New York City
Three Filipina women crowd the kitchen of a New York City apartment, ribbing one another over a bubbling fish stew.
The eldest, Dema Ramos, is an exceptional cook and has given up trying to suppress her laughter. This outwardly serious mother of five is forcing sweet dough into the funnel of a bread machine with an unfortunately shaped plastic rod.
Let’s just say these women have not seen their husbands for a long time.
They share the cleaning up, flipping between Tagalog and English, as though they were old friends. But these domestic workers only recently met here in New York City, bound by the experience of being trafficked by foreign diplomats—that is, they were compelled to provide services through force, fraud or coercion.
Human trafficking by diplomats poses little risk of prosecution. Or as the founder of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, Martina Vandenberg, puts it, “Diplomatic immunity is not a license to traffic, but it’s pretty close.”
Diplomatic immunity shields certain classes of foreign diplomats from arrest. Those with the highest level of immunity are considered “inviolable” and investigators cannot search their homes, or even their cars, without consent.
Vandenberg, who represents victims in civil and criminal cases, says 24 cases of labor exploitation and trafficking have been filed against foreign diplomats in the U.S. between 1994 and 2012. “This is happening 10 miles from the White House,” she says, “This is happening on visas issued by the American government.”
The personal stories of these Filipina workers living in New York speak to the larger problem that Vandenberg describes.
Ramos is a tall woman with bobbed hair and three freckles on her right cheek. On this gray fall morning, she has prepared shrimp curry with squash and a spicy chicken curry with whole green chilies. She is now frying spring rolls she has wrapped herself.
No one taught Ramos to cook. She says she just tastes and invents. Her dishes strike a balance between sweetness and heat. It is her attentiveness to guests, however, that suggests cooking was once a professional task.
As more guests pull up seats, she watches over their plates, silently filling bowls with soup and topping plates with rice, barely eating herself.
69 cents an hour, 20 hours a day
Just before Christmas 2009, a diplomat at the Kuwaiti Mission to the U.N. trafficked Ramos to the U.S. Her employer confiscated her passport once she arrived. She served his family seven days a week from 5:30 a.m. to 1 the next morning. She barely slept. She had no room of her own in his Manhattan duplex and shared a bed with two of the diplomat’s five children.
It was her job to dress the children, take them to school and supervise their after-school activities in the afternoon. Ramos was also responsible for cleaning, laundering clothes for eight, buying groceries and preparing meals.
“I had to eat last, after everyone else did,” she says.
Ramos began domestic work abroad to provide for her husband and five children in the Philippines. She worked in Taiwan and Saudi Arabia before finding the job with the Kuwaiti diplomat through a Manila recruitment agency. She borrowed money to pay the travel cost of getting to the interview.
Ramos started working for the diplomat in 2006 in Kuwait. She moved with him to Lebanon before coming to the U.S. on a special visa reserved for the personal staff of diplomats, consuls and personnel of international organizations.
The diplomat advised Ramos to lie to officials at the U.S. embassy in Beirut. “He said, if they ask about my work, just say I am the babysitter of their youngest child,” Ramos recalls his saying. He told her to lie about her income—to say that it was 10 times the actual sum. He also told her not to mention her other responsibilities.
Ramos was demeaned by frequent requests to do superfluous work. If the diplomat found her awake, he would create a task to be done, like rolling cigarettes.
She lived under constant surveillance. Her mail was read and when she was sent to the supermarket, her boss called to verify where she was.
“I worked like a horse,” she says. “Even when I am in the bathroom, my male employer would call me to make a cigarette for him. I thought hard about speaking up, desperately wanting to tell them that I can’t take it anymore.”
But without her passport, she felt powerless.
Ramos toiled this way for eight months, earning 69 cents an hour.
No diplomat has ever been suspended
In 2008, a Government Accountability Office investigation identified 42 household workers who alleged they were abused by foreign diplomats with immunity eight years prior. The report noted the true number was likely higher, as victims too frightened to name their abusers could not be counted. Due to this fear of retaliation, The Washington Spectator granted anonymity to sources who requested it.
“It was important for us to get a number of documented allegations to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” says the GAO’s Tom Melito, one of the authors of the report. “Most parties were surprised the number was as large as it was.”
Yet organizations working with trafficked people believe we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg. The Damayan Migrant Workers Association in Manhattan has helped 11 workers in the past four years, just in the Filipino community.
