Have you ever worked as a maid

The overview - Journal for ecumenical encounters and international cooperation

USA: Trapped in the middle class household

Some foreign domestic workers in the US are treated like slaves - not infrequently by their compatriots

Time and again, cases in the USA come to light in which servants are locked in the house for years, barely paid or severely abused. Most of the victims are foreigners. They are inadequately protected by the law and can hardly claim their rights when they are in the country illegally. But it is not uncommon for the perpetrators to include immigrants; some seem to orientate themselves in dealing with the servants to what is tolerated in their homeland instead of the laws of the USA.

by Stephanie Armor

Many immigrant women recruited to serve as nannies or household servants in the United States are forced to live in real servitude. Some are beaten or detained in the house and denied basic health care. It happens that women and children work like this for years without outsiders noticing. Some were also chained, sexually assaulted, and paid less than three US cents an hour.

Usually such workers are not employed by an employment agency, but directly by the employer, so that there are no documents about their activities. It is often illegal immigrants who are afraid to file a complaint because they could then be deported. Among the employers accused of ill-treatment are influential and notable people: teachers, social workers, restaurant owners, diplomats, engineers and housekeeping managers. Many are foreign-born residents of the United States.

The newspaper USA today has investigated this hidden form of exploitation and has compiled information on more than 140 cases of abuse of domestic workers. They are taken from the following sources: civil and criminal litigation; Publications by the Department of Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Immigration and Naturalization Service, INS); Statements of the victims to the coalition against slavery and to migrant rights groups; Interviews with domestic workers; a report by the New York human rights organization Human Rights Watch about domestic workers; Media reports; Statements before the US Congress; as well as interviews with lawyers who have represented those affected in out-of-court arbitrations.

The cases compiled only highlight a larger phenomenon and do not take into account all allegations of abuse. However, they provide a framework for investigating a problem that many immigration experts believe is being neglected. "This problem is huge," said Ann Jordan of der International Human Rights Law Group in Washington. "It should be a legal requirement that every immigrant domestic worker be observed in one way or another. Because it's not just about long hours."

Some of the most recent cases show this. In a middle-class neighborhood of Laredo, Texas, known for its brick houses and meticulously manicured gardens, prosecutors found a 12-year-old Mexican girl tied up in a backyard. Her family had sent her to attend school in exchange for cleaning and childcare. A neighbor who was working on his roof saw the girl from above and called the police.

The girl was always tied up when she had finished her work. She was given so little to eat that she ate dirt and was tortured with pepper spray that was sprayed in her eyes when she nodded off, according to prosecutors. The child was so weak, it said, that it had to be carried on a stretcher, and its skin was burned from days of sun exposure. His employer, Sandra Bearden, a native Mexican native, was found guilty of child injury and kidnapping, among other things, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in October last year. The lawyer who defended her did not respond to telephone requests for comment. The girl is now doing well, according to prosecutors. "This is the worst case I've ever come across, worse than any murder," said assistant prosecutor Andy Ramos.

A second example: In Woodland Hills, California, Supawan Veerapol, a native of Thailand, threatened to prevent three unreported Thai women and their families from resigning. Two of the women testified that they had been denied medical care and forced to pull their own teeth, prosecutors said. The victims also stated that they had been forced to slip on their knees to serve guests at parties.

Veerapol was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2000 for easement and fraud. Her attorney, W. Anthony Willoughby, said some of the victims' allegations were "fictitious"; the case is in the revision. "I felt hopeless and helpless, as if my life had no meaning," Thonglim Khamphiranon, one of the Thai employees, is quoted in a report published in 2000 by an anti-slavery organization.

In a third New York case, Prosper and Ifeoma Udogwu, a Bronx couple, held two Nigerian girls in bondage, according to prosecutors. Beatrice Okezie, one of the girls who came to the United States when she was 13, testified that she was beaten and forced to work as a personal servant for over nine years. The perpetrator couple comes from Nigeria. The woman was professionally involved in investigating child abuse. Both were sentenced to more than eleven years in prison in 2000. Denny Chin, a district judge, classified some of the Udogwu's actions as "malicious". "They deny ever mistreating the girls," says Jerry Tritz of New York, an attorney for the husband. He added that a new trial had been requested: "It is very possible that innocent people have been sentenced to very long prison terms."

Such allegations against employers are not isolated cases. According to police and judicial records, some domestic workers had to work up to 20 hours a day. Others stated that they only got little leftovers to eat or that they had to work despite infected wounds or untreated tumors. Often, according to activists, employers hide employees by stealing their passports or preventing them from leaving the house alone.

"When I came here, they treated me very badly. I work from 6 am to midnight, all day. That exhausted me," said 30-year-old Hapsatou Sarr from Mauritania. She said she left her overseas-born Maryland employer and now lives in Ohio. "When I asked for money, my employer didn't give me anything to eat. In the end I just went, but I didn't know where. I'm very scared because I don't know anyone, I have no family, no friends."

