A San Diego-based Iraqi couple allegedly enslaved a domestic worker in their home, forcing her to work up to 18 hours a day with no pay, according to charges filed in federal court Friday.
Firas Majeed and Shatha Abbas moved to California from Dubai just over two years ago, prosecutors say. A short time after they immigrated, the husband and wife also allegedly brought over an Indonesian domestic servant, identified in court documents only as W.M. The woman spoke no English and was only able to escape by slipping a nurse a plea for help in her native language.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents raided the home on March 22 and removed the woman.
The couple’s “scheme intended to cause the victim to believe that she would suffer physical restraint if she did not perform labor and services,” the government said in a press release. The duo allegedly also hid the domestic worker’s passport and restricted her ability to travel.
Social media accounts belonging to the couple show Majeed is originally from Iraq. His LinkedIn page says he’s worked for the last 2½ years as a construction supervisor, and worked before that in Dubai. Calls to his employer were not returned.
Since arriving in the couple’s El Cajon apartment in November 2015, the Indonesian woman was required to work 16- to 18-hour days, according to prosecutors. She allegedly got no days off and no pay.
Charges against the couple allege that the domestic worker was previously kept at a relative’s home in Dubai, where she worked 20-hour days for five years straight.
The woman tried to flee her captors in the UAE when they left the door unlocked one day, the San Diego Union Tribune reports. She made it to the Indonesian consulate, but her employer was called and he took her back, promising to free her after three months and return her to Indonesia.
“The victim was not paid a salary, and was directed to travel to the United States and work at the home of Majeed and Abbas,” the government press release states.
Over the winter, health-care workers visited the home and noticed the domestic worker, and eventually one of them received her note and alerted authorities.
Majeed and Abbas denied W.M.’s claims in statements to investigators, according to the Union-Tribune. They claimed a blind family member was mentally keeping track of the salary she was owed, at her own request.
Neighbors of the couple said they were shocked by the news.
“It’s sad that people can do that to someone, as a human being,” Sandra Isaak told NBC 7. “I wouldn’t treat an animal like that, it’s crazy. It’s not normal, it’s not human.”
The arrest is only the latest in an epidemic of enslaved domestic workers trafficked to America from abroad. Like the woman in El Cajon, many speak no English and are kept hidden. Two weeks ago in Queens, a woman was awarded nearly $1 million in damages against a Buddhist monk she alleged kept her in slave-like conditions.
Domestic servitude is especially prevalent in the United Arab Emirates, where Majeed and Abbas lived before coming to America. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report found that the nation’s kafala system chains migrant women to abusive employers, rendering them unable to leave until the end of their contract.
The report estimated that there are at least 146,000 migrant female domestic workers in the UAE. Most of those interviewed by HRW said their passports had been confiscated, and many alleged physical abuse and the withholding of wages.
“Almost all domestic workers Human Rights Watch interviewed complained of working long hours, up to 21 hours per day in extreme cases,” the report said. “Many said their employers permitted them no rest periods and no day off.”
The ACLU notes that many domestic slaves in America are victims of foreign diplomats, who are immune from prosecution in the United States. They’re often told “they will have good jobs with benefits and they will enjoy the protection of U.S. laws.”
But Majeed and Abbas have no such immunity. The couple is charged with forced labor, trafficking with respect to forced labor, and document servitude, which carry a total maximum prison sentence of more than 40 years. It’s not immediately clear whether they have an attorney. Attempts to reach the couple for comment were unsuccessful as of press time.