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Oppressed Nannies: State Department Orders Embassies to Clean Up their Act (Part II)
The Washington Diplomat / February 2010

Among the key provision of this new regulation:

* The chief of mission must submit pre-notification to State before a domestic worker can obtain a visa to work for a mission member.

* If State has credible evidence that a mission member who seeks to replace a domestic worker or add to his/her staff has "failed to fulfill his/her obligations to a former or current employee," the department may deny the visa request.

* Mission members employing domestic workers must provide a written contract; that contract must include specific provisions outlined in the circular.

* TVPRA requires the Secretary of State to "suspend for such period as the secretary determines necessary, the issuance of A-3 or G-5 visas to applicants seeking to work for officials of a diplomatic mission or international organization, if the secretary determines that there is credible evidence that one or more employees of such mission have abused or exploited one or more non-immigrants holding an A-3 or G-5 visa, and that the diplomatic mission or international organization has tolerated such actions."

* Consistent with the general expectation that mission members pay their just debts, they are expected to pay any award of damages in cases brought against them by their former domestic workers.

"With these new regulations, we don't just look at the individual diplomat, but the entire mission," said Ambassador CdeBaca. "On one hand, there's a perception that diplomatic immunity forecloses everything. But the reality is that an investigation occurs, and if there's evidence that — were it not for diplomatic immunity — an indictment would be returned, then at that point we would ask for a waiver. And if they don't grant that waiver, we would declare that diplomat persona non grata. These are tools in our arsenal."

Vandenberg said "a very fierce advocacy campaign" is now underway to make Tanzania the first country to be suspended from the A-3/G-5 visa program under State's new regs. But CdeBaca declined to speculate on whether that will actually happen.

"We take them as they come," he said. "We don't have a particular target list, nor would we. We have to look at all the allegations."

Vandenberg added that TVPRA's newest provisions of "now give victims of exploitation the right to stay in the country while they are suing their perpetrators. Once you leave your employer, you're automatically severed from your [A-3 or G-5] visa, but this provides a method for people to stay in the United States in order to pursue remedies against the traffickers."

Salsbury, the attorney at Virginia's Tahirih Justice Center, said she applauds the Obama White House for eliminating the legal loopholes that previously allowed officials of foreign embassies to abuse their servants with impunity.

"They've made a lot of steps in the right direction in terms of preventing future abuse by diplomats. This law requires State to take active notice of serious offenders, and its approach is to hold diplomatic missions responsible," she said. "The next phase is real and serious repercussions for countries that downplay the severity of the crimes occuring within their midst."

Perhaps the most severe abuse charges ever lodged against Washington's diplomatic community involve three women from India who worked for Maj. Waleed al-Saleh, former military attaché to the Embassy of Kuwait.

The trio — Mani Kumari Sabbithi, Joaquina Quadros and Gila Sixtina Fernandes — were all employed by al-Saleh and his wife, Maysaa al-Omar, at their sprawling mansion in suburban McLean, Va.

"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," said the ACLU, which sued the Kuwaiti government as well as the diplomat and his wife for human trafficking.

According to the ACLU, the couple confined the women in their home, confiscated their passports and forced them to work 16 to 19 hours a day, seven days a week. They wired $242 per month to India, to the families of Sabbithi and Quadros, but paid the women themselves nothing. Fernandes' family received $346 a month, but like the other two, never saw any of it.

"Ms. al-Omar verbally and physically abused Ms. Sabbithi on a regular basis, slapping her, pushing her into a wall, pulling her hair and hitting her with heavy objects. On numerous occasions, Ms. al-Omar threatened to kill Ms. Sabbithi and send her defiled body back to India," according to an ACLU fact sheet on the case.

"On Oct. 31, 2005, Ms. al-Omar became enraged with Ms. Sabbithi for incorrectly preparing a meal for the children, pulled her hair and threatened to cut off her tongue. Mr. al-Saleh then came into the kitchen, yelled at Ms. Sabbithi and pushed her so violently that she struck her head on a table and lost consciousness. That same day, Ms. Sabbithi fled and sought refuge at a neighor's house."

Likewise, Quadros was prohibited from leaving the McLean house alone, opening the front door, approaching the windows or even looking outside. On Jan. 18, 2006, Quadros and Fernandes fled the diplomats' mansion together and in January 2007, along with Sabbithi, filed suit against al-Saleh and his wife.

Nine months later, the diplomats also escaped — back to their Persian Gulf emirate, where stories of wealthy Kuwaiti families mistreating servants are as ubiquitous as oil wells — rather than face prosecution without the benefit of diplomatic immunity.

