Fighting for Freedom

07.18.134:45 AM ET

House of Horrors: Labor Trafficking in Domestic Workers

Domestic workers are being trafficked into the U.S. by wealthy diplomats and Gulf royals to work in a form of indentured servitude. Ai-jen Poo and Tiffany Williams on the fight to help workers claim their rights.

Imagine waking to the sound of a baby crying at 5 a.m., opening your eyes, and looking into the crib from a cot right beside it. Another day begins. Perhaps you are only 23 years old, but feel much older because you have been subsisting on four hours of sleep per night and leftover scraps from your employer’s dinner table, and you suffer severe back pain for which you have been denied access to doctors. Maybe you came to the United States from Indonesia, the Philippines, or Kenya by way of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon, sponsored by a princess or a diplomat. More than likely, your employer has taken your passport, visa, and other documents to keep you from being able to leave, though she told you it was for your own protection. You were promised a fair wage and regular hours of work. You probably even signed a contract. Yet here you’ve awakened in the baby’s bedroom, no room of your own, no ability to contact your family, living in constant fear of what might happen if you spoke out or tried to escape.

You are one of the hundreds, maybe thousands of migrant women workers who have left their families at home to care for someone else’s, only to be trafficked into domestic servitude.

The case reported last week involving the Kenyan maid abused by the “Saudi princess” in Southern California was only the latest of many examples of severe exploitation of migrant domestic workers.

The International Labor Organization, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, and other human-rights advocacy organizations have compiled report after report about human trafficking and migrant domestic-worker abuse around the world. Forced overtime, degrading living conditions, withholding of pay and identity documents, threats, emotional abuse, and even physical and sexual assault are so common in the migrant domestic-worker population that each case almost mirrors the last. While the stories surrounding workers in the Middle East tend to be severe, the elements that make workers vulnerable, like employer sponsorship and lack of protections or recognition for their work, are not unique to the Gulf.

Some of the abuses that have been documented in the news are particularly horrifying. In 2006 a Saudi linguist living in Colorado with his wife and five children was sentenced to 27 years in prison. He repeatedly raped and assaulted the 24-year-old Indonesian domestic worker employed by his family. She slept on a mattress in the basement and was paid less than $2 per day.

In March 2012 a Lebanese broadcaster released a disturbing video, shot by a bystander, which shows a labor recruiter beating an Ethiopian domestic worker right outside the Ethiopian Embassy in Beirut. The woman, a 33-year-old mother of two, committed suicide two days later. In Lebanon, the tragedy of domestic-worker suicide is well known. Human Rights Watch observed one death per week, of “unnatural causes,” among domestic workers in 2008. The country employs more than 200,000 migrant domestic workers.

The issue of the domestic-worker visa being tied to the employer, and other restrictions that make transferring or leaving impossible, is a common problem. This “kefala” system of employer sponsorship is a mainstay in the Gulf. In the United States, the A3 and G5 visas utilized by diplomats and employees of international organizations to bring domestic workers here have similar restrictions. Because threats to revoke legal immigration status is a primary way that human traffickers can coerce workers into servitude, visa portability remains a priority for not only worker advocates, but anti-trafficking advocates as well.

The “Decent Work for Domestic Workers” International Labor Organization convention (C189) that was passed in June 2011 attempts to address some of the most common employment areas that put domestic workers at risk for severe exploitation, including work hours, contracts, document withholding, and freedom of movement. While the convention outlines only the most basic rights that should be afforded to domestic workers, only eight countries have ratified it so far. The United States has not yet ratified the convention.

The government in Kuwait passed a labor law in 2010 that covers migrant workers in the private sector, but it excludes live-in domestic workers, the population that is most in need of protection. Like Lebanon, Kuwait voted in favor of the ILO convention, but they have not taken steps to ratify it for the more than 660,000 migrant domestic workers currently living in the country. An article this year in The New York Times noted that while Kuwait has been ranked at the lowest tier possible in the trafficking-in-persons report issued by the U.S. State Department, they have not been subject to the economic sanctions that are supposed to be concurrent with this ranking due to their strategic relationship with the U.S.

In Bahrain and Qatar, the governments have taken steps to address human trafficking and exploitation of migrant workers, but are still not sufficiently protecting workers. In fact, most countries in the Gulf region have shown at least minimal interest in the issue of domestic worker trafficking—all attended the regional tripartite conference of the ILO in October 2012—but none have successfully ratified the convention or created comprehensive systems of protection domestically.

In the United States, workers are facing parallel fights. Some domestic workers providing care for seniors and people with disabilities are still fighting for the basic right to minimum wage and overtime protections, health and safety protections, and other basic labor rights that they have historically been excluded from. In 2008 New York became the first state to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, including protection from discrimination and harassment and paid leave, and in 2013 Hawaii became the second. Domestic workers are organizing in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Oregon for similar protections. These policies are an important first step toward transforming the vulnerability of this workforce to extreme forms of abuse. And, much more is needed, particularly when it comes to foreign diplomats with legal immunity.

In these cases, the pursuit of justice becomes an epic battle with very few good outcomes. Many domestic workers who were trafficked by diplomats are still awaiting justice after many years, or have given up their cases. While civil claims are possible, they are often long and difficult. In the meantime, the State Department has not waived immunity nor have they suspended particularly egregious violators from being able to bring over more workers. This month the government of Tanzania paid the first settlement involving human trafficking of a domestic worker by a diplomat. After he was ordered to pay $1 million to the domestic worker he abused in Maryland, Alan Mzengi fled the U.S. and returned to Tanzania to serve as an adviser to the president. The case was settled for a fraction of the wages and damages owed to the worker.

Even in cases where there is potential for a prosecution, issues with law-enforcement training, the behind-closed-doors nature of the work, and prosecutors overly willing to plead down cases to “harboring of illegal aliens,” has kept trafficking of domestic workers underreported. We have very little way of knowing how many domestic workers are living in a “house of horrors.” However, each case that is revealed reminds us they are out there. Each case should serve as a profound reminder of the urgent need to protect and recognize the particular vulnerabilities of this hidden workforce and a call to action to every level of government to act swiftly to put an end to this abuse. Fortunately, around the country, survivors of trafficking are speaking out and telling their stories. The National Domestic Workers Alliance recently launched an initiative called Beyond Survival to support domestic workers who have survived labor trafficking to shape the public policy that could transform the future for workers vulnerable to trafficking. We look forward to watching their stories of survival and solutions spread and help create meaningful policy change.