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'Modern-day slavery' prompts rescue efforts

Stories of exploitation are increasing among the thousands of women who are recruited every year from impoverished countries as live-in domestic help, according to law enforcement officials and advocacy groups. Now, a growing number of organizations are reaching out to help.
Alexandra Santacruz greets CASA of Maryland's rescue workers. Her employer, Efrain Baus of Ecuador's mission to the Organization of American States, was surprised by her claim of exploitation, according to his attorney.
Alexandra Santacruz greets CASA of Maryland's rescue workers. Her employer, Efrain Baus of Ecuador's mission to the Organization of American States, was surprised by her claim of exploitation, according to his attorney.Juana Arias / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Alexandra Santacruz pressed up to the kitchen window on a recent spring night and peered anxiously down the street. She had done everything she could to get ready, tying her belongings neatly into four plastic bags and hiding them in the trash bin outside the Falls Church townhouse.

Just past 8 p.m., two hours after Santacruz began her vigil, a maroon van eased to a stop in front. Its passengers stepped out to begin their work: They were there to rescue her. The 24-year-old was desperate to leave her job as a live-in nanny, but her employers had threatened to call police if she did.

Two lawyers from CASA of Maryland, a workers' rights group, knocked on the door and confronted her stunned employer. They had become practiced at this exchange, now a common part of their jobs, and they were prepared for the accusations and denials that followed.

In minutes, Santacruz bounded out of the house, an enormous stuffed dog in her arms. "Estoy feliz!" she shouted. "I'm so happy."

For nearly two years, she had worked 80-hour weeks cooking, cleaning and baby-sitting for an Ecuadorean official of the Organization of American States. For that, her attorneys said, she was paid little more than $2 an hour. She had worked for the same family in Ecuador, but since arriving, she said, her employer had taken her passport, she had no money and she was afraid that if she left, she would lose her visa and police would come for her.

Stories like hers are increasing among the thousands of women who are recruited every year from impoverished countries as live-in domestic help, according to law enforcement officials and advocacy groups. Now, a growing number of organizations are reaching out to mistreated domestic workers, helping them leave their employers and providing emergency housing and legal advice.

In cases like Santacruz's, the workers suffer years of exploitation. In others, they are victims of trafficking, forced to become modern-day slaves.

A 14-year-old Cameroonian girl was enslaved for three years in Silver Spring by a couple from her country. They never paid her, and the husband sexually abused her. A Bangladeshi maid for a Bahraini diplomat in New York who was never paid or allowed to leave the apartment was ultimately rescued by police, according to her lawsuit. An Indian maid for a diplomat in Potomac said she was mentally and physically abused and was paid $100 for 4,500 hours of work over 11 months.

Washington and New York are major destinations for such workers, given their large immigrant populations and because they are home to international organizations, whose foreign officials can bring in domestic servants on special visas. In many cases, the workers are hidden from public view, essentially locked behind closed doors.

"People can't conceive of the fact that modern-day slavery exists here in our own back yards, in the shadow of the nation's Capitol," said Joy Zarembka, executive director of Break the Chain Campaign, an area nonprofit group that focuses solely on domestic workers.

A 2004 CIA report estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 people are recruited or transported into the United States each year through fraud or coercion for sexual exploitation or forced labor. But pinpointing the number is impossible because no federal or state agency tracks the cases.

CASA of Maryland and Break the Chain estimate that they receive a total of 45 to 50 new domestic worker cases in the Washington area each year.

Those who work for diplomats or officials of international organizations face the added threat of losing their visas if they leave their jobs.

"It's a really draconian choice," said Carol Pier, the author of a 2001 Human Rights Watch report on domestic workers. "Living in an exploitative situation or leaving your employer to seek justice and losing your legal immigration status."

Worries of retaliation
For CASA, which has rescued more than 100 domestic workers in the past six years, Santacruz's call set a plan in motion. CASA staffer Silvia Navas talked through the details of her situation in secretive phone calls. They met at McDonald's a few weeks before the rescue and chose a date and a time.

Minutes after Santacruz loaded her bags into the van that night, the CASA crew headed to a nearby townhouse for a second rescue. Germania Velasco, 34, climbed inside the van and embraced Santacruz, whom she knew because their employers both work for the OAS.

"Estoy siendo rescatada!" she said breathlessly into her cell phone, assuring a friend that she was fine because she was being rescued.

Inside the house, Velasco's employer, Veronica Peña, and her husband, were shouting at Navas and CASA lawyer Jayesh Rathod. Navas said Peña argued that "everybody's doing this," referring to the low wages paid to domestic help. Navas said she replied, "That's why we're here."

Peña, a second secretary at Ecuador's mission to the OAS, said she did not have authorization from her government to comment.

