The brick town house, with its postage-stamp-size yard and aluminum front door, blends inconspicuously into Northern Virginia’s suburban sprawl. But inside there are spicy smells, high-pitched and accented chatter, and an unusual cluster of dark-haired young women. They are all runaway nannies and housekeepers; most are natives of the Philippines. Over the past year, this house has served as a clandestine way-station on a modern-day Underground Railroad.
The owner, who goes by the name “Rose,” is part of an informal network of people involved in helping foreign servants escape illegal, exploitative, and sometimes abusive employment situations. Rose gives them a place to stay, counseling, and a sense of community. Scattered around Washington are other such stations, mainly churches and social-service centers, that have helped hundreds—perhaps thousands—of international domestics escape bad situations, find new employment, get legal help, and apply for new visas.
Most of the runaways work for diplomats or executives with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Organization of American States (OAS), Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), or other international agencies; on occasion, the employer is American. All of these servants enter the U.S. legally, under a special State Department program that permits international bureaucrats and diplomats to “import” household help. Last year, the State Department issued 3,400 visas for these domestics; 875, or one quarter, were for Philippine servants.
To get such visas, foreign employers must agree, usually by written contract, to provide “reasonable living and working conditions” as defined under U.S. labor laws. Immigration lawyers say this must include minimum wage and overtime, fixed hours, and time off. But not infrequently, live-in domestics are illegally forced to work long hours for little and, in a few cases, no pay.
“I’ve been shocked to find that these domestics—they are always women—have been virtually under house arrest, forced to work seven days a week, basically around the clock, and haven’t seen the light of day for two or three years,” says Edward Leavy, a Washington immigration attorney who has handled runaway cases. “They weren’t properly paid, and they were threatened with deportation. It’s slavery in the shadow of the Capitol.”
Domestics—maids, housekeepers, baby-sitters, and cooks—are an underpinning of Washington’s social fabric. They allow the city’s movers and shakers to maintain fast-paced, two-income households and still raise a family. For the most part the legions of household help are invisible; lately, however, nannies have been making news. The Washingtonian‘s March cover story, “The Nanny Generation,” interviewed area young people about the trials and pleasures of being raised by a maid, while Washington Parent, in its January/February issue, ran an article titled “Managing Nanny.” There was the ongoing saga of the Dutch au pair accused by authorities of shaking a baby to death, and the Virginia couple who recently discovered that their nanny had a criminal record and a crack habit. Then there are various Clinton administration nominees, as well as California Gov. Pete Wilson, tripped up because they “inadvertently” hired illegal aliens or failed to pay taxes. Essentially, the thrust of these stories has been “good help is hard to find.” Largely untold are the tales of exploitation by some of Washington’s most privileged foreign residents.
Since no centralized records are kept of these abuse cases, it is impossible to tell how widespread the problem is. Those involved in the underground network readily admit they have seen frivolous cases—false or exaggerated claims made by servants—as well as many instances where employers do abide by the law and treat their hired help well. But they also suspect that the genuine cases they handle are just the tip of the iceberg; mistreated foreign servants are more likely to endure exploitation in silence or escape on their own, hiding out in various multinational communities around Washington. The country’s current anti-immigrant mood—spurred by California’s Proposition 187—has intensified their fear. Even domestics who enter the U.S. with legal visas are reluctant to press charges against employers who flagrantly violate American labor laws, scared that the publicity will somehow result in their own deportation.
Alexandria attorney John Connolly has represented employers who are being sued by their domestics, but he more frequently represents the servants. He calls abuse of those domestics “a very serious problem.” Rose, the owner of the Northern Virginia town house, estimates that “in 90 percent of the cases, the contracts are not followed.” Sister Manuela Vencela, a Catholic nun who has personally handled 300 to 400 cases over the past two decades, concurs that abuse is widespread and largely unaddressed. “Many girls and even men have come looking for help from all over—the Philippines, India, Africa, from South and Central America,” she says.
The State Department has long been aware that foreign servants are mistreated and labor laws violated. In 1981, then-Secretary of State Edmund Muskie wrote a memo expressing “deep concern” over evidence that some diplomats in Washington had “seriously abused or exploited household servants.” Muskie outlined steps the State Department would take to improve the workers’ conditions, including requiring written contracts to ensure that employers followed U.S. labor laws. But that effort quickly died. Just six months later (after Muskie was replaced), the State Department issued a new directive, stating “experience had shown that requiring employment contracts in each and every case might be unnecessarily burdensome.”
