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GAO Report Highlights State Department Abandonment of Domestic Workers

Selene Kaye,
Director, Liberty Division,
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July 31, 2008

Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office released a human rights report (PDF) documenting the abuse and exploitation of domestic workers by foreign diplomats in the U.S. As described by Kirk Semple on the New York Times blog, this is a widespread but largely hidden problem that is greatly exacerbated by the shield of diplomatic immunity and the government’s refusal to hold diplomats responsible even in the most egregious cases.

The State Department issues each of these domestic workers a special visa to come to this country to work for a specific diplomat, and the Department is well aware of the extremely vulnerable position this puts the workers in – both because diplomats’ homes (to which domestic workers are often confined) are off-limits to U.S. law enforcement and as a result of the power the visa arrangement gives diplomats over their workers’ ability to remain in this country. But thus far, the State Department has refused to accept responsibility for what happens to these workers once they have arrived in the U.S. Just last week, in a statement of interest filed with the court in a case brought on behalf of three Indian women enslaved by a Kuwaiti diplomat, the State Department, as it has in the past, insisted that United States courts can do nothing to hold foreign diplomats accountable for extreme human rights abuses, even when the abuses rise to the level of human trafficking and slavery.

The GAO report both documents and is itself an illustration of one of the key failures of the U.S. government to address this problem: there is no systematic tracking or protection of workers who are brought to the U.S. by foreign diplomats. The report is a first step towards documenting diplomatic abuse and exploitation, but in leaving out any details about the 42 cases it investigated, it fails to bring to light the reality of this problem. In November 2007 the ACLU created our own spreadsheet of the 59 cases we were aware of to date, containing as many details as we were able to access about the workers, diplomats, and types of abuses.

As Caroline Frederickson wrote yesterday on the Huffington Post, legislation is required to tackle the web of problems that have allowed these injustices to continue for so long.

To read profiles of domestic workers who have come forward and to learn more about the ACLU’s work on this issue, check out:

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