The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Some Embassy Workers Enslave Domestic Help, Enjoy Immunity

by Matt Kelley

International diplomats are taking advantage of immunity privileges in order to exploit foreign domestic workers in the United States; even after escape, victims can do little to fight back.

New York City; June 28, 2005 – According to an affidavit filed with US immigration officials, a Kuwaiti diplomat forced his Indian maid to work as a slave in his family’s Manhattan apartment for four years. Now, because of diplomatic immunity, the ambassador may never face charges for trafficking and abuse.

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Some human rights activists believe the case is but one instance of a broader problem under which foreign diplomats take advantage of their special privileges to commit gross violations of US labor laws right on US soil.

Bader Al-Awadi, who until recently served as the first secretary of the Kuwaiti mission to the United Nations, hired a woman named Vishranthamma to work as the family’s maid, nanny and cook. Vishranthamma, who asked to be identified in this article by her first name only, is originally from Bhadravati, India. She left her husband and five children behind, hoping to earn enough money as the Al-Awadis’ domestic servant, first in Kuwait, then in New York City.

In her affidavit outlining the abuses she suffered, Vishranthamma said Al-Awadi originally promised her $2,000 a month and Sundays off to practice her Christian faith. But, upon her arrival, her employers only sent $200 to $300 a month to her husband in India, and she never saw a dollar of her own, court documents say.

Vishranthamma told The NewStandard she worked 18-hour days and Al-Awadi’s wife, Halal Muhammad Al-Shaitan, often hit and verbally abused her. She alleges that her employers forced her to work through sickness and fatigue, and that they called her names in Hindi, like "dog" and "donkey."

Cases emerging in major cities across the United States suggest that Vishranthamma’s story is not unique.

Vishranthamma charges that the Al-Awadis did not allow her to buy hygienic products and that she had no privacy. She would cry herself to sleep at night in the room she shared with the family’s two children. When her husband or children would call, Vishranthamma says, they would usually be told they had the wrong number. By the end of her years with the family, she says, Al-Awadi raped her on a regular basis.

"I cried every day," she said. "I have nobody in this country. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody, I couldn’t go anywhere."

In June of 2000, Vishranthamma escaped from the apartment, 20 floors above Manhattan’s bustling Upper East Side, and caught a taxi outside. She says that departure was the first time she was free from her bosses in four years.

After her escape, Vishranthamma pursued criminal charges and a civil suit against the family. But due to the defendants’ claim of diplomatic immunity, neither action has taken root. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, however, granted her a special visa for victims of human trafficking in April that will allow her to stay permanently in the country. Her husband died in 2001 and her two oldest children now have families of their own. She has gained initial authorization to bring her three youngest children to the US.

Lawyers have repeatedly filed suits in the face of diplomatic immunity, only to be stonewalled by the United States or other governments.

Cases emerging in major cities across the United States suggest that Vishranthamma’s story is not unique. Human rights experts are starting to point to the homes of diplomats as potentially dangerous workplaces for vulnerable foreign workers.

In April, human rights activists took a trip to Geneva, Switzerland to speak before a UN panel about domestic worker abuses committed by UN employees and discuss potential remedies to the problem. Nahar Alam, the founder of Andolan, a New York-based NGO that works to prevent abuse of domestic workers, joined ACLU human rights lawyer Claudia Flores in leading the delegation.

The panel included Gabriela Rodríguez Pizarro, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. It operated under the title, "Treated with Dignity and Respect? Protecting the Human Rights of Migrant Domestic Workers Employed by the Diplomatic Community."

Flores and Alam presented recommendations to the panel, urging the UN Commission on Human Rights to address the issue. They gave examples of abuse, including the cases of Vishranthamma and an Indonesian teenager named Aisah Ali who was brought to New York as a servant by a member of Qatar’s mission to the United Nations.

Ali paid an employment agency in a Jakarta suburb to secure the job, she told TNS in a recent interview, although competition was still fierce. She said the agency placed her in a sweatshop making stuffed animals until a Qatari family chose her as a servant. After arriving in the United States, she said she was paid $150 in cash. After that, she alleges, the bosses starting sending her pay to her father in Indonesia, minus a $25 fee for wiring. She says she worked 12 to 16 hour days, seven days a week, watching six children and cooking. Like Vishranthamma, she says she was constantly supervised.

Andolan has worked on nine other cases involving allegedly abusive diplomatic employers since 1999, according to Alam.

Alam said a dangerous convergence of causes has led to a pattern of worker exploitation in the diplomatic community. First, the United States grants a special status -- called a G5 visa -- to domestic employees of diplomatic and consular employees. This visa is only valid as long as the person works for the diplomatic family. As a result, said human rights lawyer Suzanne Tomatore, some domestic workers have escaped from abusive employers only to be arrested or deported for not having legal immigration status. The United States issued nearly 1,400 such visas in 2004, according to US Office of Immigration Statistics.

