The following are the stories of the five domestic workers on whose behalf the ACLU is petitioning the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). All five women, as well as countless other workers who have suffered abuse at the hands of their diplomat employers, have yet to achieve any redress on account of diplomatic immunity. The petition asks the IACHR to hold the United States responsible for its neglect and failure to protect domestic workers employed by diplomats from human rights abuses and to ensure that these workers can seek meaningful redress for their rights. It is incumbent on the United States to ensure that impunity for slavery, exploitation and abuse does not persist on U.S. soil.
Siti Aisah with her daughter.
“There should be punishment for those diplomats who cause physical and mental suffering on their domestic workers. We are human too, and we deserve to work with dignity and respect.”
- Citizen of Indonesia
- Employed by the Ambassador to the Qatar Mission of the United Nations
In October 1998, with the hope of a better future, Siti Aisah traveled to the United States to work in the Manhattan apartment of Ali Fahad Al-Hajri, the Ambassador to the Qatar Mission of the United Nations.The Ambassador’s wife confiscated Ms. Aisah’s passport and forced her to work over 15 hours per day, with no days off, for less than 33 cents per hour. Despite her paltry salary, her employers forced Ms. Aisah to buy her own soap, shampoo, and toothpaste and charged her a fee every time she sent money to her family in Indonesia.
The Al-Hajris completely isolated Ms. Aisah. For one year she was not allowed to leave the house alone and for the duration of her employment was prohibited from communicating with her family by telephone and from speaking to anyone in her employer’s household, including the children she was responsible for looking after. After a year and a half of being treated so poorly, Ms. Aisah resolved to run away. In spite of her fear for her safety and of being deported, Ms. Aisah escaped and sought assistance.
“They treated me no better than they would treat a stray dog. They tried to take from me my humanity.”
- Citizen of Bangladesh
- Employed by the Deputy Permanent Representative to the Bangladesh Mission to the United Nations
In June 1997, Raziah Begum traveled to New York City to work in the Manhattan apartment of F. A. Shamim Ahmed, the Deputy Permanent Representative to the Bangladesh Mission to the United Nations and his wife, Shabnam Ahmed. Upon Ms. Begum’s arrival in the United States, the Ahmeds confiscated Ms. Begum’s passport and forbade her to set foot outside of the apartment. The Ahmeds forced Ms. Begum to perform housework from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week without a single day off. They paid her $29 per month — approximately six cents per hour — which they never paid her directly but sent to her son in Bangladesh.
The Ahmeds forced Ms. Begum to sleep on the hard floor without a mattress or a blanket. They forbade her to eat at a table or sit anywhere in the house except on one stool in the kitchen. When there were visitors to the apartment, the Ahmeds required Ms. Begum to remain in the kitchen where she could not interact with the guests. When there were overnight guests, the Ahmeds made Ms. Begum sleep under the dining table so that she could not be seen. For two and a half years, Ms. Begum endured these conditions of slavery. Ms. Begum feared that her powerful employers would harm her or her son if she ran away. Finally, empty-handed, without her passport or any money, she found the courage and the opportunity to escape.
Otilia Luz Huayta with her daughter, Carla, at a domestic workers rights rally in Washington, D.C.
“Worst of all, it was people from my own country who had treated my daughter and I like slaves.”
- Citizen of Bolivia
- Employed by a Bolivian diplomat
In October 2005, Otilia Huayta came to the United States to work as a live-in domestic worker for a Bolivian diplomat and her husband and children in their suburban Maryland home. Ms. Huayta brought her 12-year-old daughter Carla with her. Ms. Huayta’s employers confiscated her passport and forbade her to use the telephone or leave the house alone. The diplomat required Ms. Huayta to work 16 hours per day, seven days per week without a single day off. For her labor, Ms. Huayta was paid less than 50 cents per hour or $200 per month. At the end of the long work day, Ms. Huayta and Carla were forced to sleep on cots in a narrow hallway in the basement.
