The Washington Diplomat / February 2010
By Larry Luxner
On a freezing, blustery afternoon last December, a handful of mostly poor, Spanish-speaking women gathered in Dupont Circle to publicly shame Washington's powerful diplomatic community.
Bundled up in the cold — and armed with nothing more than a bullhorn and a few handmade picket signs — the women joined hands and sang We Shall Overcome, This Little Light of Mine and some new, original ditties to dramatize their particular struggle.
"Fighting for justice and dignity / and domestic worker rights / listen up diplomats cuz you must be / ready for our fight," their voices rang out, to the tune of Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree. "We've seen too much injustice to stay silent anymore / we won't stand for more abuses / STOP mistreatment and excuses!"
Peruvian immigrant Herminia Servat then stepped up to the mike and addressed the few shivering bystanders who had wandered over to see what was going on.
"Here we are in the capital of the free world, and it's incredible that human rights are not respected," she declared in Spanish, as local activist Ashwini Jaisingh enthusiastically translated into English. "That's why we're here today, to ask that they respect our rights."
Domestic workers like Servat, she said, "come here from their home countries with big dreams, but when they arrive, they're deceived by the diplomats and those dreams are shattered. I could spend hours talking about the injustices these women face working in the homes of diplomats."
When the little protest was over, Servat and her friends marched up Massachusetts Avenue, singing Christmas carols, shouting "Sí Se Puede!" (Yes We Can) and handing out "Felíz Navidad" cards to bewildered staffers at the embassies of Chile, Peru, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Trinidad & Tobago.
"Diplomats are not immune to shame," said Jaisingh, a caseworker with CASA de Maryland Inc. who's originally from India. "It's unfortunate we have to do this, but it's the only way we have to bring these cases to the table."
Those "cases" almost always involve minority women slaving away for high-level diplomats who threaten them with retribution if they make waves. Experts say they know of dozens of such women, both in the Washington and New York metropolitan areas — whose accusations ranging from deprivation of wages to verbal, physical and even sexual abuse.
Many more incidents of abuse by foreign diplomats here likely remain unreported because their victims are too frightened or intimidated to complain.
Jessica Salsbury spent four years as a staff attorney at CASA de Maryland Inc. in Silver Spring. She's now with another nonprofit agency, the Tahirih Justice Center in Falls Church, Va.
"The facts of these cases are strikingly similar, regardless of geography," Salsbury told The Diplomat. "Time after time, clients have said to me, 'if I had only known that what was happening to me was illegal, I would have left much sooner.' If you truly are a victim of trafficking, you don't have much access to the outside world."
Typically, she said, "these diplomats are immune from lawsuits [under the 1961 Vienna Convention], so most cases don't go forward. There are only a few limited exceptions to diplomatic immunity."
Eva Raudes, a 36-year-old woman from the Nicaraguan town of Matagalpa, worked for an African diplomatic family in Sterling, Va., from December 2008 to March 2009.
"They fought constantly. I was stuck all day with the kids," she said. "When the wife got angry, she'd lock me in the bathroom with her kids. She was a very angry woman."
Raudes, who speaks only Spanish, doesn't remember which country in Africa her boss was from. She does know that she worked 14 hours a day and was paid only $330 a week — a fraction of what her contract stipulated.
"After three months I couldn't take it anymore," she said. "They were mentally sick."
Now, Raudes is stuck in Maryland without a visa — and not enough cash to buy a plane ticket home, let alone support her four children back in Nicaragua.
"Our clients make on average only $400 a month, so it's rare they even have bank accounts," said Kim Propeack, director of community organizing and political action at CASA de Maryland. "Most of our clients are Hispanic women, but we also have several active participants from Togo, Mozambique, Nigeria and Congo. At any time, we have two or three women actively pursuing litigation or negotiation."
Ana Maria Bata Huamani is one of those unfortunate young women.
A native of Arequipa, Peru, the shy 26-year-old arrived in Maryland last June after five years as a domestic worker in Santiago, Chile. She was looking forward to her job as a nanny for a Chilean diplomat posted to the Inter-American Development Bank.
"I was supposed to work Monday to Friday, eight hours a day for $8.41 per hour, taking care of her kids and cleaning the house.
"But things weren't as they seemed," she tearfully recalled one evening at the Long Branch Community Center in Silver Spring, where CASA de Maryland was sponsoring a Christmas party. "They cursed me from the day I arrived here."
Bata said the Chilean diplomat's mother was a living nightmare, criticizing everything she did. She ended up working Monday to Saturday, 12, 13 or sometimes 14 hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m.
