— Domani Spero
The logic behind a restrictive interpretation of functional immunity is that while a diplomat may be protected from some distractions to aid his purpose, there ought to be no need for him to violate the laws of his host state to do so. As many legal scholars have pointed out, a diplomats behaviour in his host country is best described by the Arabic proverb, يا غريب خليك أديب (ya ghareeb, khalleek adeeb) – O stranger, be thou courteous. — Jaideep Prabhu
Back when ….
In 2007, the Department of State reported that some foreign diplomats may be abusing the household workers they brought to the United States on A-3 or G-5 visas. A subsequent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report the following year revealed that 42 household workers with A-3 or G-5 visas alleged that they were abused by foreign diplomats with immunity from 2000 through 2008. The GAO believes the total number of alleged incidents since 2000 is likely higher for four reasons: household workers’ fear of contacting law enforcement, nongovernmental organizations’ protection of victim confidentiality, limited information on some cases handled by the U.S. government, and federal agencies’ challenges identifying cases.
Each year, the State Department issues A-3 and G-5 visas to individuals whose employers are foreign diplomats on official purposes in the United States. Most of these individuals are hired to work for foreign diplomats in the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, or Virginia. According to the 2008 GAO report, for fiscal years 2000 through 2007, 207 U.S. embassies and consular posts overseas issued 10,386 A-3 visas and 7,522 G-5 visas.
Recent State Department statistics indicate that from 2008 through 2012, it issued 5,330 A-3 visas to attendant, servant, or personal employee of A1 visa holders (ambassador, public minister, career diplomat, consul, and immediate family) and A2 visa holders (other foreign government official or employee, and immediate family). It also issued 4,196 G-5 visas to attendant, servant, or personal employee of G1 through G4 (international organization officials and representatives). That’s about a 50% decrease on A-3 visas and a 44% decrease in G5 visas issued since 2008. What might have accounted for that huge drop?
How about the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008? Click here for the laws on trafficking in persons dating back to the year 2000.
In any case — five years ago today, President George W. Bush signed the TVPRA to combat human trafficking. Section 203 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 requires the secretary of state to suspend the issuance of A–3 visas or G–5 visas to applicants seeking to work for officials of a diplomatic mission or an international organization, if the Secretary determines that there is credible evidence that 1 or more employees of such mission or international organization have abused or exploited 1 or more nonimmigrants holding an A–3 visa or a G–5 visa, and that the diplomatic mission or international organization tolerated such actions.
No secretary of state has ever exercise the authority to suspend any diplomatic mission despite some repeat offenders. For a look at what the State Department has done/not done when it comes to TVPA and domestic employees of foreign diplomats in the United States, read Janie A. Chuang’s critical paper on Achieving Accountability for Migrant Domestic Worker Abuse in the 2010 North Carolina Law Review. One of the sections talks about the State Department’s “Failure to Use Power to Name, Shame, and Deter Wrongdoers.”
Chief of Mission Accountability
In 2008, the State Department through USUN sent this note verbale on the Treatment of Domestic Workers at UN Missions.
Recently, the host country has learned of a number of allegations of trafficking in persons with respect to domestic workers, including allegations of involuntary servitude and physical abuse. For example, this Mission has periodically been informed of instances where wages actually paid are less than those stipulated in an employment contract; where passports have been withheld from employees; where the actual number of working hours is considerably greater than those initially contemplated and no additional pay is provided; and where an employee is forbidden from leaving an employer’s premises even when off-duty. The United States Mission takes seriously any such allegation brought to its attention and refers these cases, as appropriate, to the United States Department of Justice for review and investigation.[…]
The United States Mission also wishes to advise the Permanent Missions that its commitment to fair and reasonable labor conditions is consistent with its commitment to human rights and, further, comports with the practice of other governments and with the requirements imposed by international organizations on their employees who have foreign domestic workers. Although the United States recognizes that the great majority of diplomats and Mission personnel are law-abiding members of the United Nations community, it is necessary to periodically re-circulate and update information regarding United States laws, regulations and policies regarding the employment of personal domestic servants.
