PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Slavery: 1997 Style,"

by Martha Honey November/December 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

"It's slavery in the shadow of the Capitol," contends Washington immigration attorney Edward Leavy in describing the plight of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the live-in foreign domestic servants brought to Washington, DC on special visas to work for diplomats and employees of international agencies such as the World Bank and IMF. "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. They weren't properly paid, and they were threatened with deportation," says Leavy.

All these servants entered the U.S. legally, pan of special State Department programs that permit international bureaucrats and diplomats to "import" household help (housekeepers, nannies, cooks, gardeners, drivers, etc.) on either A-3 or G-5 visas. The right to import domestic help is just one of a number of' perks given to Washington's international upper crust. Average salaries for World Bank and IMF staff, for instance, are over $65,000 -- tax free. Add to this benefit packages which can include housing, school and home leave allowances, and Bank staffers' annual tax-free compensation averages, according to Time magazine, $123,000.

In 1994 (more recent statistics could not be obtained), the State Department issued 3400 of these visas--one-quarter to Philippine servants. The domestic servants are mostly women, often single mothers, from poor families in Asia, Africa and Latin America who come with intentions of sending most of their salaries to their children and 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. After they made the sacrifice to leave their country, they don't want to go back without money, says Sister Manuela Vencela, assistant pastor at Our Lady Queen of the Americas Church in Washington. As noted above, a high proportion of foreign. domestics are Filipinas, part of that country's 4 million overseas contact workers who send home an estimated $3 to $6 billion dollars a year. It's a program aggressively pushed by the Philippine government to improve its balance of payment and pay its debt to the IMF and World Bank.

To get the visas, these employers must agree, often with written contracts, to provide "reasonable living and working conditions" as defined under U.S. labor laws. This is supposed to include transportation to and from the U.S., "no less than" minimum wage, overtime, fixed hours, time off, sick leave and paid vacation.

Lawyers representing domestics say neither the State Department nor the institutions involved check to make sure U.S. labor laws are followed. Alexandria, Virginia attorney John Connolly, who has handled a number of foreign domestic cases, blames the State Department for not following through and attempting to monitor these private employment agreements and the IMF and World Bank for not attempting to insure that their employees are acting in accordance with U.S. law. Leavy 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."

The "Underground Railroad"

Instead, an informal network of lawyers, churches, and social service centers and ordinary good samaritans around Washington helps foreign domestics escape bad situations and find new employment, get legal help and apply for a new visa. This modern day "underground railroad" has aided hundreds -- probably thousands -- of runaway domestics.

One of the most remarkable "station masters" on this underground railway is "Rose" (not her real name), a former Filipina domestic servant who subsequently started her own business. Several years ago she turned her northern Virginia townhouse into a clandestine way-station for runaway naimics and housekeepers. At any one time, up to a dozen runaways are at Rose's, where they get a place to stay, a lot of counseling and a sense of community. Rose explains that she fell into her Harriet Tubman-like role by accident. One day at a playground she met another nanny, from Guyana, who worked for an Australian woman with the IMF. She was very upset because she was getting only $250 a month for caring for the woman's son and doing the household cooking, cleaning and laundry. She told Rose that before leaving Guyana, she had signed a contact in which the IMF woman agreed to pay her minimum wage, give her free room and board, and fixed hours of employment. But when she reached the U.S., her new employer took her passport and ignored the contract, claiming "I don't need to give you a higher salary because I did all the work to get you your visa." "She came to my house," says Rose, "Where can she go? She doesn't know anyone. So I had to take her with me." The next day Rose called Leavy, whose name she had gotten trough a friend. He succeeded in winning a modest out-of-court settlement for the Guyanese woman. Through friends and happenstance, Rose began assisting other runaway servants.

Rose and others involved in the underground network say most often, international officials bring in domestic servants from their own countries, often a distant relative or tribal member. They incur the expense and bureaucratic red tape of hiring overseas, rather than from Washington's sizeable immigrant population, because "imported" help is 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. Employers often view their servants as little more than a possession. Celia Rivas, Iminigration Services Coordinator at the Spanish Catholic Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, recalls that a domestic from the Dominican Republic told her that her employer had proclaimed: "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."

Isolation and Ignorance of Rights

Isolation and ignorance are keys to control. Typically, the employer takes the servant's passport and any other legal documents, withholds the 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. Sometimes the servant does not speak English. With no papers, no friends, no money and, usually, no idea of what her rights really are, an exploited domestic servant most often keeps silent. Leavy, who first became aware of the problem about 20 years ago while doing volunteer work at the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, has handled several dozen cases. He ticks off a list of his most memorable ones:

· In 1991, Sangita Satyal, a Nepalese domestic servant, was awarded $40,000 in wages and legal fees from her Nepalese employer, an IMF economist. Before receiving a visa, Satyal signed the usual contract guaranteeing minimum wage, overtime and time off. But, unbeknownst to Satyal and the State Department, her employer executed a secondary contract with the woman's father in Nepal, in which he said he would deposit $40 a month into a bank account. Satyal received room and board, but not salary, and was denied access to the bank account. In addition, Satyal, together with the economist's wife, ran an unregistered daycare center in their Alexandria home, even though the wife was legally prohibited from working in the U.S.

· A Saudi Arabian diplomat had three Filipina women living, dormitory-style, in the basement of his large McLean, Virginia home. They were working around the clock and being paid only $100 a month, each. When one of Leavy's colleagues contacted the diplomat, he agreed to an out-of-court settlement rather than the public embarrassment of a trial.