The written contract requirement was dropped. Today, consular officers in U.S. embassies overseas need only secure, either verbally or in writing, assurances that foreign employers and servants headed for the U.S. will adhere to American labor laws. As a result, some servants, particularly those working for diplomats, arrive without a written contract. (The IMF and World Bank both require staffers to sign written contracts with their domestics.) A February U.S. District Court ruling, based in part on a State Department legal memorandum, found that diplomats and their families are protected from lawsuits “arising out of personal contracts” by diplomatic immunity—further narrowing the legal recourse open to abused servants.
The right to import domestic help is just one of the job perks enjoyed by Washington’s international upper crust. According to figures provided by the World Bank and IMF, average salaries at both agencies are over $65,000—tax free. Senior-level World Bank employees make, on average, $83,980 per year. Add benefit packages that can include housing, tuition, and home leave allowances, and the bank staff’s annual tax-free compensation is, according to Time magazine, $123,000. A bank spokesperson blandly contends that its “compensation system is market-driven and is designed to maintain pay scales that keep pace with the labor markets where we recruit staff.”
The labor markets from which staffers recruit their domestic help are, in contrast, the poor communities of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The vast majority are women, often single mothers, who come with the intention of sending most of their earnings to their children or parents back home. “If they come here it’s because they are very poor in their own countries and they need to support their families,” says Sister Manuela. “After they made the sacrifice to leave their country, they don’t want to go back without money.”
But employers often view them as little more than a possession. Celia Rivas, immigration services coordinator at the Spanish Catholic Center in Gaithersburg, Md., recalls one domestic from the Dominican Republic whose employer—also from the Dominican Republic—told her, “If I ask you to kiss the floor, you have to. You are part of my property. I brought you here and you have to do what I tell you.”
Those involved in the underground network say the abusive treatment follows certain patterns. International officials tend to bring in domestic servants from their own countries, often a distant relative or tribal member. Those from the Middle East and Asia frequently hire help from the Philippines. There is plenty of household help to be found locally, particularly given Washington’s extensive immigrant population. But foreigners are willing to incur the bureaucracy and expense of hiring overseas help, lawyers and counselors say, because “imported” workers are considered more controllable; less likely and able to quit, run away, or sue; and more likely to endure long hours and low pay without complaint.
Isolation and ignorance are the keys to control. Typically, the employer takes the servant’s passport and other legal documents; withholds the person’s salary or sends it to an overseas bank account; forbids the person from leaving the house alone, using the telephone, or developing independent friendships; and threatens to deport anyone who complains. With no papers, no friends, no money—and often, no idea of what her rights are—an exploited domestic keeps silent. Indeed, many do not speak English. If they decide to escape, their route to freedom usually begins with a chance encounter with a good Samaritan.
Rose is a bright, forthright 45-year-old Filipina with a hearty laugh and generous spirit. After nearly six years of helping runaway servants, she’s protective of the young and very nervous coterie gathered in her kitchen. She won’t allow her real name to be used, nor grant interviews with any of her young charges until their lawsuits have been filed. (Since these women are no longer working for the persons who sponsored them, their visas can be revoked. Once a case is in court, however, the woman cannot be deported until it is settled.)
Rose explains that she fell into her Harriet Tubmanlike role by accident. A single mother from a poor family who has struggled for over 20 years to support her two sons in the Philippines, she first worked in a Manila clothing factory. But the salary was too small, so Rose used an employment agency to find a job in Hong Kong. Like an estimated 4 million other Filipinos, the majority of whom are women, Rose went overseas in search of dollars to send home. Offshore employment is aggressively promoted by the Philippine government, which calls workers like Rose “heroines of the Philippine economy.” It’s not hard to see why; they send home an estimated $3-$6 billion a year. But there is a growing awareness that many of these woman are horribly exploited, physically and sexually. Singapore’s execution in March of a Filipina maid accused of murder—quite possibly falsely—touched off massive demonstrations in Manila and forced the resignation of the Philippine foreign minister.