The hardship Ms. Huayta and her daughter endured working in the diplomat’s household greatly affected Ms. Huayta’s daughter. Carla was also required to work and paid only $20 per month. Her schoolwork suffered because she never had adequate time for her homework. Ms. Huayta’s employers deprived them of adequate sustenance and accused them of eating too much of their food. When Carla’s teacher discovered that Carla was only bringing bread and water to school for lunch, the teacher intervened to get Carla free lunches and became concerned about the unlawful work conditions of Ms. Huayta and Carla. The diplomat and her husband constantly yelled at and berated Ms. Huayta and threatened to report her to Immigration if she tried to escape. Ms. Huayta finally obtained help by sending notes through Carla to her teacher. The teacher notified the police, who came to rescue them.
Because neither the U.S. government nor legal system offered Ms. Huayta any recourse, she sought assistance from the Bolivian Embassy. She reached an informal settlement with her employer for the wages owed her on the condition that she not reveal the diplomat’s name. The settlement does not come close to the amount she is actually owed in wages and damages under U.S. law.
“In response to my demand for a decent wage, my employers threatened to get me a plane ticket back home.”
- Citizen of Paraguay
- Employed by a diplomat from Argentina
When Mabel Gonzalez Paredes was asked to accompany Jose Luis Vila and his wife, Monica Nielsen, to the United States to continue working as their live-in domestic employee, she jumped at what she thought was a promising opportunity. But she arrived in the U.S. only to be forced into working more than 90 hours per week for only $500 per month ($1.32 per hour) and was coerced into signing receipts for wages she did not receive.
Among her many responsibilities, Ms. Gonzalez Paredes was required to closely monitor the health of her employers’ epileptic infant daughter, and to perform complex physical therapy on the infant as well as specialized feeding and care routines — services for which she was not compensated. When Ms. Gonzalez Paredes required medical attention for an illness, her employers denied her the healthcare coverage that they had promised her. Consequently, Ms. Gonzalez Paredes had to pay hundreds of dollars in medical bills out of her own pocket. Ms. Gonzalez Paredes brought a lawsuit against her employers in federal court for the wages she is owed, but the case was dismissed outright on the grounds that her employers had diplomatic immunity. As of November 2007, Vila remains in the United States under the employ of the Argentinean embassy, while Ms. Gonzales Paredes has had to return to Argentina.
“I told them that I knew my rights, that I was not being paid enough, and that I was working too many hours. Ms. Majingo said that I didn’t know my rights because I was uneducated. She told me that I was a slave.”
- Citizen of Zimbabwe
- Employed by diplomat at the Embassy of Botswana
In September 2004, Hildah Ajasi came to the United States with her employer, Poppy Majingo, the First Secretary for Economic Affairs at the Embassy of Botswana in Washington D.C. In violation of the employment contract they signed, the diplomat confiscated Ms. Ajasi’s passport, forced Ms. Ajasi to work 16 hours per day and paid her only $250 per month — barely 50 cents per hour. Four times per week, Ms. Ajasi had to sleep with the baby, requiring her to work virtually 24 hours a day. Ms. Ajasi was denied any vacation, free time, or holidays. Ms. Majingo forbade Ms. Ajasi to leave the house alone.
To keep her confined to the house, Ms. Majingo intimidated Ms. Ajasi by telling her that Americans hated Zimbabweans and would kill her if she went out by herself. She also threatened to tell Ms. Ajasi’s husband that his wife was unfaithful to him if Ms. Ajasi tried to leave the house. Ms. Majingo forced Ms. Ajasi to attend Seventh Day Adventist services although she did not belong to that church and restricted her from attending her own church. She also verbally abused Ms. Ajasi and denied her much needed medical care for her asthma and back pain. When Ms. Ajasi complained of her treatment to the diplomat and her husband, Ms. Majingo screamed at her and told Ms. Ajasi that she was her slave. Ms. Ajasi finally escaped by hiding in the airport after her employer attempted to forcibly send her back to Zimbabwe.
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