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Protecting the Human Rights of Domestic Workers

Galen Sherwin,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Women’s Rights Project
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March 11, 2011

Mani Kumari Sabbithi was brought to the United States in July 2005 by a Kuwaiti diplomat and his wife to work in their home in McLean, Virginia. The diplomat and his wife forcibly confined Sabbithi in their home, confiscated her passport, and forced her to work 16 to 19 hours per day, seven days per week. They paid her family in India $242 per month and paid her nothing. Sabbithi was verbally and physically abused on a regular basis: the diplomat’s wife slapped her, pushed her into wall, pulled her hair and hit her with heavy objects. On numerous occasions, the wife threatened to kill Sabbithi and send her defiled body back to India.

Sabbithi’s story is only one of many abused domestic workers’ who were trafficked into the U.S. with a promise of good pay and working conditions. Instead, they’re treated no better than slaves, right here inside in the United States.

As we celebrate the many strides that women in the U.S. and around the globe have achieved, it is important not to lose sight of the tremendous hurdles we still have to overcome. The State Department estimates that tens of thousands of people are trafficked into the United States each year — lured into the country on false promises of better wages and workplace conditions, and instead subjected to forced labor and abuse. Many of these are women who agree to take jobs as domestic workers to support themselves and their families back home. Isolated by language barriers, confinement in the home, immigration status, and lack of education, this population is particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Trafficking in domestic workers is a particular problem in the diplomatic corps for two reasons. First, foreign diplomats can bring domestic workers (many of whom are immigrants from the diplomats’ home countries) into the U.S. on special temporary visas—thousands of which are granted each year. Second, current law grants foreign diplomats immunity from civil actions and criminal prosecution under U.S. law. This has led to the development of a culture of exploitation in which diplomats have free reign to bring domestic workers with them to their posts, and to abuse them with impunity.

That was the case for the three Indian women the ACLU is representing in federal court against a Kuwaiti diplomat and his wife. Brought to the United States in 2005 under false pretenses, the three women were subjected to physical and psychological abuse and forced to work against their will, until they finally escaped, fearing for their lives. Over six years later, they are still awaiting justice (although they just received a preliminary green light for the case, Sabbithi v. al-Saleh, to proceed, after a protracted court battle over immunity).

As difficult as it is to believe that this system of modern-day slavery is operating right in our midst, it is even more astounding that because of diplomatic immunity, there is currently no redress available for many of its victims. In addition to the Sabbithi case, the ACLU is using every tool at its disposal to hold diplomats and their sponsoring states accountable for these human rights violations and bring justice to their victims, including:

  • Filing amicus briefs in federal court in other cases seeking to establish that diplomats who engage in trafficking should not be covered by diplomatic immunity;
  • Filing a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States with a mandate to promote and protect human rights in the Americas.
  • Engaging in federal legislative advocacy for reauthorization and forceful implementation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which has led to significant improvements in monitoring of diplomatic visas, and in using the visa process as a vehicle to inform domestic workers of their rights (check out some of the State Department’s recent great work in this area);

Of course, we cannot hope to eradicate gender-based trafficking without supporting global efforts to address the underlying conditions of inequality that make women particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in the first place. But in the meanwhile, the United States has a duty to ensure that at a minimum, those responsible for human trafficking — including diplomats and sponsoring nations — are held accountable. Our commitment to the guarantee of equality demands no less.

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