After she arrived in Hong Kong in the mid-’80s, Rose says she landed a job with a U.S. Embassy family. When this diplomatic family was reassigned to Washington, they asked her to come with them. She could do so under a special State Department provision for American diplomats or businessmen on international assignment who are temporarily reassigned to the U.S., usually Washington. These Americans can bring in domestic help on a temporary visa. By contrast, most Americans, including those working for the World Bank and other international agencies, are not allowed to bring in foreign servants.
Rose’s American employers always treated her well. “Thank God I had a good family,” she says. “I was given room and board and a good salary.” Several years ago, she married an American, moved into the town house, and started her own housecleaning business. Asked if she has always sent money back home, Rose replies, “Oh yes, of course, because I came here for my boys. So I send them money every month. Way back, it was $200 a month. Now it’s about $600 because they go to college. I have to provide for them.”
Rose recalls the day in 1988 she became aware, for the first time, that some foreign servants were being mistreated. In a park in Annandale, Va., she happened to meet a nanny from Guyana whom she calls “Jane,” who was working at the time for an Australian woman employed by the IMF. “She was very upset because she was getting only $250 a month,” Rose says, for doing the cooking, cleaning, and laundry, as well as caring for the woman’s son. Jane told Rose that before leaving Guyana, she had signed a contract in which the IMF woman agreed to pay minimum wage, provide free room and board, and follow a fixed work schedule. Based on this contract, the U.S. issued Jane a one-year visa. But when Jane got here, her new employer took her passport and ignored the contract. When she asked to be paid minimum wage, Jane said, the IMF official replied, “I don’t need to give you a higher salary because I did all the work to get you your visa.”
“It was so sad,” Rose says, “but I never made any comment, of course. I didn’t want to be interrupting their relationship.” For two years, Rose heard nothing. “Then suddenly Jane called and said she’d finally had enough, she had decided to quit.” Jane found her passport, and one night in August, Rose and two friends came for her. The Australian woman, Rose recalls, was furious, claiming she had been betrayed and refusing to let Jane take most of her personal belongings.
Rose took Jane home with her. “Where can she go? She does not know anyone. So I had to take her with me,” she explains. The next day Rose called Ed Leavy, whose name she had gotten through a friend. Leavy succeeded in winning Jane her freedom and a modest out-of-court settlement. (Like most agreements in these cases, Jane’s includes a provision that prohibits both sides from discussing details of the settlement—thereby avoiding bad publicity. Typically, the employer agrees to a cash payment.)
As Rose’s new business took her into well-heeled suburban enclaves, she began to meet or hear of other abused servants, particularly Filipinas. Her efforts to help them grew to the point that she turned her home into a safe house for runaways. Though protected, the women there remain frightened and wary of strangers. After considerable prompting, one of the young Filipinas in Rose’s kitchen finally agrees to talk, but only if her name and that of her former employer are not used.
She was first hired in Manila, she says, by a Saudi Arabian man who took her to Riyadh. After just a week, she was sent off with one of his relatives, a Saudi diplomat, to work at his house in Virginia. “Before coming I signed a contract,” she says. “It said I would work five days and be paid $3.90 per hour, plus benefits,” for taking care of three children and doing the cooking, laundry, and cleaning. When she arrived, her employer took away her passport, she says, and “paid me only $200 a month, and they sent all the money to the Philippines and gave me a receipt. They wanted to do it that way.” She had to work from 5:30 a.m. until late at night, and was never given time off.
One day she went to a mall with the Saudi’s wife, where “I saw a Filipina and I talked with her and then the woman said, ‘Don’t talk to those people.’ I think she was afraid I’d run away.” Nine months later, she did, with the help of another Filipina who worked in a neighboring house.
“She ran away also, and went to New York and then called me and gave me a number. She said to me, if you want to go, an American couple will come to your house and pick you up. I took my passport which I saw in a cabinet,” she says, and then placed the call. Late one night, she slipped out of the house, and the Americans, whose identity remains a secret, picked her up. For the next three months, she says, she lived and worked for the American couple. Asked if they paid her, she laughs. “Yeah, so I finally saw what an American dollar looks like.” Through her Filipina friend, she got in touch with Leavy, who agreed to take her case. After he filed the papers and took just one deposition, the Saudi agreed to an out-of-court settlement.
The rest of the young women at Rose’s are too nervous to talk. It will take more visits before several of them are comfortable enough to tell their stories. Rose remains their spokeswoman. “This situation has to be stopped. These girls are not being treated fairly,” she fumes. “They came here to earn some money for their family back home. That’s the most important part for them. But it’s not only about the money.
