When Araceli Hernandez fled her Mexico City home to Seattle to 16 years ago, she already had three strikes against her in terms of overcoming poverty.
Poverty especially cripples minorities, immigrants, and more than any other demographic, women.
According to the most recent census, two-thirds of low-wage workers in the United States are women. The majority of them come from minority groups. Mirroring this trend, women also make up 70 percent of poor people worldwide. Women are more likely to be exploited by employers, face discrimination when they apply for business credit, and usually get paid less for the same work as male coworkers.
This International Women’s Day—a widely ignored occasion—only seems apt to acknowledge a widely ignored issue.
From single immigrant mothers ripped off by their bosses, to business executives making 77 percent of her male coworker’s salary, the “woman problem” of our time defies country borders and class lines.
During Hernandez’ first year in the US, spent housecleaning and nannying, she says realized she needed to learn a lot about workers rights. In Mexico, workers are protected by robust labor laws, including legally mandated vacations, bonuses and severance pay (of course minimum wage rates there are much lower than in the States).
“I was surprised working here I don’t have many protections,” she says. “The workers are very vulnerable.”
She soon began taking English-language learner courses at a Casa Latina, a Seattle-based education, employment and leadership program for immigrants.
Previously feeling isolated in a neighborhood devoid of Latinas, the community aspect kept her involved sixteen years later. “I wanted to meet with other women like me,” she says.
Eight years of education and participation later, and Hernandez became Casa Latina’s Programs Director, helping lead new members along the road she paved to success.
Casa Latina started in 1994 as a group of community activists working with homeless Latinos in Seattle. Today, executive director Hilary Stern says the program offers a variety of services, giving Latinos a voice that otherwise might not be heard.
After completing 15 hours of ESL classes, members can sign up for the Worker’s Center, where staff connect newly arrived immigrants with job opportunities.
While positions are typically household maintenance or manual labor, employees like Hernandez can work their way up to leadership roles within the community.
“Our organization believes that the people who are affected by issues are the most able to solve them, when given the right resources,” Stern says. So members and workers make up the majority of Casa Latina staff, with an emphasis on Latina immigrant leadership.
Immigrants often work under-the-table jobs and “employers” fail to pay-up for a lawn well mowed or house well painted. Other times, businesses exploit immigrants, forcing them to work longer hours for unfair wages. The Worker Defense Committee within the Casa Latina program informs Latinos of their labor rights, helps them complain to the Department of Labor and Industries, and even will host picket signs outside of houses and institutions caught exploiting immigrant workers.
Stern says Casa Latina receives about 200 calls regarding wage-theft every year.
“Mostly, women are victims,” Hernandez says.
Many of her friends and coworkers failed to speak up about wage theft in the past due to fear and a “lack of power.”
Often, they’re afraid of losing their jobs and risking no pay at all. Sometimes, they can’t afford to spend more gas money only to hear that they will be paid “tomorrow, and then tomorrow, or maybe next week.” Other times, “they just don’t know how to ask for the right,” she says. “They feel vulnerable.”
Casa Latina’s “Mujeres sin Fronteras” (Women without Borders) program provides leadership development opportunities and support for Latina immigrants as they advocate for improved working conditions and better pay.
“Women are the best drivers and strategists for social change,” says Executive director Mauricio Vivero. In the foundation’s global endeavors, he says when women are granted economic support and access to jobs, they consistently make smarter choices than their male counterparts, reinvesting in their families and children.
If female leadership is the answer to female poverty, then the United States has a problem. We boast the highest gender gap in poverty rates and a corresponding unequal female governmental representation in the Western world.
When International Women’s Day becomes a celebration of female leadership instead of small push back against the “war on women,” then maybe we have a chance at tackling poverty.