Diplomatic Immunity No Blank Check for Trafficking and Abuse, Says ACLU
NEW YORK - The American Civil Liberties Union today charged the country of Kuwait and a Kuwaiti diplomat and his wife with trafficking three women and forcing them to work as domestic employees and childcare workers against their will under slavery-like conditions.
“No form of immunity should protect diplomats who abuse and exploit their employees and treat them like slaves,” said Claudia Flores, an attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Unfortunately this kind of mistreatment is not unique as we have seen domestic workers for many diplomats suffer in abusive employment conditions.”
The ACLU is seeking to hold not only the diplomats but the nation of Kuwait accountable for the abuse the women suffered at the hands of its diplomatic employee. In legal papers, the ACLU said that the Kuwaiti government should have known that this kind of abuse was prevalent among diplomats and had an obligation as the diplomat’s employer to take measures to protect the workers.
The Department of State has recognized the problem of treatment of domestic workers at the hands of diplomats and has repeatedly sent “circular diplomatic notes” to all countries with which the United States has diplomatic relations notifying them of the legal requirements for domestic workers, including the need to adhere to fair labor laws.
“The Kuwaiti government knew that this conduct was illegal and is as guilty as the diplomats who abused the women,” Flores said. “This lawsuit puts Kuwait and every other country that is granted the privilege of bringing domestic workers to the United States on notice that they cannot turn a blind eye to such despicable conduct.”
The ACLU is representing 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 of McLean, Virginia. In the summer of 2005, the three women were brought to the United States under false pretenses, where they were subjected to physical and psychological abuse by the Al Saleh family and forced to work against their will. In the winter of that year, fearing for their lives, each of the women individually fled the household.
As a diplomat, Al Saleh was required to sign a contract with each of the
women guaranteeing them a fair wage, specific working conditions and safe
passage home. As the ACLU lawsuit describes, he failed to uphold these
basic contractual obligations and thereby violated the law.
The women were forced to work 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. The women, however, never received any of the money as it was sent directly to their families. They were subjected to threats and verbal and physical abuse, including one particularly violent incident in which Sabbithi was knocked unconscious after being thrown against a counter by Al Saleh. The women were often not allowed time to eat or to use the bathroom and frequently were deprived of food. Two of them were allowed one hour off a month to attend church. The workers had their passports taken away and they were isolated from contact with the external world.
“I was scared of my employers and believed that if I ran away or sought help they would harm me or maybe even kill me,” said Kumari Sabbithi, who is now living in New York. “I believed that I had no choice but to continue working for them even though they beat me and treated me worse than a slave.”
In a rare unguarded moment, one of the women approached Hector Rodriguez, a neighbor, in desperation. Despite language barriers, Rodriguez let them know he would help them seek assistance if they could escape. Over the next five months the women individually fled the Al Saleh’s house and with the Rodriguez’s help contacted services for victims of trafficking. All three of the women currently live and work in New York City.
Kuwait has a longstanding and serious problem with abusing domestic workers, especially migrant domestic workers. According to the 2005 State Department Country Report on Human Rights for Kuwait, “The physical and sexual abuse of foreign women working as domestic servants was a problem…Runaway servants including those alleging physical or sexual abuse often sought shelter at their country’s embassy pending repatriation or a change in employer. Of an estimated 450,000 domestic servants in the country, an estimated 800 women were reported to be in informal shelters run by source country governments on any given day during the year.”
According to the U.S. Department of State, an estimated 18,000 - 20,000 individuals are trafficked into this country each year. However, in cases in which the traffickers have diplomatic immunity, the victims, unlike other victims of trafficking, have no avenue for redress or compensation for the abuse and exploitation they suffered. Domestic workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation for a variety of reasons including unfamiliarity with their domestic and international rights, cultural and language barriers, and in many cases long work hours in isolation from their peers.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Migrant Workers has noted that migrant domestic workers are an extremely vulnerable category and vulnerable to abuse and violations of international law. In a 2004 report, the Special Rapporteur noted that in the case of women working for diplomatic staff or staff in international organizations where the employer has immunity, it is virtually impossible for women to claim their rights.
In April 2005 at a United Nations session in Geneva, the ACLU and other rights groups called on international organizations as well as individual countries to institute "watchdog mechanisms" that allow for close monitoring of employment conditions and provide for educational opportunities so domestic workers know their rights and are familiar with how to access systems of redress.
A written statement from that session, including a list of recommendations, is online at: www.aclu.org/intlhumanrights/gen/13786lgl20050401.html
In June of last year a similar lawsuit charging abuse of a domestic worker was filed against the state of Kuwait and a Kuwaiti diplomat in the Southern District of New York, Swarna v. Al-Awadi. The case is pending and awaiting a response from those charged.
Sabbithi, Quadros and Fernandes are represented by Flores, Lenora Lapidus, Jennifer Pasquarella and Steven Watt of the ACLU and Catherine Rosato, Reid Weisbord and David Kotler from the law firm of Dechert LLP.
The complaint is available at: www.aclu.org/womensrights/humanrights/28028lgl20070117.html