“The numbers fail to capture the true scale of this problem,” Damayan’s campaign coordinator, Leah Obias, says. “There’s this vast underestimation of these workers as people, and their intelligence. They’re brought here and completely lied to and made to fear everything. Knowing that something is wrong, and not being able to do something about it, is traumatic and leaves emotional scars.”
Members of Damayan who have been trafficked are now helping others. Ramos found help at the children’s playground after a fellow Filipina told her about her rights under U.S. labor law and gave her Damayan’s phone number. She later won an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum. In keeping with the terms of that agreement, Ramos would not provide the identity of the Kuwaiti who brought her to the U.S.
“People often don’t think about visa holders being victims of abuse,” says New England Law School professor Dina Haynes. “In diplomatic cases, the victim is both afraid of losing their job and of being deported.”
Diplomats bring personal staff to the U.S. on A3 and G5 visas, which tie the workers to one employer, the diplomat who sponsors them.
There is a history of abuse. A Saudi princess pushed an Indonesian worker down a flight of stairs in Florida. A Filipino ambassador to the U.N. enslaved a domestic worker in his family’s Upper East Side home. And a Tanzanian minister, Alan S. Mzengi, made a woman shovel snow barefoot in Washington, D.C.
Some countries, such as Kuwait, India and Tanzania, have abused the visa program multiple times. By law, the U.S. Secretary of State has a duty to suspend A3 and G5 visas to foreign missions that have exploited workers on American soil.
No country has ever been suspended.
‘We follow all relevant law’
This cannot be for a lack of evidence. The U.S. has on numerous occasions permitted victims of abuse by foreign diplomats to stay in the country on special T visas that are restricted to survivors of “severe” human trafficking.
“The American government is reluctant to publicly embarrass countries that have severe cases and that reluctance is very troubling,” says Vandenberg, of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center.
When Americans with diplomatic immunity have committed crimes abroad, the U.S. has brought them home and in many cases, prosecuted them, Vandenberg says.
The same is not true of many other countries. For instance, after a U.S. federal judge ordered Tanzania’s Mzengi to pay $1 million in a civil case, he fled to Tanzania where he serves as an advisor to the president.
“Congress passed a law that if diplomats from particular missions have outstanding parking tickets in New York or Washington, D.C., their aid is suspended,” Vandenberg says. “We have given the impression that we care more about parking tickets than we do about human trafficking.”
Yet there is a way to increase the accountability of diplomats. U.S. law enforcement officials can ask the State Department to request a waiver of diplomatic immunity from the sending country. Once that request is made, the State Department is required by law to pursue a waiver of diplomatic immunity.
“That’s a really important point,” Vandenberg says. “Otherwise, for political reasons, and reasons of foreign policy, the government might be picking and choosing which cases to take forward and which to not touch.”
The Department of Justice could not provide statistics on the number of allegations of labor trafficking made against diplomats by their personal staff.
“When we become aware of these types of allegations, we conduct a thorough investigation and where appropriate, we seek all necessary waivers,” said Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. “We coordinate in these cases with Department of State and follow all relevant law.”
The Department of Justice, however, has requested a waiver of immunity in a trafficking case involving diplomats on just one occasion.
You see these women every day
A woman identified in court records as C.V. chortles when I visit. She is still getting ready, wearing a tank top and her long hair in soft curls. She has made her apartment pretty with houseplants and framed photo collages of her children on the walls.
C.V. has a little mouth that turns down at first when she laughs, before she decides whether it’s going to be full scale. She has neatly shaped eyebrows and smooth brown skin.
For eight months following December 2008, C.V. says, the Mauritius ambassador to the U.N., Somduth Soborun, kept her housebound in his New Jersey home, telling her an alarm would sound and police would arrest her if she left.
She says she was made to iron shirts she had already pressed so they were warm when the ambassador put them on. If he received a phone call that delayed his departure for work, she had to iron the shirt a third time.
She says she was the sole housekeeper in a large house with five bedrooms and six bathrooms. She made breakfast, packed lunches and bathed the family’s dog.
She says she ate leftovers and slept in a small room next to the kitchen.
C.V. says the ambassador and his wife would inspect the tiles on the floor after she mopped and run their fingers along cleaned surfaces, checking for dust.
“Even if you did it properly, they don’t like your job. They are always looking for a mistake,” she says.
Once, when she was sick, C.V. says the ambassador demanded that she clean the floors. She recalls saying, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m so sick.” He did not accept her explanation. At 8 on a Saturday morning, after having been to the hospital, C.V. washed the floors. She says she heard the ambassador and his wife laughing.