"They only counted the hours the kids were in the house. But I'm timid, so I didn't say anything," said the young woman. "They told me I had no rights. She said that thanks to her, I was in this country, so I should shut up."
Barely five months into the job, her employer unfairly accused Bata of infecting her 11-year-old daughter with swine flu and promptly fired her. Now she's unemployed and in this country illegally. Even worse, Bata is owed some $4,000 by her former employer, whom she claims is holding her money at the IDB credit union.
"She opened an account the day I arrived. I wanted to have it only in my name, but she said no," said Bata, who hasn't sent a penny back home. "I can't touch that money."
Cristian Hodges Nugent, consul-general at the Chilean Embassy, told The Diplomat he isn't familiar with Bata's case, but he seemed sympathetic to her plight.
"In general, it's becoming more and more difficult every day to bring domestic workers from home," he said. "The paperwork is excessive, you have to pay health insurance and it's very expensive. It could easily cost more than $2,000 a month if you include food and living expenses."
Manuel Talavera Espinar, deputy chief of mission at the Peruvian Embassy, said his staff avoids this problem altogether by hiring locally.
"Most of our diplomats these days aren't bringing domestic workers from Peru," said Talavera, unable to recall a single staffer who's done so in the three years he has served in the United States. "In places like Washington, it's cheaper to contract a local company to clean the house than sponsor someone from your own country."
But not if you're paying your nanny next to nothing.
Tia, a 32-year-old woman from Indonesia who asked that she be identified only by her nickname, lives in a Wheaton high-rise with her American boyfriend.
In 1997, Tia was brought here on an A-3 visa to work as a live-in housekeeper for the country's military attache in suburban Virginia. She was paid the equivalent of $17 a month in Indonesian rupiahs; in fact, the money was supposed to be given to Tia's family through a complicated scheme arranged by her uncle, who was supposedly building a house in Jakarta for his hard-working niece.
"I worked seven days a week, without any days off," said Tia, who spoke not a word of English when she arrived. "Sometimes, I didn't get enough sleep. In the beginning, they were really nice, but after six months, the wife started being mean to me. I don't know why. Nothing I did was right. She yelled at me, and used bad words in Indonesian. She made me cry every day. Sometimes I hid under the table, in the laundry room, in the bathroom or in the basement. I prayed to God every night to get away from this problem."
After a year and three months, Tia's employer returned to Jakarta, and she found a job with another diplomat, under the same A-3 visa. Conditions with the second family were even worse, though the salary was better — 500 rupiah per month (worth $40 to $50).
But Tia never saw any of that money, nor did her mother back in Indonesia.
"I wasn't allowed to go out of the house. They put an alarm on, and a few times the alarm went off and the police came," she said. "She had a very big house and she kept adding more work. I couldn't use the phone. I had no friends. I suffered until someone came from Indonesia to replace me. I was so happy to get out of that house prison."
To this day, Tia is unwilling to confront her uncle about the missing money, and she's never complained to the Indonesian Embassy about what happened.
"I don't want to look back. Now I'm working with American people, making enough money to support myself. My life is so much better," said Tia, who exudes a cheery optimism despite her illegal status here. "I'm only telling my story so someone else doesn't have to feel what I had to go through."
Domestic workers arrive in the United States via one of three types of visas. The most common is the A-3, given to employees of embassies, foreign missions to the Organization of American States and anyone else entitled to diplomatic immunity. G-5 visas are granted to the domestic employees of foreigners working for NGOs. Less common are B-2 visitor visas, given to domestic workers whose bosses are American citizens here.
"Between 95 and 99 percent of these women work for employees from their own country," said CASA's Propeack. "Almost always it's taking care of kids, so they typically work 12 to 14 hours a day, at least six days a week.
"They enter this relationship feeling very positive about each other," she added. "Often times, these women have worked for this particular family before, so the details are not clear. And when things go sour, there's no commitment that can be relied on."
By law, these domestic workers must be paid at least $7.25 an hour, which is the federal minimum wage. And in Maryland — where many diplomats reside — employers are required to pay overtime to live-in domestic workers. They may also deduct up to $117 a week for housing and other expenses, said Propeack.
In July 2008, Montgomery County officials enacted the nation's first law that protects and regulates the employment of domestic workers. The measure — which followed a four-year campain supported by CASA and 30 other organizations — grants nannies and housekeepers the right to a written contract that specifies hours of work, pay, vacation time and many other fundamental workplace issues.
"We see this as the first step to improvement in the working conditions of mostly women suffering extreme levels of labor abuses in the workplace," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, which has long argued that diplomats and international financial institutions commit most of the abuses in the D.C. metro area.