In a 2009 diplomatic note, the State Department puts the heads of missions on notice that they are generally accountable for the treatment of domestic workers employed by their mission. We presume that this is a recurring reminder that the State Department sends to all diplomatic missions in the United States:
The United States Mission looks to the Permanent Representatives to be responsible for the conduct of the members of their missions and for ensuring that their treatment of domestic workers in their employ evidences respect for all relevant United States laws. In this regard, it is recommended that the Permanent Mission maintain copies of the signed domestic worker contracts and be able to review such contracts, as well as records of payments made to each domestic worker, in the event that the United States Mission seeks assistance if faced with credible allegations of a mission member’s mistreatment of a domestic worker.
The United States Mission and/or the Department of State refer credible allegations of abuse of domestic workers by mission members which may constitute criminal conduct to the United States Department of Justice. In that context, the United States Mission and the Department of State may take other appropriate action, including, based on the determination by an appropriate prosecuting authority that prosecution is warranted, a request for a waiver of any applicable immunity. Mission members are not only expected to pay the greater of the minimum or prevailing wage and abide by other contract terms, but they should also be aware that in the United States, withholding a person’s passport maybe evidence of the crime of trafficking in persons if it is done with the intent of keeping that person in a state of forced labor or service.
Worldwide, domestic workers employed by diplomats suffer abuses ranging from wage exploitation to trafficking offenses. Diplomats are government officials who serve their governments abroad and are generally able to apply for visas enabling domestic workers – often from third countries – to accompany them on their foreign assignments.Because domestic servants working for diplomats work behind closed doors – cleaning, cooking, and caring for children – they can become invisible to the neighborhoods and communities they live in. Domestic workers brought into a country by diplomats face potentially greater isolation than other workers because of language and cultural barriers, ignorance of the law, and sheer distance from family and friends. They work for government officials who may appear to them to hold exceptional power and/or influence. The resulting invisibility and isolation of such workers raises concerns about the potential for diplomatic employers to ignore the terms of their employment contracts and to restrict their domestic workers’ freedom of movement and subject them to various abuses. Because diplomats generally enjoy immunity from civil and criminal jurisdiction while on assignment, legal recourse and remedies available to domestic workers in their employ – and the criminal response otherwise available to the host government – are often significantly limited.
“We thought it was unfair for diplomats who victimized their own domestic workers were, because of diplomatic immunity, virtually untouchable. So now, we’re making sure that diplomats coming to this country understand their obligations and responsibilities, and we’re taking action when we have evidence that they are not.”
No one paid attention then, but they’re paying attention now.
In the latest diplomatic row between the United States and India, the Times of India provided an unconfirmed timeline of the events. It indicates that the State Department reportedly wrote to the Indian ambassador in Washington, D.C. on September 4, 2013 expressing “considerable concern” over the allegations. On September 21, the Indian Embassy reportedly replied, “that this was none of US’ business and that the maid was seeking a monetary settlement and US visa, whereby subverting both Indian and US laws.”
If that timeline is accurate, one has to ask who miscalculated whose response?
“This is happening 10 miles from the White House”
– Martina Vandenberg, Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center
Despite the many notable cases of abuse by diplomats ranging from non-payment of wages to sexual assaults, we do not see very often an arrest of a foreign diplomat or international representative in the United States. But following the arrest of IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011, Reuters did report the following:
Foreign diplomats have been the subject of at least 11 civil lawsuits and one criminal prosecution related to abuse of domestic workers in the last five years, according to a Reuters review of U.S. federal court records. The allegations range from slave-like work conditions to rape, and the vast majority of the diplomats in these cases avoided prison terms and financial penalties.
We have not been able to locate all civil lawsuits but the cases below are just a sampling of abuse allegations by domestic employees against their foreign diplomat-employers in the United States in the last several years.
Tae Sook PARK v. Bong Kil SHIN (South Korean Consulate/San Francisco) | Tae Sook Park, a domestic servant sued Deputy Consul General Bong Kil Shin of the Korean Consulate in San Francisco. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court decision dismissing Park’s claims of labor law violations. It held that the deputy consul was not entitled to immunity under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations or the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and remanded the case back to district court. He later became ambassador.
Swarna v. Al-Awadi (Kuwait Embassy)| Swarna Vishranthamma took to court her former employers, Badar Al-Awadi and his wife, Halal Muhammad Al-Shaitan and the State of Kuwait in 2009. At the time of the events in question, Mr. Al-Awadi was a diplomat serving in New York City with the Permanent Mission of the State of Kuwait to the United Nations. According to WaPo, Kuwaiti government hired a prominent law firm to defend him in the civil case — in court filings, he has denied the allegations — and then later promoted him to be Kuwait’s ambassador to Cuba.
