Diplomats May Often Fail to Pay Household Staff

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–It was an embarrassing moment for Botswana’s acting ambassador to the United Nations: Demonstrators gathered outside his office, shouting that he had virtually enslaved his 23-year-old Botswanan housekeeper and nanny, demanding back pay and a public apology for violating her human rights.

Outside the office of Leutlwetse Mmaulefe last Sunday, protesters chanted, “Mmaulefe, Mmaulefe, pay your dues! Mmaulefe, Mmaulefe, shame on you!” and they demanded more than $75,000 in back pay to the woman who cleaned his house and cared for his children for 17 months.

Keabetswe Letsididi is suing Ambassador Mmualefe in U.S. District Court here charging that she was paid nothing for her first nine months on the job and $250 a month during the rest of her tenure. She claimed in the action filed in June that she often worked more than 40 hours a week.

The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act requires diplomatic employers to pay U.S. minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, minus a certain percentage for room and board.

The demonstrators also demanded a public apology from him for allegedly violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as state and federal labor laws.

Mmualefe did not return telephone calls seeking comment about the demonstration or the allegations.

Advocates Say Conditions in Diplomats’ Homes Should Be Monitored

Letsididi is one of at least 4,000 foreign domestic workers who are employed by thousands of diplomats throughout the United States. And their situation often is not very different from those of both legal and illegal immigrants working as household help for nondiplomats.

The majority of these workers enter with one of three visas: A-3 visas to work for ambassadors, diplomats, consular officers, public ministers, and their families; G-5 visas to work for officers and employees of international organizations or of foreign missions to international organizations and their families; and B-1 visas to accompany U.S. citizens who reside abroad but are visiting the United States.

Last month Human Rights Watch issued a report on abuse of immigrant workers, like Letsididi, traveling on special visas, entitled “Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers With Special Visas in the United States.”

Human Rights Watch Cites Range of ‘Horrible Violations’

Carol Pier, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the organization found that thousands of domestic workers, mostly women who enter the United States on these special visas, suffer a range of “horrible violations.”

“In the most egregious cases, victims of trafficking are lured into the U.S. with false expectations and end up in conditions of servitude,” Pier said. “More commonly, there is gross underpayment of wages, denial of health care, denial of freedom of movement, which means they can’t leave employers’ homes after work.”

In the cases Human Rights Watch reviewed, the median hourly wage was $2.14, including deductions for room and board. The median workday was 14 hours. In many cases, the workers also suffered in a climate of fear, intimidation, psychological and sexual abuse.

Employers often also use loss of immigration status as a threat.

At present, the visas issued to these household workers are linked to particular employers and, if they leave that position, they could be deported. Exceptions are made if the worker files criminal charges against the diplomat-employer. However, Letsididi’s allegations were made as part of a civil lawsuit, and therefore she is not protected by the law.

Pier believes Congress needs to amend immigration laws so that workers in abusive relationships have the right to change employers.

Congress should explicitly set forth terms for employment for these workers and empower the Department of Labor with the authority to monitor compliance with these terms and conditions, Pier said. She added that Congress should also create a category of temporary visas that would permit workers who have left allegedly abusive employers to stay in the United States to pursue civil cases, as well as find other employment.

One Case May Typify Many Experiences

Letsididi’s complaint indicates her experience may typify the conditions Pier described.

She was to attend college in Africa, but Mmaulefe promised to employ her in the United States and pay for her schooling. So she left her family and moved. She traveled on a G-5 visa, which is held by domestic workers employed by officials accredited to international organizations, such as the United Nations.

For six months, she claimed, she worked as a live-in housekeeper and nanny and was forbidden to use the phone, socialize or attend church. She was also denied money for clothing or personal items. She tried to return to Botswana but Mmaulefe demanded that she remain until she paid him back for expenses such as airfare, housing and electricity.

In March 2000, when Letsididi was to begin school, Mmualefe tried to send her back to Botswana, claiming she didn’t work enough to warrant the support, the complaint said. Letsididi suffered a weeklong illness during which Mmualefe refused to supply food or medicine, and Letsididi went for two days without eating. During this time, her employer still expected her to clean the house, the complaint stated.

Letsididi was once left home alone for two weeks with insufficient food and no money to buy more. Her employer also said she was “stubborn, an old woman, unfaithful and untrustworthy,” the complaint said.

Vaishalee Mishra is a journalist in New York.

For more information, read the Human Rights Watch report, “Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers with Special Visas in the United States”: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/usadom/



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