Said Propeack: "For these workers, it's a big sacrifice to leave behind their own children in order to take care of a diplomat's kids. This is not a typical migration story where people cross borders without permission. Domestic workers see this as a temporary departure from their family so they can help out financially."
Araceli Martínez-Olguín is a staff attorney at the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union, which is also heavily involved in this issue.
"For the last several years, we've been lobbying Congress to get additional protections for these workers," she told The Diplomat. "They're only being allowed in the U.S. because the State Department lets the and initially interviewed all these folks [before granting them visas to come here]."
Martínez-Olguín said 93 percent of all domestic workers in New York are "women of color" — which includes blacks, Hispanics and South Asians, among others. In the Washington area, according to CASA, some 50 percent of domestic workers are Spanish-speaking women principally from South America.
The ACLU is currently involved in a lawsuit against the government of Kuwait, in which an Indian nanny was sexually abused and tortured by a Kuwaiti diplomat assigned to the United Nations. The U.S. District Court of New York entered a judgement against the diplomat; the case is still pending.
In another high-profile case, Lauro L. Baja Jr., former Philippine ambassador to the UN —and twice president of the Security Council — was sued by Marichu Suarez Baoanan, his one-time maid.
The 40-year-old Baoanan accused Baja and his wife of bringing her to the United States under false pretenses, promising to help her find a job as a registered nurse. Instead, Baoanon claimed she ended up toiling 126-hour workweeks as a virtul slave, without pay.
In denying the charge, Baja invoked diplomatic immunity. But last June, a federal judge in Manhattan stripped him of that protection because the former Baoanan's duties "benefitted the Baja family's personal household needs, and are unrelated to Baja's diplomatic functions."
That case put a spotlight on a trafficking problem that, until recently, has gotten little attention even in Washington — which is home to thousands of diplomats accredited to at least 170 foreign embassies and a multitude of international organizations ranging from the World Bank to the Organization of American States.
"You have a population of workers in a racial category different from those who are hiring them," said Martínez-Olguín. "The [diplomats] fail to see these women as equals. They're laboring in your home, nobody's watching and they're in a position to be severely exploited."
Thirty-year-old Zipora Mazengo already knows how it feels to be severely exploited.
In April 2007, the Tanzanian woman took the bold step of suing her former bosses, Alan and Stella Mzengi, in U.S. District Court. She won a judgment of $1,059,348.79 in unpaid wages, damages and attorneys' fees — but cannot collect because the Mzengis have long since returned to their East African nation.
At the time of Mazengo's ordeal, Alan Mzengi was minister for consular affairs at the Embassy of Tanzania in Washington.
According to the lawsuit, Mazengo's contract called for her to work eight hours a day, five days a week, performing "child care and normal household work" at the couple's Bethesda, Md. She was to be paid $900 a month plus overtime at 1.5 times the rate for regular days. The contract also provided that Mzengo would "get two full days off per week" and two weeks of paid vacation, and that she would be "free to leave the [Mzengis'] house at all times other than regular or overtime working hours."
When her contract was executed on June 12, 2000, Mazengo was a 20-year-old domestic worker in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es-Salaam. The contract had to be read to her in Swahili because it was written in English, a language she did not understand. Fifteen days later — with an A-3 visa stamped in her passport — she arrived in the United States.
"Before she even left the airport, Mr. Mzengi seized her passport and her copy of the employment contract," the lawsuit alleged. "Instead of working eight hours per day, five days per week, Ms. Mazengo routinely labored from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., seven days per week. Ms. Mazengo slept in the same room as the Mzengis' infant child and took care of the baby during the night."
In addition to looking after the couple's three children, Mzengo was responsible for cleaning the diplomats' six-bedroom, four-bathroom house, cooking family meals, washing the dishes and performing other chores like raking leaves and shoveling snow.
"The Mzengis mistreated Ms. Mazengo throughout the four years that she worked in their home," according to her lawsuit. "Ms. Mzengi would yell at her and on one occasion struck Ms. Mazengo on the face for not preparing Ms. Mzengi's breakfast on time. Immediately following this incident, Ms. Mzengi sent Ms. Mazengo outside in the cold January temperatures even though Ms. Mazengo was only wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts."
The lawsuit further alleges that the Mzengis refused to allow their housekeeper to return to Tanzania when her sister was dying, and that they forced her to do outdoor chores — such as shoveling snow — even though she couldn't wear shoes because of ingrown toenails.
"It was three years before the Mzengis took her to a doctor, at which time the doctor informed Ms. Mazengo that if she had waited any longer to seek medical treatment, she might have lost her toes," said the complaint. "Ms. Mazengo needed surgery to fix her condition and her doctor told her to stay off her feet. Despite this advice, the Mzengis put her to work on the same day she had surgery."