Santacruz and Velasco came to the United States on visas that allowed them to follow their OAS employers. Like many others, they signed contracts that were then ignored by their employers, according to their attorney, Victor Glasberg. Santacruz said she wasn't given time to read the contract and was not given a copy. Velasco's contract promised to pay her $6 an hour, roughly three times what she ended up earning, according to Glasberg.

He is seeking back wages for them -- he estimates that Santacruz is owed about $20,000 for 20 months of work and that Velasco is owed $28,000 for nearly two years of work. Under federal wage law, the women could recover twice that amount if their employers knowingly refused to pay the proper wages.

Santacruz's employer, Efrain Baus, first secretary at the same mission to the OAS, refused to comment. His attorney, Samuel G. McTyre, in a recent letter to Glasberg, said Baus and his wife would be "very likely" to settle the dispute if it could remain private. He noted that the couple was surprised by Santacruz's claim and that "she knew the terms and conditions of her employment . . . and agreed to them without any complaint for nearly two years." He specifically denied that they have her passport.

Because the stakes are so high, advocates say, domestic workers are often pressured not to seek redress. The letter from Baus's attorney, for example, mentions that Santacruz's claim "may or may not" affect her relatives' jobs with Baus's family and friends in Ecuador.

Wearing her despair
Joy Zarembka, 32, brings a personal passion to her work. She is the daughter of a domestic worker from Kenya. And a few years ago, she learned of a live-in maid in her parents' Gaithersburg neighborhood who had not been paid in five years of work for a Cameroonian couple, according to court documents.

Zarembka had seen the girl often and assumed that she was the oldest child. "In hindsight, now I can remember the sadness in her eyes," she said. Zarembka's father had contacted CASA, which alerted law enforcement.

Her outrage prompted Zarembka in 2000 to work for a coalition of labor, religious and human rights groups that later became Break the Chain Campaign. The group has since assisted more than 100 domestic workers.

"It takes so little for us as Americans to pay a proper wage, especially when you juxtapose that against the paychecks of the abusers," she said.

Until recently, Break the Chain and CASA were the only groups in the Washington area helping domestic employees. But the growth of the problem has spurred the creation of new groups and new initiatives. With private funding, for example, the nonprofit Project Hope International is planning to purchase two houses to shelter trafficking victims.

Also, a recent emphasis on fighting trafficking, including a 2000 federal law, has freed up federal funding -- more than $90 million last fiscal year. With the funds, Break the Chain and other groups, such as Ayuda in Washington and Boat People SOS in Falls Church, have begun training police officers, social workers, nurses, interpreters and others to recognize signs that a worker could be exploited or trapped.

In her training seminars, Zarembka teaches them to ask key questions:

"Are you allowed to leave?"

"Have you been physically and/or sexually abused?"

"Have you been threatened?"

"Do you have your passport?"

"Have you been paid for your work?"

A vanished employer
It was a good Samaritan who brought Kurinah Muka to Zarembka and Break the Chain.

Muka had been a live-in maid at an Alexandria high-rise, her days at once tedious and cruel. She was kicked by the woman who employed her, forced to work 19-hour days and allowed to eat only the food that others rejected, she said. For nearly two months of work, she said, she was never paid. Muka described her ordeal in a written statement to immigration officials, who later investigated and said witnesses corroborated her account.

She came from a poor farming village in Indonesia. Her husband's monthly income as a truck driver was about $75. She earned 70 cents a day working on a rice farm.

When a recruiter from an employment agency showed up in September 1999 looking for maids for foreigners, Muka signed up, leaving behind her two young children.

For three months, she said, she and about 300 other women were held in a camp, with guards at the door to prevent them from leaving. They slept in rooms of 20 women, were taught Arabic vocabulary for cooking and cleaning and told to obey employers. She said she was forced to sign a contract promising her $800 a month, although she was told her real earnings would be $200 to $300.

When she arrived at Dulles International Airport in 2000, she was met by her employer, a diplomat at the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington. He told Muka she would be working for a woman who called herself Princess Halla, who later told Muka that the diplomat was the father of her 5-year-old boy and 8-month-old daughter, Muka said.

"My life was misery working for Halla," wrote Muka, who worked from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day.

Halla forbade Muka from bathing because "she did not want my germs in the shower," Muka wrote. Halla often slapped her and kicked her while wearing boots and shoes.

Once, Halla noticed a scratch on the baby's nose. "She pulled a knife out of the drawer and demonstrated pulling the knife across her throat as if to slice it," Muka wrote. "While she was doing this, she looked at me and said that if a scratch occurred again, she would kill me."

Halla confiscated her passport and told her "bad people" would hurt her if she ever left, according to Muka's statement. Muka said she imagined government officials tracking her down.