“If employers out there would give a fair salary to their nanny or their maid, then girls like me don’t complain about it,” she continues. “As long as they follow all that’s in the contract they have. But they don’t. They don’t care. And they think that nobody will find out.”
Although the World Bank and IMF require their staff to sign written contracts before visas are issued for imported domestic help, neither these institutions, nor the State Department, do much to make sure U.S. labor laws are followed.
At the IMF, the gatekeepers in the press office would not reveal how many domestic abuse complaints the agency has on file, and how such cases have been handled. One press officer who insisted that his name not be used said the IMF “does not supply information about its confidential dealings with staff.” Another official described the agency’s role as “a facilitator, not a policeman,” explaining that the IMF routinely does the paperwork for staffers who want to import domestic help, then sends the forms to the State Department. If the contract is broken, he said, “the IMF really can’t do an awful lot,” even though publicity about these cases is, he admitted, “an embarrassment.” “Very, very few” cases have gone to court, he argued, adding “If one looks at the ratio, probably the Clinton administration has had more problems with domestics than we have.” He laughed off the suggestion that Clinton administration nominees may have come under closer scrutiny than IMF staff.
The World Bank was more forthcoming: It was possible to speak directly with officials who handle complaints from domestic servants, although they, too, cited “rules of confidentiality” that prevent them from discussing specific cases. Legal Assistance Advisor Caryn Lennon explained that staff members who want to bring in a domestic are given “a packet of information containing a sample contract and explaining they have to get insurance and pay social security, workers’ compensation, and federal and state tax for these employees,” even though as World Bank employees they pay no taxes on their own incomes. Like the IMF, the bank then forwards the signed contract to the State Department, which sends it to their appropriate embassy overseas. “I’m aware of cases of abuse,” Lennon says. “We have 10,000 people working at the bank, and they’re not all angels.”
James Roan, who works in the Bank’s Ethics Office, which investigates allegations of staff misconduct, says he’s dealt with “infrequent complaints” from domestic servants. He says that servants typically lodge complaints only after they find work somewhere else or return to their home country. His office then listens to all parties and “reaches a determination” which could range anywhere from a verbal reprimand to a fine or, most drastically, to loss of position. Does he recall a case in which disciplinary action was taken? “There may have been one,” he says. Asked if the bank should be more proactive, he replies, “No, I think we make it pretty clear: We give detailed instructions and then our style is that we expect staff to follow them.”
An official at the State Department confirmed that foreigners employing foreign servants must abide by U.S. labor laws. But he said the U.S. government has no procedure to ensure that diplomats bringing in domestics on A-3 visas or international civil servants bringing in household help on G-5 visas, do, in practice, follow the law. Like the IMF and World Bank, the State Department is not proactive. The official said that “if a domestic employee had a complaint against an embassy individual, she could bring the matter to our attention and we would take it up with the embassy concerned.” Usually, he said, the State Department receives only “about one” complaint a year.
International agencies and the State Department may see nothing wrong with a passive posture, but the lawyers who represent runaway domestics do. In his broad Boston accent, attorney Connolly puts the blame for the abuse problem squarely on “the State Department, for not following through and attempting to monitor these private employment agreements,” and “the IMF and World Bank, [for] not attempt[ing] to ensure that their employees are acting in accordance with U.S. law.” Lawyer Leavy, a no-nonsense former New Yorker, is even blunter: “These folks [at the IMF and World Bank] are aiding and abetting this slavery by allowing their executives to come here and do these things.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Ed Leavy is on the car phone to Rose, asking her to guide him through the final 15 turns of the suburban maze to her town house. He’s come to talk to his clients—partly a social call, partly business. It’s clear that, like Rose, Leavy has thrown a lifeline to these runaways. They greet him warmly, and bring him a steady stream of Philippine delicacies while he jokes and banters with them.
Leavy first became aware of the domestic abuse 12 years ago, while doing volunteer work at the Spanish Catholic Center in Mount Pleasant. Since then he’s brought about a dozen cases against, he says, “these people who come here and are getting exceedingly high incomes and bring in these women to the U.S. and treat them horribly. These folks who are supposed to be curing the developing world with our tax dollars should at least abide by American law and pay minimum wage when they hire servants.”