Mildrate Yancho Nchang (Cameroon Embassy) | According to WaPo, Nchang filed a case against her employers alleging she toiled for three years without pay or a day off and then was hospitalized after being beaten by a Cameroonian diplomat’s wife. She sued in federal court in Maryland, but the case was dismissed in 2006 when the diplomat asserted immunity.
Mazengo v. Mzengi, et.al. (Tanzania Embassy)| In 2007, Ms. Mazengo, a citizen of Tanzania, sued her former employers, defendants Alan S. Mzengi and Stella Mzengi, husband and wife, alleging that they falsely imprisoned her and subjected her to involuntary servitude and forced labor in violation of federal law. Alan S. Mzengi was a diplomat accredited to the embassy of the Republic of Tanzania. WikiLeaks Alert: See the State-USEmbassy Tanzania demarche on the outstanding restitution for TIP victim, Ms. Zipora Mazengo.
Regina Leo (Kuwaiti Embassy) | In July, 2008, a lawsuit was filed against an attache in the Embassy of Kuwait, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Al Naser, and his family, by their former maid, Regina Leo, an Indian immigrant who alleged that she was forced to work as much as 18 hours per day.
Marichu Suarez Baoana (Philippine Embassy) | According to WaPo, in 2009, Ms. Baoana, a Philippine national sued the Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations, Lauro L. Baja Jr. alleging she was forced to endure 126-hour workweeks with no pay, performing household chores and caring for the couple’s grandchild.
Daedema Ramos (Kuwait Embassy) | In 2010, the Filipina housekeeper left a Kuwaiti diplomat’s Manhattan duplex where she worked 20 hours a day, earning as little s $500 a month. With help from Damayan, a grassroots organization fighting for the rights of low-wage Filipino migrant workers she escape her employer, and was encouraged to fight back. In July 2012, the diplomat settled with her after she demanded unpaid wages.
Sophia Kiwanuka (World Bank) | According to Reuters, World Bank economist, Anne Margreth Bakilana, hired a Tanzanian woman, Sophia Kiwanuka, to work in her home in Falls Church, Virginia, and improperly withheld Kiwanuka’s wages and threatened to send her back to Tanzania, according to court records. She pleaded guilty in 2010 and was sentenced to two years probation and fined $9,400.
Bhardwaj v. Dayal et al (Indian Embassy) | In 2011, Indian national Santosh Bhardwaj filed a lawsuit against Indian Consul General Prabhu Dayal for allegedly intimidating her into a year of forced labor, where she was subjected to 105-hour workweeks for $300 per month. According to Indian Express, in December 2012, the Indian Ministry of Finance approved payment of $75,000 from the budget of Ministry of External Affairs to a “former domestic assistant” who had filed a lawsuit against India’s consul-general in New York, Prabhu Dayal. Click here to read an interview with Mr. Dayal in India Today concerning his case and the Khobragade case.
Araceli Montuya (Lebanon Embassy ) | She filed a lawsuit against her former employer, the Lebanese Ambassador Antoine Chedid. On April 2011, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington threw out a case in which Montuya alleged that Chedid and his wife underpaid and verbally abused her.
Four former cooks and housekeepers (Qatar Embassy) | According to Reuters, on March 2011, four former cooks and housekeepers for Essa Mohammed Al Manai, Qatar’s second-highest ranking diplomat in the United States filed a civil lawsuit alleging they were paid less than 70 cents per hour and “forced to work around the clock” at Al Manai’s six-bedroom home in Bethesda, Maryland. The suit also claimed that one of the women was sexually assaulted. More here.
F.V. (The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office) | In 2011, Hsien-Hsien “Jacqueline” Liu, 64, of Taiwan, high-ranking representative of Taiwan was charged in federal court with fraud in foreign labor contracting for fraudulently obtaining a Filipino servant for her residence. Liu paid the Filipino worker $400-450 per month, although the employment contract stipulated a salary of $1,240 per month. Liu allegedly required the victim to work six days a week, 16 to 18 hours a day, and forbid her to leave the house without permission. (See Taiwanese Official in Kansas Charged for “Fraudulently Obtaining a Filipino Servant”). Liu was arrested by the FBI on Nov. 10, 2011 and was detained for two months before entering a plea agreement. She eventually entered a plea agreement and was ordered to pay US$80,044 in restitution to the two maids. According to the Taipei Times, in 2012, Liu was suspended from her duties for two years for “seriously damaging the country’s reputation.”