Mazengo finally escaped the Mzengi household in August 2004, when she confided in a customer of the catering business the Mzengis operated on the side. That customer sent a taxi for the young lady. Since her escape, the suit alleges, she's suffered from insomnia, an inability to eat, depression and headaches.
"A lot of the abuse you see is all about controlling people," said Mazengo's pro bono attorney, Martina Vandenberg. "I've heard stories of domestic workers sent into the front yard to cut the grass with scissors. Some of the things they make people do are all about humiliating the worker and trying to control her."
Ombeni Y. Sefue, Tanzania's ambassador to the United States, insists Mazengo v. Mzengi has "nothing to do" with his mission.
"This young lady was not employed by the embassy. It was a private contract between Ms. Mazengo and her employers," said Sefue, who became ambassador in July 2007, three months after Mzengo filed her case.
"My government asked me to bring Mr. Mzengi and Ms. Mazengo together to establish exactly what her claims were, so that if her claims were genuine, they could be settled. We didn't want this cloud hanging out there under the name of Tanzania," he told us. "But apparently I didn't succeed, because her lawyers did not want her to come to the embassy. It was like they were implying that they didn't have confidence in me."
Vandenberg, of the Washington law firm Jenner & Block, says that's absurd.
"I met with a representative of the ambassador and we discussed the case at the Tanzanian Embassy," the lawyer told us. "The ambassador then demanded that Ms. Mazengo meet with him at the embassy. Any person knows that the moment you walk onto embassy grounds, you are essentially within the control of that embassy."
Vandenberg added: "Mr. Mzengi was an embassy employee, and we were not going to go to his place of employment to be questioned by the Tanzanian ambassador in a building considered inviolable under international law. We found another law firm on Dupont Circle, about two blocks from the embassy, that offered the use of a conference room. We offered to meet the ambassador at this neutral location, but he declined. The locations of those discussions became an excuse for the Tanzanians not to cooperate."
She said the African nation could have waived Mzengi's immunity for criminal purposes because there was an ongoing criminal investigation. And it could have waived his immunity for civil purposes.
"It did not," she said. "If diplomats engage in commercial activities, they lose that immunity. We were prepared to litigate that Mzengi had surrendered his immunity under the Vienna Convention because of the commercial catering business run out of the Mzengi home."
Regardless of the lawsuit, Dar es-Salaam's man in Washington says he's inclined to believe his former employee, who has called Mazengo's allegations all lies.
"Mr. Mzengi never had any chance to dispute these charges, so it's whatever this lady says. And to me, that is not justice," the Tanzanian envoy complained. "I have reason to doubt her story. If I were convinced it was a strong case, maybe I'd have a different opinion. But frankly, I don't know what's true and what's not."
Sefue suggested that human-rights lawyers, not abusive diplomats, are the real problem.
"Even if Mzengi didn't pay this lady a single penny, the total amount she could claim wouldn't be more than $40,000 [for lost wages] — and now the award is more than $1 million. Who takes most of that money? A lot of people are getting involved, and things may not be as they seem. We're not sure whose interests are being served in this case. I think the best way was the way I wanted to deal with it."
In any event, the ambassador predicted Mazengo will have a hard time collecting her seven-figure award, considering the U.S. judicial system has no jurisdiction in Tanzania.
"You know, we have lots of serious cases of human trafficking and modern-day slavery," he mused. "To think you can make a case out of this is to trivialize the serious problems we all have to deal with. This does not deserve to be used as an example."
Luis CdeBaca might beg to differ. An ambasador-at-large in the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, he told The Diplomat it's "critically important" — as the 10th anniversary of the UN Protocol on Human Trafficking approaches — "that we take steps to make sure that someone who comes here to work for a diplomat is as protected as possible."
In years past, he said, most allegations of trafficking by diplomats centered on the World Bank, the IMF and other Washington-area financial institutions.
"But in the last few years, we've heard allegations coming out of the missions themselves," CdeBaca said in a telephone interview. "There have been 45 or 50 such allegeations, which is frankly way too much. It hasn't been in the hundreds or thousands, but it's still of great concern."
So much so that last September, CdeBaca — following a directive from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — personally met with the entire Washington diplomatic corps in order to brief ambassadors on new regulations that took effect the following month.
"We're going to try to work on the front end to make sure there are structures in place that would prevent abuse in the first place," he said. "There's no longer a presumption that every member of a diplomatic mission will be able to have a domestic worker."
The diplomatic circular that became law Oct. 15 outlines the strict new regime the State Department has put in place to implement the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which has specific sections dealing with A-3/G-5 visa holders.