"I cried every night," said Muka, her face wet with tears as she recounted her story in self-taught English. "I'm praying five times a day."

The breaking point came when Halla "pull my hair and that's when she scratch my arms and dig with her fingernails," drawing blood, Muka said.

A few days later, Muka fled to a nearby apartment building, where she sat in the lobby until a sympathetic tenant took her in. His daughter downloaded an Indonesian dictionary from the Internet so they could communicate. Break the Chain helped her obtain special immigration status as a victim of trafficking.

Department of Homeland Security immigration officials were able to track the diplomat, but he had returned to the United Arab Emirates, according to an investigator who said he was not authorized to be quoted by name. They could not locate Halla, who used several aliases, the investigator said. Abdulla Alsaboosi, a spokesman for the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, said that the diplomat retired and that the embassy was unable to locate him. The Post was also unable to locate Halla or the diplomat.

Muka eventually found a one-bedroom apartment to share with three other Indonesian women and a job as a nanny for an American family. Under the terms of her visa, she is not allowed to leave the United States for another two years, so she calls her children every Saturday night.

Who pays for immunity?
Even when law enforcement officials learn of mistreatment, they can face major obstacles if the employer is a diplomat because many have full immunity, meaning they usually cannot be arrested, prosecuted or sued. Advocacy groups estimate that one third of their domestic servitude cases involve diplomats with immunity.

That was true in the case of a 44-year-old Indian woman who worked for nearly a year as a live-in maid for a senior Asian diplomat in Washington. During her stay at the diplomat's home in Potomac, the woman said, she was abused mentally and sometimes physically by the diplomat's wife, whom she addressed as Madam.

The woman, who refused to be named because she feared retribution, said she worked 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. She said the diplomat sent one payment of $100 to her home in India, the equivalent of 18 cents an hour.

"This Madam, she gave me so much trouble," the maid said in a recent interview. "I didn't do any wrong but all the time she is screaming at me, screaming very bad words, so much bad words."

The maid sought refuge at St. Raphael Catholic Church in Potomac, and the church's outreach coordinator kept the woman's story in a journal. One entry described how the wife pulled her hair and "punched her on the forehead . . . also screaming and cursing."

The maid eventually fled the diplomat's home after she fell ill, but the diplomat kept her passport and belongings, according to Break the Chain. The group said that the woman had grounds to sue for back wages but that the diplomat was protected by immunity. After months of negotiations with the State Department and the embassy, the group obtained her passport and belongings.

With the help of a friend, the maid negotiated with the embassy to reach a monetary settlement last year, but the parties agreed to keep the amount secret, according to the advocacy group.

Chaumtoli Huq, a New York lawyer who won a settlement for the Bangladeshi maid to the Bahraini U.N. diplomat, argues that diplomatic immunity should not take precedence over the constitutional prohibition against slavery and indentured servitude.

"Why should the worker, the lowest of the low, have to bear the burden of immunity?" she said.

Trying not to think about it
Domestic servitude cases are difficult to prosecute, law enforcement officials say, because the victims are scared to go to police and the crimes take place behind closed doors. But in Maryland, the U.S. attorney's office in Greenbelt has prosecuted six domestic worker cases in the past four years, all in Montgomery County.

One couple, Louisa Satia and her husband, Kevin Nanji, were each sentenced by a federal judge in Greenbelt to nine years in prison for enslaving a 14-year-old Cameroonian girl in Silver Spring. The couple smuggled the girl into the United States in January 1997, according to court documents and interviews. They promised to send her to school in exchange for domestic work. Instead, she was forced to cook, care for the children and clean. For three years, she was never paid and never sent to school.

Nanji sexually abused her, according to sentencing documents. She wore sweatpants and jeans to bed to make it more difficult for him to take her clothes off. "I would wait for him to go to bed until I could go to sleep," said the worker, now 21, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not want friends to know of the assaults.

She wanted to run away, but she had no money or passport. Satia warned her repeatedly that the police would send her away because she had no "papers," according to court documents.

Nearly three years after she arrived in the United States, on the day before Thanksgiving, she fled, shoeless and coatless. She said she begged a woman in the neighborhood for shoes. "She gave me a pair of black flip-flops," she recalled.

She ran to a nearby Kmart and hid in the ladies' room before calling an acquaintance of Nanji's, who found her temporary housing. CASA came to her aid after learning about her from another Cameroonian domestic worker.

Authorities were able to prosecute because immigration investigators found witnesses and travel and bank records supporting their case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mythili Raman said.

"I try not to think about" what happened, the young woman said. She now is a part-time clerk at an Office Depot. She has received none of the $105,306 in back wages the judge ordered the couple to pay. She is thinking about becoming a geriatric nurse. But first, she wants to earn her high school equivalency degree, a substitute for the education she was promised but never received.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.