US immigration rules partially encourage abuse, say activists and lawyers. Government bodies do not routinely inspect working conditions in households. Immigrants staying in the United States on special visas risk deportation if they leave their jobs. And some employers escaped prison by fleeing the country. "We need better protection," comments Martha Honey from Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington research group studying the rights of immigrant domestic workers. "We need laws to address the problem. What we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg."

USA today found, among other things: Some servants suffer ill-treatment and sexual abuse. Immigration lawyers believe that Live-ins - that is, employees who live at their place of work - are often forced to stay with violence or threats. This allegation applies to many of the USA today collected 143 cases. Domestic workers reported ill-treatment or sexual abuse in almost 40 cases. Some women reported in criminal and civil trials that they were burned with hot iron or soup, beaten for hours, or raped by relatives of their employers.

Immigrants also receive less than the legal minimum wage. According to information from activists will be Live-ins exploited by receiving wages below the minimum rate. Among the by USA today The cases collected include some where domestic workers said they worked months or years without pay; others had received wages below the legal minimum. The median monthly salary was around $ 200, and in those cases where information was available, the daily working hours were more than 15 hours.

Workers also sometimes live in isolation for years. Live-ins can remain unnoticed by neighbors for years and cut off from contact with outsiders. In at least 55 of the 143 cases, employers allegedly confiscated employees' passports and immigration papers or instructed them not to leave the house. In the interview, some stated that they had to live in basements and were ordered not to go outside or look out of the window.

Nobody knows how widespread the domestic worker abuse problem is. Yet groups that help immigrants say hundreds are exploited every year. According to a report by Human Rights Watch In 1999, two Washington area organizations and lawyers serving domestic workers together received approximately 160 calls indicating misconduct or abuse by employers.

Statistics on the number of immigrant domestic workers in the US are sparse. In the 1990s, the government issued more than 30,000 special visas that allow immigrants to use as Live-in- Domestic workers to work for ambassadors and employees in international organizations. But in addition, many women work without papers, nothing is known about them. Many - so lawyers and activists explain - never file a lawsuit because they fear they will be deported or imprisoned.

Some employers and agencies feel that reports of these problems are exaggerated and that the majority of immigrant domestic workers are treated and paid well. Government officials say they take the lawsuit seriously and are determined to hold employers accountable for abusing them. Employer lawyers say in some cases domestic workers exaggerate the allegations in order to get money from their employers.

Many foreigners who employ servants work for international organizations. They state that they have taken steps to curb possible abuse. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is regularly mentioned by activists as an organization where people work, employ domestic staff and disregard their rights. But IMF officials deny that this problem exists. They state that in 1999 the IMF, with the help of a lawyer specializing in immigration, issued mandatory guidelines for domestic workers and their employers. "We have no evidence of widespread abuse on the part of our employees," said IMF spokesman William Murray.

But according to a study by Human Rights Watch problems with domestic workers from June 2001 persist. A review of more than 40 cases found that immigrants who came with special visas were paid an average hourly wage of $ 2.14 - that's 42 percent of the state minimum wage of $ 5.15. The average working day was 14 hours.

Two of the most recent cases: One involves Alice Benjo and Mary Chumo, both from Kenya. According to legal documents, they were "practically held as slaves" in the home of their employer, who works at the Kenyan embassy in Washington. You worked for Elizabeth Belsoi, a Kenyan citizen, in the suburb of Bowie, Maryland. According to a lawsuit filed in 2000, they usually worked more than 18 hours a day, were not allowed to use the phone, and could not leave the house of their own free will. Belsoi had the allegations denied by her lawyer, who says she fully complied with the employment contract. The proceedings were dropped out of court against the payment of an unknown sum.

In the second case, Supik Indrawati came from Indonesia to work for the businessman Robert Lie. According to Indrawati, she and another woman had to work 12 hours a day; she had to do services like cleaning her boss's toenails at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Lie, a born Indonesian, was sentenced to 27 months in prison. In 1999 he pleaded guilty, among other things, to the charges of housing foreigners and willful disregard of the minimum wage. "This case is an example of cruelty and ruthlessness in the human smuggling business," commented the district director of the INS Immigration Service, Thomas Schiltgen.

Women who immigrate to the US to work as domestic servants often come from the poorest countries on earth. They come from Haiti, where around 80 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line, from the Philippines - a country of origin of many domestic workers in many countries - or from Nigeria, a country with high unemployment and political unrest. They are also native to Thailand, Mexico, Eastern European, and other countries. Some come with the intention of sending money to families in dire financial straits. Therefore, even in the most egregious assaults, many do not complain and do not run away. They fear a return to poverty or fear that they will no longer be able to support the families they have left behind. "The Philippines are so poor! It's hard to file a lawsuit here when you compare life here with what it would be in the Philippines," explains Amanda Vendere, a coordinator of the Filipino Workers Center (Center for Filipino Workers) in New York.

Women get into bondage in various ways. Foreign-born diplomats or business people living in the United States are legally allowed to bring domestic workers. Having an employee who lives with them may be more common in their home countries than in the US, say immigration officials. But what is allowed under one cultural norm can be considered abuse in the US. "They bring their habits with them, which are illegal here," says Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the INS.

