Abused Domestic Workers of Diplomats Seek Justice From International Commission

November 15, 2007 12:00 am

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ACLU and Human Rights Organizations File Petition Following Unprecedented Expulsion of Kuwaiti Diplomat by State Department

NEW YORK –Domestic workers who were exploited and abused in the U.S. by foreign diplomats petitioned an international commission today because U.S. domestic law denies them their rights and a way to seek justice.

The American Civil Liberties Union, together with Global Rights and the Immigration/Human Rights Clinic of the University of North Carolina School of Law, filed the petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of six women and three organizations that provide services to domestic workers employed by diplomats: Andolan, Break the Chain Campaign and CASA of Maryland. The six workers are from Bangladesh, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Paraguay, and Chile. Their employers were diplomats from Bangladesh, Bolivia, Botswana, Qatar, Argentina, and Chile, respectively.

The petition charges that the United States has violated the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man by failing to ensure that foreign officials with diplomatic immunity are prohibited from committing egregious human rights abuses. The petition also calls on the U.S. to adopt a system to protect and compensate domestic workers abused by diplomats.

“As long as the U.S. gives diplomats immunity for enslaving their domestic workers without taking any steps to protect them or provide redress, diplomats can continue to exploit their domestic help,” said Claudia Flores, an attorney with ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Instead of handing these diplomats a free pass to abuse their domestic workers, the U.S. must ensure that these women know their rights and can seek compensation when those rights have been violated.”

The abuses suffered by the petitioners while employed by diplomats include extreme wage and hour violations with no vacation, free time or holidays; virtual imprisonment in the homes of their employers with no ability to communicate with the outside world; passport deprivation; physical and emotional abuse; and invasion of privacy.

“I came to the U.S. with the promise of a good job,” said Raziah Begum, a petitioner from Bangladesh and Andolan member who worked for F.A. Shamim Ahmed, a diplomat from the Bangladesh Mission to the United Nations. “Instead, for two and a half years, the Ahmeds kept me as a prisoner in their house and made me a slave to their demands. They tried to take from me my dignity and humanity, and they got away with it because of diplomatic immunity.”

Begum worked for the Bangladeshi diplomat and his wife for sixteen to nineteen hours a day for which she was paid 29 dollars per month. The money was not paid to her directly, but sent to her son in Bangladesh. The Ahmeds forbade Begum to leave the apartment, confiscated her passport, and demanded that she not speak to or be seen by guests to their house. They forced her to sleep on the hard floor without a blanket or a mattress, and when the Ahmeds had overnight guests, they made her sleep underneath the dining room table so that the guests wouldn’t see her. When Begum found the opportunity and the courage to escape, she fled the apartment with no money to her name, no passport and speaking no English.

Another petitioner from Bolivia, Otilia Luz Huayta, and her daughter Carla worked for a Bolivian diplomat and her family in suburban Maryland. In violation of her employment contract, Huayta was paid 200 dollars per month. Huayta was required to work at least sixteen hours a day without a moment of rest. The Bolivian diplomat confiscated her passport, forbade Huayta to leave the house alone and to ever use the phone. The diplomat also deprived Huayta and her twelve-year-old daughter Carla of adequate food. When Carla’s school teacher noticed Carla was bringing lunches of just bread and water, the teacher became concerned for their living situation. Huayta passed notes through her daughter to the teacher, who sought help for them. In June 2006, the police and attorneys from CASA of Maryland rescued Huayta from these conditions of slavery.

The petition reports that each year some three thousand migrant domestic workers come to the United States to labor in the homes of foreign diplomats. They travel on special visas for the specific purpose of working for foreign officials, and their immigration status is legal only so long as they remain employed by a diplomat employer.

The domestic workers of foreign officials are extremely vulnerable to exploitation for a variety of reasons. They work in relative isolation in private homes, hidden from public scrutiny and government regulation. They are often from severely impoverished backgrounds, lack formal education, are unfamiliar with their rights in the U.S., and often do not speak English. Exacerbating these vulnerabilities, domestic workers are excluded from the protection of the most fundamental federal labor and employment laws.

“The United States has known for decades about the abuses suffered by domestic workers employed by diplomats,” said Margaret Huang, Director of the U.S. Program of Global Rights. “In New York City and in Washington, D.C., diplomats are responsible for perpetrating a pattern of abuse and exploitation of their domestic workers that in many cases amounts to modern day slavery. Unfortunately, those who come forward to seek justice for their abuse find that their bravery is without reward.”

The petition comes shortly after the State Department forced a Kuwaiti diplomat, Major Waleed Al Saleh, and his wife Maysaa Al Omar to leave the country after they abused their three Indian domestic workers. The workers, represented by the ACLU, sued Al Saleh and Al Omar for subjecting them to human trafficking, forced labor, and psychological and physical abuse, including beating one worker’s head against the wall. Kuwait refused to waive immunity so that the Justice Department could proceed with prosecuting Al Omar. The Al Salehs are barred from ever returning to the United States.

“Now that their tormenters have been expelled from the country, our clients can breathe easier knowing that they and their families are safe in the United States,” said Jennie Pasquarella, an attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “But the onus is still on the U.S. government to ensure that these women are not left high and dry. They were beaten, threatened and kept as slaves by Al Saleh and Al Omar, and now these women may not be able to redress their rights and claim compensation from their diplomat employers unless the State Department intervenes to assist them.”

Congress is currently considering legislation that will ensure greater protections for domestic workers who come to the U.S. on special visas to work for diplomats in the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

“We have come too far in the history of this country to allow the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery to become simply an empty, unenforceable promise,” said Deborah Weissman, Director of the University of North Carolina School of Law Immigration/Human Rights Clinic. “Until the U.S. takes steps to ensure that domestic workers can enforce their rights against their diplomat employers, these individuals will continue to be obliged to leave their fundamental rights and freedoms behind on the doorsteps of diplomats’ homes.”

Attorneys and advocates who worked on the petition include Flores, Pasquarella and Lenora Lapidus from the ACLU Women’s Rights Project; Steven Watt from the ACLU Human Rights Project; Huang from the U.S. Program of Global Rights; and Weissman and clinic students Sireesha Manne, Daniel MacGuire and Lauren Joyner from the University of North Carolina School of Law Immigration/Human Rights Clinic.

More information, including podcast interviews with Petitioners and an ACLU attorney, petitioner profiles, and a copy of the petition, is available online at: www.aclu.org/domesticworkers

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