Leavy ticks off several of his most memorable cases:
In 1991, Sangita Satyal, a Nepalese domestic servant, was awarded $40,000 in wages and legal fees from her Nepalese employers, IMF economist Sukhdev Shah and his wife Vijaya, according to the Washington Post and interviews with Leavy and Mrs. Shah. Before receiving a visa, Satyal signed the usual contract guaranteeing minimum wage, overtime, and time off. But unbeknownst to Satyal and the State Department, Shah executed a secondary contract with the woman’s father in Nepal, in which he agreed to deposit $50 a month into a bank account. Satyal said she received food and lodging, but no salary, and was denied access to her bank account. In addition, Satyal, together with Mrs. Shah, ran a day care center in the Shah’s Alexandria home, even though Mrs. Shah was legally prohibited from working in the U.S. Satyal eventually ran away. A recent visit to the Shah home revealed that Mrs. Shah continues to run the day care center.
A Middle Eastern diplomat had three Filipinas living, dormitory style, in the basement of his large McLean, Va., home. Each was working around the clock and being paid only $100 a month, each. When one of Leavy’s colleagues contacted the diplomat, he quickly agreed to an out-of-court financial settlement in return for keeping his name out of the press.
A Tanzanian analyst at the World Bank brought a registered nurse from his tribe to work as a nanny and domestic, promising that in addition to meeting the terms of the contract ($125 for a 40-hour work week), he would allow her to go to university classes at night. Instead, the woman says, for two years she was paid $50 to $100 a week, forced to work seven days a week, and was never allowed to go to school. She finally complained to the bank’s Ethics Office. Instead of handling the complaint as a simple matter of labor law, the bank, Leavy says, “in its infinite wisdom convened a council of elders” comprised of African Bank staff to resolve the dispute. Bank officials say they were simply trying to be “culturally competent” by setting up an “alternative dispute resolution body.” This informal council decided that the woman should be compensated $13,500, but the Tanzanian official refused to pay. The woman then retained Leavy and Connolly, who reached an out-of-court settlement of $21,000. “The money was not important,” the woman said in a recent interview. “At least I had my dignity and I punished them. I showed them that they could not do that.” She has since graduated from a local college and found a nursing job.
But Leavy singles out a recent case as one of the most egregious he’s seen. Marilyn Caracas is a strikingly beautiful 23-year-old Filipina, one of seven children from a poor farming family. After graduating from high school, she went to Manila to work as ahousekeeper. She dreamed of continuing school and becoming a television journalist. Then her aunt told her that Annie Tioseco, a distant relative who works for the IMF, had a job for her in Washington. “I just grabbed it,” Caracas recalled in an interview.
Before the U.S. Embassy would issue a visa, Caracas and Tioseco had to sign a contract in which the IMF official agreed to pay minimum wage for a 40-hour work week cleaning house and caring for her three children. Tioseco also agreed to pay Caracas time-and-a-half for overtime, and provide “reasonable free time and a comfortable work environment,” according to court documents. But when she arrived in March 1994, Caracas quickly found conditions very different. Tioseco took her passport, she says, and informed her that she would be working at her Fairfax home on weekends. From Sunday night to Friday night, Caracas would live at the home of Tioseco’s mother, Agapito Admana, in Burke. There she was to care for the older woman and run a day care center for 11 children. Caracas says that at first the older woman helped care for her own three grandchildren, but “later I did all the work. She would sit in her room, reading or watching TV. And the old woman said I should serve her also, because they were the ones who got my visa and I owe everything to them.”
Caracas says she worked from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week, running both households and the day care center. And as her workload increased, her salary shrank. According to court documents, she was paid a mere $230 a month ($150 by Admana and $80 by Tioseco), or less than 50 cents an hour. At the same time, Caracas maintains, Admana was collecting $600 a month for each child in the day care center.
Exhausted and sick, Caracas didn’t know where to turn for help. “I was very sad and afraid,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone and didn’t know the regulations, the laws. They told me they don’t want me to talk with others, even my co-Filipinos.”
Her employers threatened to send her back to the Philippines if she became too ill to work, Caracas says. She learned that prior to her arrival, Tioseco had brought in five other Filipina servants, though she never found out what happened to them. “I didn’t want to be sent home,” she says. “I wanted to succeed in sending money back, to improve my family.” Caracas says she managed to send her full salary home every other month, along with letters in which “I lied, saying everything was fine because I didn’t want to worry my parents.”
