Subject: NEWS: US: 'Modern-Day Slavery'?
From: Jyothi Kanics (email@example.com)
Date: Tue Jan 05 1999 - 09:30:55 EST
Imported Servants Allege Abuse By Foreign Host Families in
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 1999; Page A01
Thousands of domestic servants are being brought into the United States
from impoverished countries and then severely exploited by foreign
employers, many of whom work for embassies and international
organizations in the Washington area, according to human rights groups,
immigration attorneys and former domestics.
Despite occasional publicity about such cases in the past, the abuses have
persisted with relative impunity and appear to be on the rise, the domestics'
advocates and others interviewed by The Washington Post say.
A federal "worker exploitation task force" formed by Attorney General
Janet Reno is investigating some of the worst alleged offenders as part of a
broader crackdown on labor abuse. The task force, which includes
members of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the FBI, the
Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Labor Department, is
aimed at rooting out what Reno has called "the serious problem of
modern-day slavery" in the United States.
But in concentrating their efforts on the most egregious cases involving the
suspected illegal confinement of servants, federal agencies have skipped
over others that fall short of that standard, even when they include
apparent violations of federal labor, immigration and tax laws.
The domestic servants, most of them women from poor backgrounds in
Africa, Asia and Latin America, are typically imported under a provision of
immigration law that allows foreign diplomats, embassy employees and
officials of organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary
Fund and United Nations to bring in personal household workers with the
understanding that the employers will abide by U.S. labor laws. There is,
however, virtually no oversight into whether they comply.
The World Bank, IMF and United Nations say they cannot be expected to
monitor their staff members' private lives. In any case, they say, few
complaints have come to their attention.
Yet, over the years, hundreds of servants have run away from their
employers to escape abusive treatment, excessive hours, low pay or no
pay at all. Some have filed lawsuits in U.S. courts for back wages and
damages. Their cases illustrate the exploitation being alleged in Washington
An Ethiopian woman who was brought to the United States in 1990 by an
IMF official says she toiled for more than eight years in a Silver Spring
apartment until she escaped in May. She says her employers forced her to
work seven days a week, isolated her from other people and hit her if she
Another Ethiopian says she received no pay for more than six years of
work in the Rockville home of an Ethiopian-born couple who arranged for
her to come to the United States on a tourist visa. She says her duties
included caring for the couple's sick child on 24-hour call.
A nanny from the Philippines says three other Filipinos -- her employers
and a friend of theirs -- arranged to bring her in fraudulently under a visa
for servants of embassy employees, then put her to work in Fairfax for 41
cents an hour. For more than a year before she escaped, she says, she had
to work 16 hours a day and received only one day off during the entire
So far this decade, more than 30,000 domestics have been brought to the
United States under special work visas. Many are treated equitably. But
among the others are some of the most exploited workers in the United
States today, according to social workers, church groups and lawyers who
have dealt with their cases.
Behind the closed doors of homes ranging from modest apartments in
Silver Spring to mansions in McLean, many foreign servants live in silent
despair, toiling long hours for low wages but too fearful, isolated or
insecure about what will happen to them to complain or break free, human
rights advocates and investigators say. In part, the servants are hostage to
intimidation by their employers, lack of knowledge about where to turn for
help and the restrictions of their visas, which bar them from working for
Bill Lann Lee, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights and
co-chairman of Reno's task force, said federal investigators are looking for
abuses "that are so severe they rise to a level of involuntary servitude."
Investigators do not yet know how widespread such abuses are, Lee said,
but "there is anecdotal evidence that the problem may be larger than
people have thought."
One FBI-led team is investigating a well-off Brazilian businessman and his
wife who allegedly held an illiterate servant from their homeland in
slave-like conditions for 19 years while she worked in their suburban
The servant, who is about 60, came to authorities' attention recently when
she had to be hospitalized for treatment of a long-neglected stomach
tumor. She told local social workers that she sometimes had to beg
neighbors for food and clothing and was regularly beaten by the wife. She
said the couple told her that if she fled their home, she would be arrested
immediately because she is black.
"They essentially preyed on her ignorance," a source familiar with the case
said. U.S. officials declined to discuss the matter because it is still under
According to the State Department, about 3,800 domestic servants come
to the United States each year under two types of temporary employment
visas to work for foreign diplomats or non-U.S. staff members of
international organizations. The servants may be brought in from any
country. About a quarter come from the Philippines.
In addition, immigrants sometimes illegally bring in domestics from their
homelands on tourist visas, claiming they are relatives or friends who are
The work visas of legal domestics are generally valid for two to three years
and may be renewed periodically as long as the employer remains a
diplomat or international civil servant. The visas require the domestics to
work only for the employers who sponsored them. If they quit and seek
another job, they lose legal status and become subject to deportation.
Employers and their domestics typically sign contracts that meet U.S. wage
requirements. The contracts are then presented at U.S. consulates to help
obtain the visas.
Guidelines published by the World Bank and IMF say their staff members
who wish to employ domestics -- defined as ranging from butlers, valets
and maids to gardeners, grooms and chauffeurs -- must pay at least the
minimum wage, allow two days off a week, pay Social Security and
Medicare taxes, buy workers' compensation insurance and pay federal and
state unemployment taxes. At the current minimum wage rates of $6.15 an
hour in Washington, D.C., and $5.15 in Maryland and Virginia, domestics
should receive $1,066 a month for the standard 40-hour work week in the
District and $892 a month in the suburbs.