Kuwait's ambassador in Washington, Salem Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah, declined to return the numerous messages this reporter left with his secretary.

"Some of the diplomats who do this are repeat offenders," said Vandenberg, who has represented trafficked domestic workers in several cases. "It's by and large the victims themselves who tell us they're not the first ones, that others who have been there before them."

But, she added, "unless they're lucky enough to find an NGO to support them and an attorney who will launch a civil suit on their behalf, they're absolutely stuck."

CASA's Propeack said she's seen cases of female servants being raped or sexually abused, but those incidents generally don't involve embassy staff.

"What's much more common is controls on the workers' movements, inability to use the telephone, inability to leave the house, verbal assaults like 'you're worthless, you're stupid,'" she said. "Historically, the State Department has been uninterested in dealing with these cases."

CASA, which operates differently than a traditional law firm, said 80 percent of the members of its Mujeres Buscando Justicia [Women Seeking Justice] project are former live-in diplomatic domestic workers. The agency's budget for this program is only $60,000 to $80,000 a year — less than half the salary of a typical mid-level foreign diplomat posted to Washington.

"The diplomatic community has been very generous with us, and this is the irony," said Propeack. "Bolivia is a perfect example. We had a wretched case involving a Bolivian Embassy employee, and then there was a change in government. When the new ambassador [Gustavo Guzmán, who has himself since been declared persona non grata for political reasons] came in, they immediately started scrambling to resolve the dispute. Now the embassy opens its doors to us on International Domestic Worker Day."

Propeack said she's never met a live-in domestic worker who's labored less than 60 or 70 hours a week — and that, she said, is being generous.

"We once represented an Ethiopian woman who was brought in to work for an NGO employee. She worked seven years without pay, providing elder care," said Propeack. She added that her most frequent complaints involve the Organization of American States, though CASA has also pursued cases against employees of the IDB and Intelsat.

On rare occasions — about 10 or 12 times a year — CASA rescues women in potentially dangerous situations.

"Typically, the employers back down immediately," she said. "I had one case eight years ago in Howard County involving a girl from Togo, where the homeowners slammed the door in my face and would not allow the worker to come out. We were very scared. We had no idea what he was doing with her. But half an hour later, the door opened and she just walked out."

Usually, though, the minimal threat is that if the unhappy nanny leaves, her employer will report her to immigration authorities.

"They almost always say that to the worker when she complains about pay or working conditions," noted Propeack. "I've never seen a case where the employer has not confiscated the worker's passport."

That would make Maria Llosia Gil one of the lucky ones.

Known to her friends as Mitzi, the spunky, confident 38-year-old Filipina shares a comfortable Rockville house with two other women from her country. A painting of the Virgin Mary adorns one wall, while a fireplace graces the living room and colorful souvenir plates from Florida, Georgia and New York decorate the communal kitchen.

It's a far cry from Gil's life three years ago, when she arrived on a flight from Manila, carrying a newly issued A-3 visa and a notarized contract to work for Oren Sagir, a security attaché at the Israeli Embassy.

"When I was still in the Philippines, I was sent a contract that I signed, of course," she said in fluent English. "It said my salary would be $284 per week excluding housing and travel expenses. But when I got here, they sat me down and told me I'd be receiving the same as other domestic workers in my circumstance, $600 per month plus $100 a month for housing."

Sagir and his wife Adi immediately put their new nanny to work, caring for their five-month-old baby, cleaning their Rockville apartment, washing the dishes and cooking for the family. She ended up working 11 hours a day but was not paid overtime as stipulated in the contract.

"I worked for them because I was here already and didn't have any choice," she told The Diplomat."They never paid me by check, only in cash. Once I overheard them saying they would pay me in cash because they were afraid of having problems in the future."

Unlike most other nannies here, Gil didn't live at her employer's home — which meant she had to walk 45 minutes each way to and from her Twinbrook residence in order to save bus fare.

"I came here to send money back home, but I didn't because my living expenses were not enough to let me do that," Gil said, noting that while the Sagirs never physically abused her, they certainly didn't treat her like a member of the family. "I couldn't live with them because they told me they did not want me staying with them."

Mostly, she said, "this is an issue of them violating my contract and threatening to send me home if I caused problems. They tried to take my passport, but luckily I talked them out of it. I did not give it to them."

Gil was also lucky in that her new boyfriend, Richard Majuk — introduced to her by a mutual acquaintance — took a keen interest in her predicament.

"She was a little coy with me when we first met. She said she was working for the Israeli Embassy," said Majuk, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan stationed in Iraq on contract for the U.S. government as an English instructor. "Ironically, I'm a very strong supporter of Israel and have been to the Holy Land. So when she started keeping these crazy hours, I asked her what she was doing. Finally, she relented and told me what her job really was. I was outraged."

