ACLU Defends Ethiopian Woman Kept in Forced Labor in New Jersey

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
December 21, 2004 12:00 am

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NEWARK, NJ-The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit on behalf of an Ethiopian woman who was brought to the United States and forced to work without pay as a live-in domestic and childcare worker for a New Jersey couple, in violation of state, federal and international laws.

“Immigrant women are all too often brought to this country under false pretenses and coerced by employers into working for little or no pay,” said Claudia Flores, a staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “It is unacceptable that large populations of immigrant workers are being subjected to conditions of labor that amount to modern forms of slavery.”

In the complaint filed today, Beletashachew Chere, 30, said that she was recruited in Ethiopia in 2001 by Fesseha Taye and his wife Alemtashai Girma. The couple offered Chere employment as a domestic worker in their New Jersey home for a salary of $100 per month plus room and board. When Chere arrived in the United States, her employers took her identification documents, including her passport, and she was prevented from using the phone or contacting anyone outside of the home. She was also prevented from seeking medical attention and was only allowed to attend church services twice under the supervision of her employers, despite being a deeply religious woman.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, Chere was kept under conditions of involuntary servitude for almost one and a half years-working for as much as 100 hours per week for no pay. Chere’s responsibilities included serving as the primary caretaker for the couple’s toddler, cooking for the family, cleaning and maintaining the home, doing the family’s laundry and cleaning the exterior of the house and driveway. She was not given any food other than leftovers and bread and water and was forced to sleep on the floor of the child’s bedroom.

The lawsuit charges that Taye and Girma kept Chere in a constant state of fear by repeatedly telling her that she would be in great danger and that people would try to harm her if she left the home. The lawsuit also charges that Chere was verbally and psychologically abused by the couple. Girma repeatedly called Chere her “punching bag” and told her she was “stupid” and that she had nowhere to go. According to the lawsuit, Chere found the conditions so intolerable that on several occasions, she begged her employers to send her back to Ethiopia. Her pleas were ignored.

Chere’s family made repeated attempts to contact her at the home, but their calls were disconnected by Girma and Taye. Chere said that the couple forced her to write a letter to her family asking them not to call or write any more letters. But concerned family members continued to attempt to contact her. In March 2003, Chere received a letter from her family instructing her to contact her maternal uncle in Chicago if she needed assistance. The next month, when Girma and Taye took a weekend trip to Washington, DC and left Chere under the supervision of Moggas Taye, the defendant’s brother, she called her uncle’s family while Taye was sleeping and informed them of the situation. The uncle immediately arranged for a local friend to pick her up. Chere stayed with the friend until her uncle arrived in New York. He then drove her to Chicago where she remains today.

“The laws of New Jersey and the United States, as well as international law, protect all workers, including immigrants,” said Andrew Fields, adjunct professor and staff attorney with the CUNY School of Law International Women’s Human Rights Clinic. “We hope this case sends a message to employers that abuse will not be tolerated and that immigrant women must be paid and treated in accordance with the law.”

Today’s lawsuit seeks damages for Chere under federal law, including the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; state law, including the New Jersey minimum wage and overtime laws; and international law, including treaty and customary international law prohibitions against trafficking in persons, enslavement, and forced labor.

The lawsuit was filed in the District of New Jersey. In addition to Flores and Fields, attorneys for Chere are ACLU Women’s Rights Project Director Lenora Lapidus, Baher Azmy of the Seton Hall Law School Civil Litigation Clinic, and ACLU of New Jersey Legal Director Ed Barocas.

The complaint is available online at: /node/35110

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