In other cases, domestic workers are smuggled into the US to work as servants. Some are victims of human trafficking - that is, they were lured into the US with false promises and then forced to work. A report from the secret service Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 2000 estimates that 45,000 to 50,000 women and children are smuggled into the United States by human traffickers each year. In such cases, immigrants are often promised schooling or vocational training. But once they arrive, they are forbidden from contacting relatives; they are forced to work for little or no wage and are monitored.

Lasniati Marsiti, 29, said she came to the United States from Indonesia about five years ago after being promised a weekly domestic worker wage of $ 250. Instead, she says, her employer in Maryland paid $ 250 a month. She started work at 5 a.m. every day, cleaned, cooked, and looked after the family's children - until midnight or sometimes until 3 a.m. "The mother beat me and he didn't pay and told me not to leave. He took my passport and the mother was mean to me," Marsiti said. She has left and is now working for another family in the Washington area who treat her well and pay her well.

Various factors contribute to domestic workers' high risk of exploitation, emphasize labor law attorneys. "If you do not comply with the employer's demands, they can fire you and you can lose your legal residence status," said Carol Pier from Human Rights Watch.

One of the problems is that US federal laws don't protect victims. Various federal laws that deal with the protection of workers generally do not apply to domestic workers. These are from National Labor Relations Act (National Labor Relations Act) which means they can be fired for attempting to organize. Under federal law, employers are also not obliged to pay employees living in the house one and a half times the wage for overtime. And the rules that prohibit sexual harassment don't apply to companies with fewer than 15 employees; therefore domestic workers are generally not protected against it.

A second problem is that government visa programs can encourage abuse. Under the federal visa programs, domestic workers who run away from their employers can lose their legal residence status and be deported. "We are aware of the problem and we are concerned about it," says Strassberger of the immigration office. "Such problems arise when you make one person's visa dependent on another person."

Third, the system ensures that those affected are completely dependent on the employer. Residential workers depend on their employers for food, shelter, transportation, medical care and income. Unlike other employees, they can be shielded from outsiders. They have no colleagues to confide in, they may not know their way around the United States, and police officers may be seen as people to be scared of in their home countries.

Sometimes domestic workers are so hidden that they work for years before they are discovered or released. Rene Bonetti, an engineer from Gaithersburg, Maryland, was sentenced to six years in prison in 2000 in a trial involving a Brazilian maid named Hilda Rosa Dos Santos. He and his wife Margarida were convicted of grievous bodily harm, among other things, according to prosecutors. An appeal has been lodged against parts of the judgment; Rene Bonetti's defense attorney Paul Kemp explains that his client has nothing to do with assault.

However, Dos Santos reports that she worked at Bonetti for about 15 years. She testified that she lived in a dark basement, worked a long time and had to wash in a pewter tub in the four-bedroom house. According to prosecutors, the wife once spooned boiling hot soup over her face as a punishment for not properly prepared and tore her hair out for not properly caring for the family dog. An untreated tumor that had swollen the size of a football had to be operated on from her abdomen.

"She felt like she was filth and had absolutely no value as a person," Dos Santos explained of her lawyer. "She felt inferior to an animal, was often very sad and cried when she was alone."

USA: Domestic workers kept as slaves

Doomed to clean yourself

Pridine Fru came to the United States from Cameroon as a teenager. There she was supposed to take care of their children with compatriots and receive an education in return. She issued the forged passport as the child of the Djoumessi couple. In Michigan, however, she not only had to look after the children, she also had to look after the entire household. There was no longer any talk of schooling, nor was she paid for her work. Pridine was also repeatedly beaten and sexually abused by her "father".

Her "host parents" were therefore found guilty of kidnapping, abusing and sexually abusing the girl and keeping her as a slave. While Joseph Djoumessi was sentenced to at least nine years' imprisonment for child abuse and sexual abuse, Evelyn Djoumessi's sentence seems unusual compared to the charges: Judge Alice Gilbert ruled that Evelyn Djoumessi should do all the household chores herself - with the restriction that she can afford a nanny if she is over 18 years old. In addition, she has to explain in an essay what law and order mean for her, her family and society.

In a similar case, the sentence is still pending. Louisa Satia and Kevin Nanji, a couple from Maryland, have been convicted of holding a Cameroonian girl in slavery for three years, illegally hiding her and forcing her to work as a maid without pay. Satia has also been found guilty of dating fraudulent marriage and forging ID cards. The girl was lured with the promise that she would get an education and would have to do housework in return and was brought to the USA with a false passport. During the entire time that she had to work in the household, she was threatened, beaten and sexually abused. The sentence will be announced at the end of March. The maximum possible sentence is 20 years in prison and a fine of $ 250,000. A civil rights representative at the US Department of Justice, Ralph F. Boyd, campaigned on the occasion of this case to ensure that human trafficking and enslavement are severely punished in the US.

Eva-Maria Eberle

from: the overview 01/2002, page 66


Stephanie Armor:

Stephanie Armor is a journalist for USA today, Washington DC, specializing in industrial relations and work-related issues. We use the article with the kind permission of the editors of the edition of this newspaper dated November 19, 2001.