"This all looks lovely on paper, but there's absolutely no monitoring" by the
World Bank or IMF to ensure that staff members meet their obligations,
said Martha Honey, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a
Washington think tank that is mobilizing a campaign to protect the
Mark Bowyer, manager of the World Bank's human resources service
center, said the bank relies on the staff members themselves to comply
with U.S. law. World Bank staff members in the Washington area currently
employ 790 domestics. Bowyer said the bank's ethics office investigates
about seven complaints of abuse a year from domestics who know enough
to contact the organization. He acknowledged that these cases "are
probably only a subset" of the overall problem.
The State Department says it has no way of measuring the extent to which
domestic servants are abused. But it was sufficiently alarmed two years
ago to send all Washington embassies a nine-page note expressing concern
that some diplomats have substantially underpaid household workers or
failed to pay them at all, required them to work long hours with no
overtime, confiscated their passports and confined them to their
Church workers, attorneys and former domestics say such practices are
common. Unlike maids hired in the United States, those brought in under
special visas are not free to work elsewhere if they do not like the pay or
working conditions. In effect, says Edward Leavy, a Washington lawyer
who has represented a number of domestics, the system amounts to a form
of indentured servitude that embassies, international organizations and the
U.S. government for years have been content to preserve.
According to the Rev. Mark Poletunow of the Spanish Catholic Center,
the charity has seen "many cases of abuse" in its 31-year history, and the
situation is "progressively worsening."
Over the past two years, about 60 Philippine domestics have come to
Washington-based immigration lawyer Arnedo S. Valera after running
away from their employers. Most say they were underpaid but opt not to
file labor claims, he said. Instead, they simply want help obtaining legal
"They're scared to complain," Valera said. "They don't want to confront
A new advocacy group here, the Campaign for Migrant Domestic
Workers Rights, says the World Bank and IMF bear major responsibility
because they actively assist their non-U.S. staff members in arranging visas
for domestics. The group wants the World Bank to help inform domestics
of their rights, fund a $350,000-a-year independent monitoring program
and require staff members to submit copies of contracts, federal tax forms
and proof of wage payment.
The World Bank has expressed a willingness to discuss the proposals, but
the IMF has rebuffed the group's request for talks. The IMF "is prepared
to take disciplinary action" against staff members who mistreat domestics,
but only "a handful" of such cases have come up, a spokesman said.
The international organizations usually urge staff members to settle disputes
with their servants out of court.
In one recent case in New York, Marie Angelique Savane, a leading
women's rights advocate from Senegal who headed the Africa section of
the United Nations Population Office, agreed to pay $7,000 to a
Senegalese domestic who complained of inhumane treatment in Savane's
Manhattan apartment. Savane, who denied wrongdoing, returned to
Senegal. Her maid remained in the United States illegally.
Among other alleged victims who are pursuing private lawsuits is Ayelech
Mamo, an Ethiopian woman in her fifties who says she was enslaved in
Rockville for 6 1/2 years by an Ethiopian-born immigrant couple, Tewolde
and Elizabeth Iyob, who arranged for her to come here in 1990 on a
Mamo said she was required to provide round-the-clock care for the
couple's seriously ill child in addition to her household chores. She said the
Iyobs never paid her personally, but sent her family in Ethiopia $2,100,
which amounted to less than $28 a month for her work.
Breaking down in tears as she told her story in an interview, Mamo said
the Iyobs never gave her any time off, never took her to a doctor, did not
allow her to go to church and discouraged her from making friends. She
finally fled last year.
"I felt like a prisoner," she said. Now destitute and in hiding, she said she
fears retaliation if her former employers learn where she is staying.
In court documents, the Iyobs denied Mamo's charges, saying they did not
bring her to the United States as a domestic servant, but "as a loved and
respected member of the Iyob family." Tewolde Iyob called Mamo "my
wife's aunt" in a letter used to request her U.S. visa, but an affidavit by
Elizabeth Iyob described a more informal godparent relationship and
acknowledged that Mamo "is not technically related to me by blood."
The Iyobs said no payment was ever contemplated for Mamo's work,
which was "merely her voluntary contribution to the family which sustained
and supported her."
Besides, said the Iyobs' lawyer, David C. Simmons, Mamo's claim for full
back wages is invalid because of a two-year statute of limitations. He
denied that his clients committed immigration fraud in the case, saying it
was up to Mamo to legalize her status after her tourist visa expired.
The case of another nanny, 38-year-old Margarita Miranda, illustrates how
an imported servant can end up working for someone other than the
sponsor of her special visa, in apparent violation of labor and immigration
laws. She came to Northern Virginia three years ago to take up a job offer
she received while working as a nanny in Manila.
But to get the job with Mark and Vesta Dimatulac, who needed a nanny
for their infant daughter in Fairfax, she had to sign a contract with Vesta
Dimatulac's best friend, Annamarie Go, who worked as a secretary for the
Saudi Embassy in Washington. Like Miranda, Go and the Dimatulacs are
from the Philippines.
Because Go held an A-2 diplomatic visa, she was allowed to bring in a
servant, a perk that the Dimatulacs did not enjoy. Miranda's contract with
Go called for a weekly salary of $210 for the standard 40 hours of work.
Instead, Miranda said in court documents and an interview, she had to
work about 112 hours a week, caring for the Dimatulacs' children and
performing all sorts of household chores for $200 a month.
The Dimatulacs "told me not to talk to anybody," Miranda said. They were
afraid, she said, that if she met other Filipinos, she would run away.
After 16 months, Miranda finally fled with a few belongings. A legal battle
ensued, with Miranda eventually receiving a modest settlement out of
court. The Dimatulacs and Go dropped counterclaims in which they argued
that Miranda owed them for room and board and for failing to work for
Go as contracted.
Although the case involved only civil labor issues, U.S. officials said
Miranda's account suggests she was brought here through visa fraud, a
felony. A lawyer for Go and the Dimatulacs, James L. Marketos, had no
comment on this, and federal authorities have not investigated it.
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