One evening, she asked Admana’s permission to go to buy sanitary napkins at the corner drug store. On the way she met, by chance, two other Filipinas who began to talk with her. “I told them all the things that were happening. They said it’s not good, you are going to die there. My heart was beating so hard. But I also felt a very big relief.” The two young women put Caracas in touch with Rose, who, in turn, offered to put her in touch with an attorney.
Caracas says she slowly began to plan her escape. “I was so very scared. But the family didn’t know or suspect anything.” Shortly before Christmas, the elderly Admana went on vacation to the Philippines, and Caracas was left to run the day care center alone. “For two days I looked for my passport. Finally I found it, in a drawer in the back of a closet. I called my friends and said, ‘I’ve got it.’ They said, ‘OK, we’re coming for you,’ and they came and picked me up.’ ” They took her to Rose’s house.
In February, Leavy’s partner Joseph Aronica filed a $600,000 lawsuit against Tioseco and Admana, charging that they had “intentionally detained and restrained [Caracas] against her will by withholding her Philippine passport, advising her not to talk to strangers, not to venture outside unaccompanied, and subjecting her to threats of dismissal and deportation.” Caracas then wrote to her father, explaining everything that had happened. In the meantime, Rose found Caracas another job as a domestic, where she says she is well-treated and properly paid.
The day care center was apparently an illegal operation. It was never registered with authorities in either Fairfax County or the state of Virginia, according to Emily Bryant, acting director of Virginia’s Office for Children Community Education Providers Services. That office issues permits for home day care centers, inspects the premises, and requires background checks and physical exams for all adults involved. According to Bryant, the maximum number of children permitted in home day care centers is nine; Caracas says Admana had 11. Contacted at her Burke home shortly after Caracas fled, Admana said only that her day care center is now shut because “I have no helper.”
Tioseco repeatedly refused to discuss the case, as did officials at the IMF, arguing that this is “a private, not an institutional matter.” Cautioned one, “Don’t be prejudging these people. Nothing has been proved.” But behind the wall of silence, Tioseco and her relatives were active. They located Caracas at Rose’s house and began visiting her, pressuring her to drop the case. The Tioseco family also contacted Caracas’ father in the Philippines, and strongly protested that his daughter was making false accusations and bringing shame on the entire family. One Saturday in March, Caracas received a letter from her father that deeply upset her. In tears, she ran out of Rose’s house, refusing to be interviewed again. Unbeknownst to Rose or Leavy, she then delivered a letter to the Tioseco family, saying she wanted to drop the case. Reluctantly, Leavy and Aronica agreed.
Such an outcome is not surprising to Sister Manuela, a tiny, 72-year-old Spanish nun who is assistant pastor at Our Lady Queen of the Americas Church in Washington. She has handled hundreds of runaway domestic cases, and knows how scared and vulnerable these young women are. Sister Manuela says she first became aware of this problem two decades ago, while working as an employment counselor at the Spanish Catholic Center—the same place where, years later, attorney Leavy first had his eyes opened. In her spartan parish office, Sister Manuela keeps a very vocal canary and a file drawer full of some of her cases. Like Rose, Sister Manuela is protective of the real identities of the women she’s helped, even though most of these cases are long since resolved. She says that memories are still raw for the victims, who don’t want them revived in the press. Most choose not to take legal action against their employers, because they fear the publicity could lead to their arrest and deportation.
She opens the drawer and pulls out a file. “This was my first case. The day she came to see me was October 10, 1976. She was a darling, wonderful girl from El Salvador, and her employer had tried to molest her physically and sexually. I will never forget. That was my first. From that I had many.”
Most of the women were from Latin America, though they also came from the Philippines, Africa, and India. Virtually all worked for diplomats or employers of the IMF, World Bank, or other international agencies. Always, Sister Manuela says, the story was the same: “They came to me and said, ‘Sister, I signed the contract, but after I got here they told me it was only so [U.S. authorities] would give me the visa. Now that I am here, they say things are different.’ Some were paid only $50 a month, and quite a few never received a single penny after two or three years working. They start maybe at 6 in the morning and sometimes it’s 1 or 2 o’clock in the night before they go to bed. And in almost 100 percent of the cases, the passports were taken.”
