Last week, domestic workers from various immigrant communities gathered at the Philippine consulate on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, New York to bring attention to the existence of modern-day slavery of domestic workers. They demanded enforcement of existing anti-trafficking laws to protect workers and punish foreign diplomats who have trafficked domestic workers into the United States. More than 75 women workers and their allies joined the rally that was also seen as a launch to a campaign focused on labor trafficking of domestic workers.
In a letter addressed to the US State Department, the protestors led by an organization of Filipino domestic workers Damayan Migrant Workers Association and allied groups named seven sending countries of diplomats whom they alleged were guilty of trafficking women domestic workers and forcing them into slavery; these countries were the Philippines, Kuwait, Tanzania, Mauritius, Saudi Arabia, India and Peru.
They called the campaign “Baklas (Filipino word for “dismantle”): Break Free from Labor Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery and said that it is supported by other worker centers, grassroots organizations and advocates against trafficking. The Urban Justice Center is also aiding the campaign.
In a letter to the US State Department, the campaign is seeking the enforcement of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act 2008, to suspend countries’ privilege of bringing domestic workers into the US when cases of trafficking at the hands of those countries’ diplomats have been found. Further, in cases where workers are demanding justice from these employers, groups are calling for the US State Department to press home countries to waive the diplomatic immunity of traffickers.
Helper Settles Civil Case vs PH Official
During the protest, Damayan announced the settlement of the civil case of one of its members, Marichu Baoanan.
On June 24, 2008, with the assistance of Damayan and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Baoanan filed a civil lawsuit of 15 counts including trafficking, forced labor, peonage and slavery against her former employers, United Nations Ambassador to the Philippines Lauro Baja, his wife Norma Baja, and their daughter Maria “Beth” Facundo.
According to reports, Marichu was trafficked to the US by the Bajas and worked as a domestic worker in the Baja household for approximately three months, where she was forced to work at least 18 hours a day, seven days a week, with no days off, for US $100 or approximately six cents per hour.
Invoking diplomatic immunity, the Bajas asked the court to dismiss the charges.
After a one-year legal and organizing battle to waive Baja’s immunity, Judge Victor Marrero of the New York Southern District Court denied Baja’s motion and effectively removed his immunity so the case could proceed. Three years after filing, the case recently settled.
According to Damayan and its allies, the problem is more than just a few bad actors. Damayan said that since Marichu’s case was exposed, more workers have come forward. They related similar tales of being abused by diplomats, suffering experiences similar to Marichu’s: being forced to work extremely long hours for very low to no wages; having their passpots stolen or confiscated by their employers; and being threated with deportation.
“We need to take a stand against trafficking and slavery,” said Cita Brodsky, Chair of Damayan. “With the global economic crisis, the number of migrants around the world is growing, and with that grows the Philippines’ dependence on remittances of overseas women workers. And on the demand side, the unprotected labor industry for domestic workers also breeds modern-day slavery. We need accountability from all governments, the enforcement of laws and the protection of women workers.”
Do not Grant Immunity to Abusive Diplomats
Nicole Hallett of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center in the meantime said that it was unfortunate that the the law often gives immunity to diplomats who commit heinous crimes such as forced labor and human trafficking. She said that groups like Damayan hope to change the public discourse so that diplomats are held accountable, both in and out of the courtroom.
Domestic workers from New York and Maryland, who have been abused by diplomats also spoke at the protest. There were also cultural performances and readings of statements of support from by a variety of immigrant- and community-based organizations, lawyers and advocates.
Damayan called for the support of the Philippine consulate in the campaign, and demanded that the consulate create protocols to address the potential trafficking of Filipino domestic workers by diplomats. After the program at the Philippines consulate and mission, the workers marched to the Tanzanian, Kuwaiti and Mozambique missions. Advocates have long exposed Tanzania and Kuwait to the US State Department, with no concrete action.
“We will work with all our allies and sister organizations to protect our workers and community,” Brodsky said. “We will continue to educate and organize to dismantle the structures that create modern-day slavery and to empower women who need to break free.”
Taiwanese Official Arrested for Abusing Filipina Housekeeper
In a related development, Taiwan is in an uproar over the arrest of a Taiwanese diplomat in Kansas City last November 11.
Liu was arrested on charges of labor fraud. She has been accused of abusing her Filipina helper. Reports said that there is a precedent of US judicial authorities issuing an arrest warrant for a Taiwanese official.
In a report from the Central News Agency, Taiwanese authorities are demanding the US government release Jacqueline Liu, the director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Kansas City. It said that Liu should be immediately and unconditionally released on the grounds that she enjoys immunity under a bilateral agreement on privileges, exemptions and immunities signed between the two countries in October 1980.
Taiwanese politicians are outraged over how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) made the arrest on the grounds that Taiwan is not a sovereign country and therefore its officials are not eligible for diplomatic immunity in the US.
Based on the FBI’s indictment against Liu, she has not just short-paid her housekeeper and abused the Filipina mentally and physically, but also has a record of maltreating a previous housemaid, leading to the maid suffering from depression and anorexia.
The FBI’s main charge against Liu is her suspected violation of the criminal code regarding “fraud in foreign labor contracting. Based on the indictment papers, a director-level official in Liu’s office was reported to have disclosed how the Filipina domestic worker was paid only US$620 a month. In her contract, it was stated that she should be US$1,240 per month.
Another senior consular official, who had worked at the Kansas City office for more than two years was quoted as confirming that he was told by Liu to pay the maid only US$220 every two weeks, plus US$70 for grocery purchases — far below the contracted amount.
It was also stated in the indictment papers that the Taiwanese official falsely brought the Filipina to her house on false pretenses. The indictment said the housekeeper was working about 100 hours a week.
A member of the Filipino Association of Greater Kansas City Jose Bayani was quoted in media reports that that what was done to his compatriot was “literal enslavement .”
Bayani said that during her errands to the grocery store, the Filipina told other Filipinos of her plight. A Filipino man heard her story and helped her escape from Liu’s home in late August.
The housekeeper plans to stay in America to find another job. She is living in a shelter.
Liu, is being held in the Johnson Co. jail until her next court appearance thisweek. The charges carry a possible five-year sentence in a federal jail.