[Stop-traffic] News/US: Slavery in the Capitol's shadow

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: Slavery in the Capitol's shadow
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sat Nov 11 2000 - 18:53:55 EST

Slavery in the Capitol's shadow
Protecting rights abroad, ignoring them here
By Douglas Pasternak
U.S. News, November 13, 2000

Minimum wage, health insurance, room and board-–When Dora Mortey was
recruited as a domestic servant for a professional family in
Washington, D.C., she gratefully anticipated a life she could only
imagine in her native Ghana. It wasn't long, however, before Mortey
concluded that her American dream was nothing but that. In a lawsuit
filed against her employer in August, Mortey says she was paid just
$100 a month and forced to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week.
She was told, she says, that if she went outside she could be
kidnapped or raped. She says her employer called her "The Creature."

Mortey was no illegal immigrant working off a debt to a ruthless
snakehead, a criminal who holds immigrants as virtual prisoners while
they pay off their passage. Instead, Mortey came to America legally,
under a visa program that lets foreign employees of international
organizations bring in domestic help. Her complaint is distinguished
by a harsh irony: Her employer, who has denied the charges, was an
engineer with the World Bank, an organization whose central mission
is to alleviate poverty.

Cheap labor. Each year, foreign nationals at embassies and
international organizations such as the World Bank and the United
Nations bring over about 4,000 workers to clean their homes and care
for their children. For the most part, the organizations say, these
workers are treated well. But Mortey's case adds to a growing number
of lawsuits charging that domestic helpers are being exploited by the
very people entrusted with fighting labor abuses around the globe.
Joy Zarembka of the Campaign for Migrant Domestic Workers Rights says
her group has documented scores of cases over the past few years.
Now, the Justice Department has set up a task force to investigate
the problem, and Congress is expected to take up the matter next
year. Says Zarembka: "Modern-day slavery is happening right here in
the shadow of the nation's capitol."

Bringing over domestic help is a longstanding perk for employees of
the World Bank, which promotes development in the Third World.
Typically well educated and well paid, senior World Bank employees
want domestics who share their nationality and language. But such
workers offer more than the ability to blend in with their host
families culturally; even when paid a legal wage, they offer huge
savings over what an American worker, or even an illegal immigrant,
would command.

To be sure, some complaints of abuse amount to wage disputes. And
many problems stem from miscommunication or cultural
misunderstandings. Compensation is relative: An illegal wage in
America may be a fortune in a worker's impoverished homeland, and
luxury housing here may replace a one-room shanty there.
Nevertheless, employers of these foreign workers must abide by all
the labor laws of this country. And in too many instances, critics
say, they are breaking them.

Olgica Petrovic is a Yugoslavian nurse who claims that her host
couple, both senior employees of the World Bank in Washington, D.C.,
rarely allowed her outside, telling her she would be deported.
Although she earned the minimum wage of $220 per week caring for the
wife's ailing mother, Petrovic says she worked seven days a week with
just four hours off on an occasional weekend. Meanwhile, she was
housed in the posh Watergate condominums pending renovation of the
family's $700,000 home.

The couple, Sonja and Vidoje Brajovic, deny the charges. "[Petrovic]
is not an unintelligent person," says their lawyer, Gary Howard
Simpson. "I would imagine that she could have walked out the door
anytime she wanted." He said Petrovic was "discharged over
performance issues" and added that the Brajovics even bought her an
airplane ticket so she could return to Belgrade. World Bank spokesman
John Donaldson declined to comment on this or similar cases the
bank's ethics office reviews each year. But, he said, "we have a
policy of zero tolerance for abuse."

World Bank employees are not the only foreigners accused of
exploiting the visa program. In a lawsuit settled last April, Shamela
Begum of Bangladesh claims she was "essentially enslaved" by a
high-ranking official of the Bahraini Mission to the United Nations
and his wife. Begum says the wife, Khatun Saleh, hit her on the head
with a glass and, in another incident, caused her to burn her arm on
the stove. She says she was paid $800 for 10 months, during which
time she left the Salehs' Manhattan apartment exactly twice. The
Salehs have denied the charges.

Such allegations raise questions about the responsibility of the U.S.
government to prevent labor abuse. The FBI is investigating the Saleh
case as a criminal matter, U.S. News has learned. Yet the State
Department argued during the civil trial that the case should be
dismissed. The department said the Salehs enjoyed diplomatic
immunity, meaning they could not be prosecuted for acts committed on
American soil unless their own country waived immunity.

Sharing the blame. Closer monitoring by the government, critics say,
might have prevented the case of Mary Chumo and Alice Benjo, two
Kenyan women who recently filed a federal lawsuit claiming they were
falsely imprisoned by Elizabeth Belsoi, a secretary at the Kenyan
Embassy. Caring for three young children in the secretary's suburban
Maryland home, the women say they were often on duty from 6 a.m. to
midnight. Benjo says Belsoi once made her vacuum the house at 1 a.m.
"We suffered a lot," says Benjo, who left the home in August.

Through her attorney, Belsoi denies the charges and says she abided
by the terms of the employment contract. But Benjo's lawyer, Edward
Leavy, says the government must share blame for a contract he says
was flawed to begin with. "What imbecile at the State Department
would allow [a secretary] to bring in [these] workers and think that
she could pay them?" asks Leavy, who has represented dozens of
exploited workers over the past decade. In fact, says Steven Smitson
of CASA of Maryland, an advocacy group for domestic workers, the
State Department often grants visas that have laid out illegal wage
rates–sometimes two or three times less than an illegal immigrant
could make. The State Department has implemented new regulations to
help ensure that domestic workers receive a "fair and living" wage.

Under pressure from activists, the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund have also instituted reforms of the domestic-worker
program, including orientation sessions, audits, and better
procedures to investigate complaints. The IMF has brought in a former
military judge and deputy inspector general of the CIA to run its
ethics office. But advocates also want independent monitors like
those who protect child-care workers known as au pairs. The au pair
program is not without flaws, but William Gustafson, director of an
au pair monitoring group, says many problems are prevented because
families see the monitors frequently. "They know we are watching
them," he says. The domestic-worker program, Zarembka says, could use
a close eye, too.

Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

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