Gurung v. Mahotra (Indian Embassy) | In 2012, a New York City Magistrate Judge ordered Neena Malhotra, an Indian diplomat and her husband Jogesh to pay nearly $1.5 million reportedly arising from their employment of an Indian girl, Shanti Gurung who alleged “barbaric treatment” while she was employed as their domestic worker.
C.V. (Mauritius Embassy) | According to The Record, in 2012, Somuth Soborun, the Republic of Mauritius’ ambassador to the US pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor offense in September, admitting that he failed to properly pay a domestic worker minimum hourly and overtime wages between December 2008 and August 2009. He was fined $5,000. As part of his plea agreement, Soborun has already paid $24,153 in restitution to the domestic worker, who was identified in court papers only by the initials C.V.
Kumari Sabbithi, Joaquina Quadros and Tina Fernandes (Kuwaiti Embassy) | In 2012, the ACLU represented three Indian women who were employed as domestic workers by Major Waleed Al Saleh and his wife Maysaa Al Omar of McLean, Virginia. The complaint alleged that they were brought to the U.S. in the summer of 2005 and that they were forced to work every day from 6:30 a.m. until sometimes as late as 1:30 a.m. for approximately $250 to $350 a month. The complaint further alleged that they were subjected to threats and verbal and physical abuse, including one incident in which Al Saleh threw one of the women, Sabbithi, against a kitchen table, knocking her unconscious. The Kuwaiti government agreed to settle the case brought by three women who claimed that they were trafficked to the United States by a Kuwaiti diplomat and his wife.
USA v. Devyani Khobragade | In December 2013, the Indian Deputy Consul General Arrested For Visa Fraud and False Statements Related to Domestic Worker
The reported abuse of migrant domestic workers by diplomats and the staff of international organizations typically include wages and hour violations, passport deprivation, denial of the workers’ right to leave the house or premises in which they work, physical, sexual and emotional abuse and invasion of privacy, where domestic workers often have their rooms searched, their mail opened, and are not allowed to make private phone calls. For additional reading, see Joy M. Zarembka’s Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy,which details the plight of some of the domestic workers brought to the U.S. by employees of international organizations.
Maid in Manhattan Case: U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the Man Who Makes Embassy Row Tremble
We suspect that nowhere is the Khobragade Affair watched more closely than in the United Nations in New York and in the Embassy Row (the informal name for the streets and area of Washington, D.C. in which embassies, diplomatic missions, and other diplomatic representations are concentrated). Besides India, that is. To avoid possible “misunderstanding,” the State Department has recommended that diplomats keep employment records of their domestic workers including work hours and payment, records that should be maintained for the duration of actual employment of domestic employees plus three years. Would be interesting to see how many diplomatic missions in the United States actually take this recommendation seriously.
In an interview with India Today published on December 23, the former Indian Consul General Prabhu Dayal who was taken to court by his former housekeeper in New York said that “in our consulates in the US, there is a lot of fear today.”
“India’s view has been that the domestic assistants of our diplomats hold Official Passports and should be outside the purview of US labour laws. The US side has not agreed to this, insisting that US laws apply to them. This impasse continues.[…] even if were were to revamp our system relating to domestic assistants, we will not be able to guarantee that our officials in our Consulates will not be arrested or dragged into law courts for some reason or another in future. The US is a highly litigious country where suing people is a sort of favourite past time. […] There is no doubt, however that our officers posted at the Consulate in New York have begun to feel very insecure after all these recent cases, and the same may also be true for the other Consulates in Chicago, San Francisco, Houston and Atlanta. How will India protect its diplomats posted to the Consulates given the US position on immunity?”
“Which Indian would pay a help Rs 6500 ($ 100) a day?” asked Shakti Sinha, a former principal secretary in the government of India who did various stints abroad, including at the World Bank and various UN agencies, assuming eight normal working hours.
