ACLU Applauds Passage of Human Trafficking Legislation

December 11, 2008 12:00 am

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Urges President to Sign Bill Providing New Protections to Domestic Workers Abused and Trafficked by Foreign Diplomats in the

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union applauds last night’s passage of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which, if signed by President Bush, would take great strides towards preventing the abuse, exploitation and trafficking of domestic workers employed by foreign diplomats in the United States.

Although this problem has been well documented, lawmakers had until now ignored the State Department’s unwitting facilitation of the trafficking, exploitation and enslavement of poor women of color from around the world. The State Department has issued special nonimmigrant employment visas – over 2,000 every year – so that ambassadors, foreign diplomats, consular officers and employees of international organizations, such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, can bring their nannies and other household workers into the United States. Too often, these domestic workers became slaves in the household, unaware of their rights and unable to escape, while their tormentors benefitted from the domestic worker’s isolation and diplomatic immunity.

“Last night was a victory in the fight against exploitation and enslavement of vulnerable women in the workplace,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The legislation is an important start in our government’s effort to protect workers from diplomats who act with impunity and disregard for our laws. We look forward to continuing to work with Congress and the State Department to ensure that diplomats are held accountable.”

“This is a significant achievement and fitting that it occurred on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Vania Leveille, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “It would not have been possible without the enduring commitment and strong leadership of Representative Howard Berman, the late Representative Tom Lantos, Representative John Conyers, Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Dick Durbin, Senator Sam Brownback, and Vice President-elect Joe Biden. We thank them and their congressional staff members for tireless work on behalf of women who came to this country from places like Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Paraguay in order to provide for themselves and their families. With their visas, they were assured by the State Department that they would be protected by the laws of the United States. Instead, they found themselves exploited and enslaved. This new legislation makes clear that the trafficking and enslavement of domestic workers by diplomats within the U.S. will no longer be tolerated.”

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 is an important first step. Acknowledging the particular vulnerability of these workers, the law contains specific provisions to enhance their protection and sanction their employers for exploiting the situation. It ensures that domestic workers are made aware of their rights in this country directly by consular officers who will be trained on U.S. labor standards and separately from their employers. It also requires a diplomat to have a contract with a domestic worker containing conditions of employment. It mandates that the State Department suspend the issuance of visas to a particular mission when the department receives credible evidence that a worker was exploited or abused and the mission tolerated the conduct. It further institutes mandatory recordkeeping on diplomats and domestic workers by the State Department, including allegations of trafficking or abuse. The legislation also requires that several compensation approaches be studied and evaluated so that workers may receive appropriate compensation when their employment contracts are violated.

“If precautions like those required by this new legislation had been in place years ago, our clients might not have been exploited and endured psychological and physical abuse for months at the hands of a Kuwaiti diplomat and his family,” said Araceli Martinez-Olguin, an attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.

The ACLU represents Kumari Sabbithi, Joaquina Quadros and Tina Fernandes, three Indian women who were employed as domestic workers by Major Waleed Al Saleh and his wife Maysaa Al Omar in McLean, Virginia, when Major Al Saleh served as a military attaché for the Kuwait mission. In the summer of 2005, the three women were brought to the United States under false pretenses. The women were forced to work against their will every day from 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. until late in the night, sometimes as late as 1:30 a.m., for a salary of approximately $250 to $350 a month. They were subjected to threats; verbal and physical abuse; were often not allowed time to eat or to use the bathroom. Two were allowed one hour a month to attend church. These women had their passports taken away and were isolated from contact with the external world. In the winter of 2005, fearing for their lives, each of them individually fled the household. Their lawsuit seeks to hold both the diplomats and the state of Kuwait accountable for these human rights violations.

For more information on the issue of human trafficking by diplomats, visit /womensrights/employ/domesticworkers.html

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