· 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 ($600 for a five-day, 40-hour week), he would allow her to go to university classes at night. Instead, 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. The woman finally complained to the Bank's Ethics Office, which eventually ruled that a $13,500 compensation payment was due, but the Tanzanian official refused to pay. The woman then retained Leavy and another attorney, who reached an out-of-court settlement of $21,000. In an interview she said, "The money was not important. At least I had my dignity and I punished them, I showed them that they could not do that."

· In 1995, Marilyn Caracas, a 23-year old Filipina, ran away from her employer, an IMF official and distant relative with whom she'd signed a contract to clean her Fairfax, Virginia house and care for three children. When she arrived in the U.S., she found that this was a weekend job. Weekdays Caracas lived at her employer's mother-in-law's house, where she ran an unregistered daycare facility for 11 children, plus took care of the older woman. Caracas said she worked from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week and was paid a mere $230 a month. Her employer took Caracas' passport and threatened to dismiss and deport her if she complained. By chance, she met on the street two other Filipinas, who told her of Rose's house, Eventually Caracas escaped and filed a $600,000 suit. But her employer contacted Caracas' father in the Philippines, protesting his daughter was making false accusations and bringing shame on the entire family. Under such pressure, Caracas dropped the lawsuit and returned to the Philippines. Nothing happened to the employer, who, Caracas said, had over the years brought in five other Fiipina servants. The employer repeatedly refused to discuss the case, as did officials at the IMF, arguing that this is "a private not an institutional matter."

Many see the mistreatment of foreign domestics in the Washington area as a cultural phenomenon of foreigner-on-foreigner exploitation. In the Third World, it is common for higher-level bureaucrats to employ household servants for a pittance, and many of these elite seem to see little wrong in doing so here, especially when they believe no one is watching. But as the case of the Australian employer shows, there have also been instances of "first world" abuse.

Those involved in handling such cases suspect they are seeing just the tip of the iceberg: many servants either endure exploitation in silence or escape on their own, hiding out in the various multinational communities around Washington. Rose estimates that "in 90 percent of the cases the contracts are not followed." The State Department has long been aware that servants are being mistreated and labor laws violated. In 1981, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie wrote a memo expressing "deep concern over evidence that some diplomats based in Washington had "seriously abused or exploited household servants." For a brief period, written contracts were required. But apparently somebody complained. Just six months later (after Muskie was replaced), the State Department issued a new directive, stating that "requiring employment contracts in each and every case might be unnecessarily burdensome." The written contract requirement was dropped. A 1996 State Department memo again acknowledges abuses continue. The new immigration law, which came into effect October 1, has further narrowed the options and upped anxiety of exploited domestics. Lawyers and social workers say foreign domestics are now even less likely to come forward to bring legal action because they fear they will be deported -- even if they win their case.

Not Just a Washington Phenomenon

The problem of abuse is not confined to Washington. Leavy and other law-yers have handled occasional cases involving servants brought in by United Nations officials in New York. And in Geneva the problem is so wide-spread that there is a union which fights for the rights of domestics. Labor union officials in the U.S. say organizing these workers is nearly impossible because they lack a single employer, and the IMF, World Bank and other institutions, as well as the State Department, deny any legal responsibility.

Like the IMF and World Bank, the State Department is not proactive. In 1995, the State Department narrowed even further the channels for redress open to abused domestics. The Department submitted a "Statement of Interest" in the case of a Filipina servant suing her employer, a Jordanian consular officer, who, for the first could not be sued because he has diplomatic immunity. The State Department upheld this claim, and the case was dismissed. Said her lawyer John 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." The upshot is a confusing picture. If the employer is a diplomat, the reality now is that these workers can be overworked and underpaid -- with no legal recourse. If, on the other hand, their employer is a non-diplomat with the IMF, World Bank or other international agency, the servant can, in theory, take legal action. But in reality to do so. The lucky ones meet a good samaritan like Rose or Sister Manuela or Celia Rivas and through them find legal help and better employment through Washington's modern-day underground railway.

Martha Honey is a journalist and Director of Peace & Security Programs at the Inst. for Policy Studies (733 15th St. NW #1020, Wash., DC 20005, 202/234-9382, x232, E-mail: IPS is convening a working group of human rights activists, labor organizers, lawyers, former and present foreign domestic servants, and other conce med persons to discuss how to deal with this issue. Contact Martha Honey for further information.


The issue of slavery has been taken up in these pages many times. And while it is generally looked at as a historic relic -- although possibly still requiring formal government apology or reparations -- the "peculiar institution" is in fact alive and well in Africa, Sudan's Christians are reported to be victims of slave raids, and Elinor Burkett 's astonishing account of Mauritania's 90,000 slaves (in the Oct. 12, 1997, NY Times Magazine -- send us a SASE for a copy) provides an international perspective. Recent revelations about virtual slave labor conditions among undocumented immigrants in New York City and Southern California suggest new wrinkles on this persistent human shame. A September forum at the institute for Policy Studies (my pre-PRRAC affiliation) on "Slavery in Washington" detailed yet another modern variation of the practice and the institutional and governmental complicity in its perpetuation, so I asked journalist/activist Martha Honey, who produced the forum and is organizing follow-up measures, to provide our readers with a glimpse of what's happening "in the shadow of the Capitol." There is also increasing concern that the nation 's criminal justice system as it impacts African-Americans embodies another, more subtle form of slavery: higher incarceration rates, consequent loss of voting rights and impacts on family structure and breakup, racially disparate sentencing practices, use of plea-bargaining, disparate confession rates, growth of the prison industry, astounding proportions of young black males under the control of the judicial system, widespread police misconduct in minority communities. (See the taped speech by Prof Mackel, "20th Century Slave Ships," listed in our Resources Section under "Race/Racism.") We welcome readers' comments on this issue.


Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List