FirstPost.com reports on India’s former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal’s opinion on this matter, quoting the former official as saying:
“There is much chicanery involved here. Indian diplomats taking domestic staff to the US accept the minimum wage requirement when all concerned, including the US visa services and the State Department, know this is done pro-forma to have the paper work in order. To imagine that the US authorities are duped into believing that our diplomats will pay their domestic staff more than what they earn is absurd. The US authorities have been clearing such visas for years to practically resolve the contradiction between reality and the letter of the law.”
And that’s probably why “there is a lot of fear today.”
Apparently, according to NYT, there are 14 other Indian maids working for Indian diplomats in the United States, and “India is negotiating over their status with the State Department.” If a Deputy Consul General could be hauled to jail for underpaying her domestic employee, who could Preet Bharara go after next?
Dirty Laundry Gets Washed
The State Department’s TIP 2012 report says that “U.S. government employees, their dependents, and members of their households do not have immunity in the U.S. domestic legal framework for acts of human trafficking associated with domestic staff occurring at overseas postings. Any such reports will be fully investigated by Diplomatic Security and/or the Office of the Inspector General and, where appropriate, may result in either an administrative penalty and/or referral to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. These measures apply to Department of State employees overseas as well as their dependents and other members of household.”
It’s not an accident that the above item was included in the report. The State Department had two recent cases of domestic worker abuse.
Linda and Russell Howard | In 2011, Jane Doe, an Ethiopian national in her 30s filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against a State Department employee Linda Howard and her husband, Russell Howard, alleging involuntary servitude, forced labor and human trafficking in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). She alleged that she was forced to work more than 80 hours a week for less than a dollar an hour; the exact amount was $0.88 an hour; the minimum hourly wage at the time of Jane Doe’s employment was $6.55 an hour. Court awarded a default judgment to Jane Doe for total damages of $3,306,468. Linda and Russell Howard had reportedly left the United States. See Court Awards $3.3 Million Default Judgment Against State Dept Couple Accused of Slavery and Rape of Housekeeper.
The Signal Plus the Noise, the Diplomatic Edition
The suspension of a high-ranking Taiwanese official for two years for “seriously damaging the country’s reputation” is the only case we are aware of in recent memory where an official was disciplined by the sending country in the aftermath of U.S. federal charges related to the treatment of a domestic worker. In most cases, it looks like the official in question, protected by the sending state, gets moved elsewhere, or even gets a promotion with no career repercussion. Clearly underpayment or mistreatment of a domestic employee is not considered a serious offense by a good number of diplomatic missions.
While diplomats continue to dodge cases like this behind diplomatic immunity, and as long as governments stand behind their diplomats when they commit infractions like this, the practice will continue. As the German Institute of Human Right points out: “...[E]mployers’ diplomatic immunity in practice overrules the human rights of the victim and leads to a situation of de facto-unaccountability and –impunity for exploitative employers.”
In this India-U.S. row, we note that the outrage is focused on the circumstances of the diplomat’s arrest. And that is understandable. But it is also important to note that while the focus of the outrage is the strip-search, few are talking about the alleged treatment of the domestic worker. Unless, of course, we’re talking about the former Khobragade maid as a CIA agent.
In early December, Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York also charged 49 Russian Diplomats/Spouses With Picking Uncle Sam’s Pocket in Medicaid Scam. Most of the diplomats charged are no longer in the country. And of the defendants still here, most are attached to the UN Mission and presumably enjoy diplomatic immunity. If the U.S. may not be able to put anyone in jail nor be able to recoup the thousands of dollars in scammed Medicaid money, why charged them? We suspect that the charges were brought to put a stop to the scam. Basically a megaphone saying — we know what you’re doing, shame on you, now stop it.
As complicated as the Khobragade case may seem, it will be resolved eventually. A $90 billion bilateral trade partnership is at stake. Who would throw that partnership over the cliff for a mid-level official? Or for an underpaid housemaid? Stay tuned. Perhaps the more interesting take on this incident is by Alison Frankel who writes, “For all we know, the State Department intended to send a message to the international diplomatic corps, which is often accused of cloaking itself in diplomatic immunity to avoid claims of mistreating domestic staff.”
Do we have an aha moment here?
* * *
- L’Affair Khobragade: A tale of two narratives (thehindu.com)
- India Demands Apology For Diplomat Arrest In NYC (npr.org)
- Housekeeper’s ‘curiosity’ and links with US diplomats raise fresh doubts about spying (dailymail.co.uk)
- India demands apology for diplomat arrest in NYC (sfgate.com)
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