Secondly, diplomatic immunity often provides a shield -- or at least an imagined one -- for a powerful ambassador or other dignitary to commit crimes they see as harmless or victimless. Lastly, the isolated nature of domestic labor leads to abuses easily committed and repeated outside of the public eye.

Tomatore, a lawyer for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Fund, said her agency sees "a disproportionate amount [of domestic workers] who are trafficked by international organizations." The treatment of these workers, she said, can be considered human trafficking, the practice of forcing laborers to work against their will.

"These [traffickers] are people who could afford to pay someone a fair wage," Tomatore said. "I see the same pattern over and over again; it’s not one particular country. It’s an economic reason rather than a social reason."

The ACLU’s Flores said activist organizations and the media have begun to uncover these cases of abuse more frequently in recent years. Mistreatment of domestic workers is a problem around the world, and there are no statistics to determine how prevalent the problem is among diplomats as compared to the general population, Flores said. Diplomatic abuses, however, "are coming to light, and this is a group of people we can hold accountable because having a domestic worker is a privilege granted by the organization" through the availability of the G5 visa, Flores said.

A report issued by Pizarro’s office in 2004 supported Flores and Alam’s claim that the issue needs to be addressed. "International organizations, embassies and consulates," the report said, "should adopt codes of conduct on the recruitment of migrant domestic workers and require their staff to abide by the code, taking disciplinary action in the event of violations."

UN human rights and visa officials in the United States, however, declined to comment on the issue for this story.

Diplomats are a difficult population to hold accountable, Tomatore said. Lawyers have repeatedly filed suits in the face of diplomatic immunity, only to be stonewalled by the United States or other governments.

Diplomatic immunity was ostensibly created to insure that international relations were not marred by minor offenses occasionally committed by diplomats, especially focusing on crimes that might punished in one country but not another. In the case of serious crimes committed by diplomats, the host country can request permission from the person’s native country to prosecute; it can also request that the person be prosecuted at home.

But usually violators protected by diplomatic immunity escape without charges, Tomatore said, especially in cases like those involving abuse of a servant. In egregious crimes like murder or rape, the host country sometimes expels the diplomat from its territory, but the person is rarely prosecuted at home.

When Vishranthamma filed a civil complaint against the family she accused of having held her in virtual slavery, the Al-Awadis failed to appear in court. Instead, the Kuwaiti mission to the United Nations sent a letter to the court stating that Al-Awadi would rely on his diplomatic immunity and not appear for the proceedings. The Al-Awadi family has since been relocated to Paris, according to a spokesperson at the Kuwaiti mission.

The family could not be reached for this story, and, according to Anjum Gupta, the lawyer who represented Vishranthamma in her immigration proceedings, they will likely never be held accountable for the crimes of which Vishranthamma accuses them.

"It's outrageous to think that [Vishranthamma] is unable to seek civil or criminal recourse for the treatment she suffered at the hands of the Al-Awadis when even the US government has acknowledged it amounted to human trafficking," Gupta said.

Vishranthamma and other victims of abuse have told Alam that their employers flaunt their diplomatic immunity, Alam said. They teach foreign workers that if they go to the police, the worker will be arrested and deported. And they make clear that lawsuits and criminal complaints don’t affect ambassadors. "They can tear up the [lawsuit] papers like they do a parking ticket," Alam said.

In Vishranthamma’s case, she said, she was first made aware that her plight was unusual and illegal when a Hindi-speaking stranger approached her in the park while Al-Awadi was distracted. When Vishranthamma told her about her situation, the woman was shocked and told Vishranthamma to run away as soon as she could get her passport. Vishranthamma said without this concerned woman, she might never have had the nerve to escape.

Early in the morning on June 25, 2000, the family busily prepared for a trip to Kuwait, on which Vishranthamma says they planned to obligate her attendance. Vishranthamma recalled seeing passports and plane tickets arranged neatly on a counter. She grabbed her passport and ran to her bedroom, stuffing her Bible and some photos into a plastic bag. She said a tearful goodbye to the two children she helped raise, and ran to the elevator while her employers were occupied. Suddenly, she was free.

A year later, she found her way to the offices of Andolan, located alongside the rumbling elevated 7 Train in Queens. With the help of Alam, Gupta and others, Vishranthamma secured a T-visa, a residency status created by Congress in 2000 to aid victims of human trafficking. The government also recently gave preliminary approval for the three youngest of Vishranthamma’s children to join her here.

Since gaining her freedom, she has become an outspoken activist on behalf of the domestic workers of metropolitan New York. She has joined Andolan members at protests outside of diplomatic missions accused of abusing employees. Vishranthamma and other Andolan members also help to counsel women recently escaped from forced labor situations, easing their adjustment to life on their own in a foreign country.

"I like to help the other women, there are a lot of women who are just like me," Vishranthamma said. "[Andolan is] trying to bring them out, teach them the law of this country."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Matt Kelley is a contributing journalist.