Gil said she wasn't allowed to make phone calls or have friends over.

"They forbade me from using the computer or any communications. It was just work from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. — 11 hours of straight work — and sometimes later than that," she said.

"Amazingly, when I finally got the courage to go to the Philippine Embassy and ask for help, the labor attaché there discouraged me from complaining. She said I should be thankful I'm here in the USA," Gil recalled. "Even my friends didn't want me to cause any trouble. They advised me to stay and finish my contract."

Sofronio Cortel, an attaché at the Philippine Embassy who's been quietly lobbying on Gil's behalf, declined to get into the particulars of her case.

"We try to help our Philippine nationals, especially domestic workers, the best we can," he said. "But we are not in a position to disclose any details. As far as I'm concerned, we are assisting her in an appropriate manner."

The Israeli Embassy refused to discuss the ex-nanny's case at all, other than to say that Oren Sagir "is a private person" who left his diplomatic post more than a year ago.

"This is a labor issue — an issue for the State Department — and we adhere to these laws and regulations in very strict fashion, like any other diplomatic mission," said Israeli Embassy spokesman Jonathan Peled. "There's nothing more I can comment on."

That's not good enough for Gil and her boyfriend, who have determined that Gil's former Israeli employers owe her $10,493, based on $7 times the number of hours she worked each day, plus $10.50 times the estimated hours of overtime she put in throughout the course of her seven-month stint working for the Sagirs.

After resigning, Gil sent her former boss a letter asking for her back wages. When she didn't receive a reply, Gil asked a Philippine law firm to help her with the case. Several months later, her attorney heard from John Levi — a Chicago lawyer representing the Sagirs — offering to settle out-of-court for $2,000.

If she didn't accept that offer, Gil was warned, the Sagirs would countersue her for neglecting and abusing their baby. Deeply insulted, she sensed that was nothing more than an intimidation tactic and held out for the full amount.

A year later, the Sagirs upped the ante to $5,000, but by then Gil's deadline had long passed and she quickly rejected that final offer.

"The Israelis have been so closed-minded in not settling this quietly and quickly," a clearly disgusted Majuk told us. "It's so arrogant of them to offer so much less than what she was asking, and to think they're being philanthropic."

Majuk, who accuses the Israeli Embassy of "turning a blind eye" and "hiding behind a legal fig leaf," launched his own mini-PR campaign, writing letters to local newspapers including The Diplomat and Washington Jewish Week. He also contacted Secretary of State Clinton, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking.

In addition, the couple wrote directly to two Israeli ambassadors, Sallai Meridor and the current Israeli envoy, Michael Oren, though neither one replied. Ironically, in July 2006 — five months before Gil began working for the Sagirs — Israeli experts met with their counterparts from other Middle Eastern nations in Vienna to draft an action plan to fight human trafficking in the region.

Majuk concedes that, when compared to its Arab neighbors, Israel is hardly the Great Satan in such matters.

In Lebanon, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, at least 95 domestic workers have died since January 2007, of which 40 have been classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicides; another 24 were caused by workers falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape their abusive employers.

In September 2008, the Philippine labor secretary lifted an eight-month ban on sending workers to Jordan after setting a minimum wage of $400 a month in hopes of eliminating abuse and exploitation. And Kuwait's track record when it comes to its own diplomats' treatment of nannies and housekeepers appears to speak for itself.

None of that lets the Israelis off the hook, in Majuk's opinion.

"Maria is apolitical and seeks no affiliation with the Palestinian cause in Gaza or elsewhere," the affable English teacher said of his girlfriend. "But the Israeli Embassy risks drawing such analogies of mistreatment by other activists, due to its failure to confront these alleged hiring violations."

Gil acknowleges that many women have experienced far worse than her, yet have accepted their circumstances quietly. "The only thing that fuels me now is that I think I can help other people."

In the meantime, Gil has found a way to remain in the United States legally: she's now the catering director of a Rockville food management company that's acting as her official sponsor while her green card is in process.

"It's pure luck that I have a job right now. It's been a struggle for me. I don't have any money." Asked what she wants, Gil responded quickly: "Full compensation and either a letter of apology or a public statement that the Israeli Embassy will review their internal hiring policies for foreign nationals and take whatever corrective measures are necessary.

"I'll talk to President Obama if I have to," she vowed. "I know that's farfetched, but I'm not doing this only for me. I want to show other domestic workers that we can fight back. This will go on for years and years unless somebody like me speaks up."

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