of time I saw that guy coming at night, and he stayed there. And every morning I woke up early to send the child to school, so I always saw him too.”
One day, the boss returned early from a trip just as his best friend was leaving the house for the day. Sandhia, animated with indignation, said: “And my ma’am said I had a relationship with that guy… She told a lie because she didn’t tell she was giving a relationship with that guy. And that guy said no, he’s sleeping with me!”
She added: “Then they said no, we don’t need a girl like that who is sleeping with any this, that. And I didn’t have proof! How do I tell? And I told them no, your wife is sleeping with him. How can I do that? Why didn’t you take me to check up me, everything?... Then they sent me to India.”
Gathering her emotions, she continued: “But it’s, you know. God is always there.”
Shortly after she returned to India, Sandhia and her mother received an apology from the boss. She said: “He realized his wife has having an affair. He found out… And then he called me. He told me, ‘No, I’m very sorry.’” Though her mother believed her innocence from the beginning, Sandhia remembers her saying, “Of course he believes his wife. He cannot believe one girl who’s a houseworker!”
Sandhia then stayed with her family in Mumbai for six months, working odd jobs in homes.
At this point, the 22-year-old got a job abroad.
“I went to Cyprus for two years. That lady, I had some contract, because she told me her husband is very sick. She took me as a nurse. Because she said, ‘We cannot take one housemaid because we have too many problem for papers.’ So she said because her husband is sick, she could take any nurse to anyone. So she does like that paper,” Sandhia explained.
“She’s verrrry nice… I cannot forget her because she treated me like I’m her daughter. Because she has two daughters. She told me, ‘You’re my third daughter,’” Sandhia fondly recalled with a smile, continuing, “When she eats, she with me and ‘You eat with me!’ Like that… She took me out with her, and everywhere. That’s no problem.”
Her employer even arranged for her to take other small jobs, through which she could earn extra money on the side and begin savings.
After her husband died, the employer could not afford to keep Sandhia on as a maid, and she asked her where she wanted to go next. Speculating about why she did not choose India, Sandhia said, “Because I saw my family… their behaviour with me was very different… That six months… I didn’t feel I was living with my family. I felt like I was with strange people.”
Sandhia flew to Panama without knowing either where she would live or how she would find work. Upon arrival, she used her money to call a Panamanian friend that she had made during her eight-year stint there, even though she had not spoken to the woman in years. She graciously welcomed her into her home in return for rent.
Sandhi attributes her luck to God. “God always helps me. And that friend, I didn’t know if the number was working, not working! Because it’s two years ago. But I came to the airport. I called her. She had the same number. And she saved me… God helps me to get me that lady.” Living with her friend at first, Sandhia undertook work washing cars and ironing for people, before a family hired her to take care of four children and live with them.
In Hindi, Sandhia spoke about her one year of work with that family. “Well, the…guy’s problem was that whatever they were paying, they would force me to work twice that amount,” she said. “With them, I had to wake up at 5am, and at night I wouldn’t sleep until 11 or 12… Then, in between, if one of the kids woke up, I had to go see to them. Whether it was 2am or 3am, so I couldn’t sleep properly. So on account of that I left,” Sandhia explained.