At the Spanish Catholic Center branch in Gaithersburg, Celia Rivas says that over the past four years she’s handled about 50 cases, most involving Latin American servants. Just recently she had, she says, “one of the worst cases,” involving a Chilean domestic who had worked in the Potomac home of a Chilean World Bank official. Rivas says the woman’s passport and other papers were taken, her contract was ignored, she was paid only $50 a week, and she was allowed to eat only bread, beans, and rice. Her employer refused to let her learn English, telling her, “We’ve got your visa, so we have to control all your movements.” Finally, one night after she had asked again for her personal papers, the wife of the bank official retorted, “You want your documents, take them—but then you have to leave the house,” and threw her out. The Chilean woman walked for over an hour to find a pay phone, then called someone she had met at church. “When she came to see me she was very scared,” Rivas recalls. “I told her it was likely her employer had contacted the State Department and told them to cancel her visa. I said I would try to check, but she did not want me to tip off the State Department. She’d rather be in limbo. She left and hasn’t returned.”
Rivas, who is Peruvian, explains, “I come from a country where these abuses are common. They think they are still living in colonial times.” Rivas has a point—in the Third World, it is common for the upper crust to employ household servants for a pittance. Many of the elite seem to see little wrong in doing so here, especially when they believe no one is watching. In that sense, it’s easy to dismiss the mistreatment of domestics in the Washington area as a cultural phenomenon of foreigner-on-foreigner exploitation.
But as the case of Jane and her Australian employer show, there have been instances of “first world” abuse. One of the most notorious cases to reach the courts involved a Malawian man, Caleb Zintambila, who was brought to the U.S. by Jane Marte, an official with the United States Information Agency. Zintambila says he was paid only $40 a month, from which he had to buy his own food, and was forced to work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. According to Zintambila, he slept on a piece of cardboard in the unfinished basement of his employers’ Potomac home and had to bathe in the back yard with a bucket. “Even in Africa, I didn’t wash with a bucket,” Zintambila says.
During his two years’ employment, Zintambila managed to send only $20 a month to Malawi to support his four children. “I could never buy anything new and my shoes had holes in the bottom,” he says. “When I went grocery shopping I had to put plastic bags on my feet so the snow would not go into my shoes.” He managed to escape with the help of a woman from Trinidad who, just by chance, stopped to talk with him while he was mowing the lawn. She found him a good job with a Norwegian family. He brought a lawsuit and eventually was awarded $50,000 in punitive damages. Like all other employers contacted, Marte refused to talk.
No one cares. No one is watching. That’s how activists explain the breadth and persistence of the domestic abuse problem. Just recently, the State Department helped narrow even further the channels for redress open to victims of such abuse—a maneuver that has lawyers Connolly and Leavy hopping mad, and preparing to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.
In February, the department submitted a “statement of interest” in the case of Corazon Tabion, a Filipina servant who is suing her employers, Faris and Lana Mufti.Tabion, another of the young women in hiding at Rose’s, says that during the two years she worked in the Muftis’ home, she was paid only about $50 a week for more than 60 hours of work. Faris Mufti is a Jordanian consular officer, and for the first time ever in a case involving a foreign servant, he claimed he could not be sued because he has diplomatic immunity. To the astonishment of Tabion’s lawyers, U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis upheld this claim and dismissed the case.
“We believe the result is extraordinarily unjust,” says Connolly. “The idea that a diplomat can employ someone under the conditions that our client was employed, which were totally unacceptable, and escape any type of liability is really an affront to our entire system of jurisprudence and fair play.”
If nothing else, the ruling exposes the underlying hypocrisy of the system. The State Department maintains that all foreign servants are hired and issued visas with the understanding—either verbally or in writing—that they will be given a fair wage, reasonable living and working conditions, and fringe benefits. But if their employer is a diplomat, the reality now is that they can be overworked and underpaid—and have no legal recourse.
If, on the other hand, their employer is a nondiplomat with the IMF, World Bank, or another international agency, the servant can, in theory, take legal action. In reality, though, most are too scared or ill-informed to do so. The lucky ones meet a good Samaritan like Rose or Sister Manuela or Celia Rivas, who help them find legal help and better employment while traversing Washington’s contemporary Underground Railroad.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michael Reidy.