“That’s why you cry,” C.V. says.
Poverty, says the New England Law School’s Haynes, is the biggest driving force on the supply side of human trafficking. It originates where there is structural, economic or social pressure on victims to migrate.
Certainly, this is true of the Filipina workers who agreed to share their experiences with The Washington Spectator.
Diplomats also exaggerate their political power to intimidate workers, Haynes says. Their residences are sometimes isolated and language barriers contribute to feelings of helplessness.
“I’ve seen a pattern of victims being told their employers were especially well connected, which increases the level of threat,” Haynes says.
C.V. had a difficult life in the Philippines. When she was pregnant with her fifth child, she bid farewell to her husband and took up work as a caregiver for the elderly to make enough money to support her children. Through this job she was introduced to Soborun. Within a month she had a generous contract listing a U.S. visa and entitlements she ultimately never received.
On her first morning at work, C.V. says, the diplomat confiscated her passport and ordered her to sign a new document promising that she would serve his family for two years.
“They told me I cannot go outside. ‘You stay here. You can’t take your day off. I don’t want you to talk to other people,’” C.V. recalls her boss saying. “‘What you do here, what you see here, just leave it here.’”
Last year, Soborun pled guilty in U.S. district court to a misdemeanor charge of failing to pay C.V.
the federal miniumum wage (see “No Way Out,” page 3). He is now an ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C.
Soborun did not return calls to his office requesting verification and comment, nor did his lawyer, Nicholas Doria of New Jersey.
But the U.S. Attorney’s Office of New Jersey issued a statement following Soborun’s guilty plea, saying that, “C.V. worked in the Soborun household by cleaning, doing laundry, ironing, and taking care of the family dog, usually for 12 hours per day, six days per week. Although Soborun signed a contract which provided for an hourly wage as well as for overtime pay for any hours exceeding 40 per week, Soborun only paid C.V. $1,000 per month, regardless of how many hours she worked each month.”
Yet the abuse continues
Since leaving Soborun’s employ, C.V. has watched her own children grow up on Skype. She is waiting for papers to be processed for their arrival in the U.S.
“You know, when I fly, my baby is only one month?” she says. When C.V. first saw her baby girl on her computer screen, she was startled. “She is so big.”
You never know when the worker taking another woman’s child for a walk in a stroller may be missing a child of her own. Pick any weekday morning in New York’s Central Park and you will find these women, pulling out lunchboxes for toddlers or chatting to one another on a bench.
According to the International Labour Organization, 83 percent of the world’s domestic workers are women and girls, many of whom are migrants. Damayan’s Leah Obias says domestic workers deserve the same rights and benefits as other workers, including sick days, fair wages, paid overtime and vacations days.
“The work they do makes all other work possible and yet it is the most undervalued work,” Obias says. “We actually don’t see it as real work.”
After being separated for years, a woman I will call “Patricia” and her youngest daughter now share a room in New York City. Her two older children couldn’t come to the U.S. as dependents because they are over 21.
The sprightly mother of three (who, like others, asked for anonymity to protect her family) was trafficked here by a member of a Persian Gulf state family that employs scores of domestic workers from Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria and the Philippines.
She is in her 50s but only a few grey hairs hint at her age. She is opinionated and beats the palm of her hand against the table when she remembers the 10 months she worked without pay. The point of leaving her three children in the Philippines, she says, was to send money home.
“I’m here missing my family and yet I cannot help them. My daughter is getting sick; she’s been hospitalized for dengue [fever]. They’re crying,” Patricia says, remembering the helplessness she felt.
Patricia worked as a caregiver to her trafficker’s elderly mother, who needed help from 3 a.m. onward each day. She often had to run errands throughout the night. The family moved her to cities in the Gulf and to Switzerland. When her trafficker said they were taking her to the U.S., she pleaded for a one-way ticket back to the Philippines. The trafficker refused and kept possession of her passport.
It was when the family was staying at the luxury New York Palace Hotel, on Madison Avenue, that Patricia managed to escape. Although she was never compensated for her ordeal, she says she feels like she’s won some sort of justice.
“I got my freedom, I can support my family. I was able to bring my daughter here. That’s the reason I went out to work in other countries, right?” she says.
“But still, the diplomats can abuse more.
“They can still do that.”
Yuko Narushima is a freelance reporter working in New York. She has written for The Sydney Morning Herald and Bloomberg News in Australia. In 2010, she was awarded the UN Media Peace Award for human rights reporting.
(Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez)