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For many abused migrant domestic workers, the only way out is to flee

Aug 29, 2023 1:55 PM PHT

Ana P. Santos

Escape is the only way out of domestic servitude for many migrant domestic workers employed by abusive diplomats and employees of international organizations

First of 4 parts

Reporting for this project was supported by JournalismFund Europe’s Modern Slavery Unveiled Grant Programme and the Pulitzer Center.

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – Go out the back door. Get into the taxi. Go to the Amsterdam Centraal Station. There, people will be waiting for you.

Cora Espanto went over the plan again and again in her head, replaying the instructions her son, Jon-Jon, gave her: “I’ll leave the door ajar. Walk slowly so the floor won’t creak. Don’t ever look back.”

It was 5:30 in the morning but the European summer sun was already shining. From their room in the attic, Espanto and her daughter Sheryl tiptoed out the back door where Jon-Jon was already waiting. An electrician, Jon-Jon had rewired the automatic door so it wouldn’t make that annoying buzzing noise when it opened.

The cook crawled out the window from her room on the second floor to avoid waking the guard. Carefully, she scaled down the ladder Jon-Jon had set up hours before.

The domestic worker at their neighbor’s house took them in to hide while the four of them waited for their taxi.

At the Amsterdam Centraal Station, the owner of a cargo forwarding company handed them train tickets. It was through the owner that they had earlier snuck their belongings out of the ambassador’s house, under the guise of sending a balikbayan box to the Philippines.

“I could finally breathe. But I was still crying. I felt like a bird that had been set free from its cage,” said Espanto.

Across various periods from 2003 to 2008, Espanto and her two children had worked for a Saudi Arabian diplomat posted to The Netherlands.

The three of them were paid an average of $350 (P19,484) each every month – about $1,000 (P55,670) less than the Dutch mandatory minimum wage at the time. When Espanto had called the Dutch foreign ministry to ask for help, they told her she had to make a complaint in person – practically impossible for the Espantos who worked all hours of the day. Ministry officials could not go to the ambassador’s residence because of his diplomatic immunity.

Their only way out was to escape.

Diplomatic immunity – Rescue and escape

The Vienna Convention allows diplomats and employees of international organizations varying levels of diplomatic immunity. In cases where they allegedly breach the host country’s laws, they cannot be arrested, detained, or prosecuted. The residences and vehicles of officials who enjoy full immunity, such as an ambassador, cannot be entered or searched.

For migrant domestic workers, who often work and live in the diplomat’s residence, the scope of diplomatic immunity heightens the difficulty of seeking redress in cases of trafficking for the purpose of domestic servitude.

An exclusive Rappler investigation compiled a database that revealed incidents dating from 1988 to 2021 where 208 migrant domestic workers in at least 18 countries reported hundreds incidents of trafficking and labor exploitation against diplomatic officials and international organization employees who had employed them.

Limited or restricted movement was also a common allegation. Many domestic workers claimed that their passports were confiscated or they were not allowed to leave the residence to attend worship services or seek medical aid.

From the 108 reports with details about the end of employment, 70 escaped from their employers.

Many of the escape stories mirror Espanto’s. An elaborate plan is set into motion after detailed planning over clandestine meetings or text messages. A discreet departure during ungodly hours. An informal network of individuals – usually labor rights groups or other migrants – is on alert to provide transportation, temporary shelter, and most of all, comfort.

Where escape is unplanned, a good samaritan often comes to the rescue.

In one case in the US, Virginia Carazani, a Bolivian domestic worker alleged that she received no wages from 2006-2008, the nearly three years that she worked for an official of the World Bank. Carazani was reportedly able to escape with the help of a good samaritan and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Carazani was awarded $1.1 million (P61.2 million) by default judgment, which records show mostly go unpaid.

According to the World Bank, since the 1999 Washington Post report that implicated World Bank employees in cases of domestic servitude, the Bank “took immediate action” to improve internal monitoring systems to protect domestic workers. This included, among others, a certified payroll for the worker through direct deposits as well as “periodic review and revision of code of conduct and contract to ensure fair and safe employment practices.”

The World Bank did not comment on individual cases.

“The fact that they have to flee, the fact that they have to escape is proof positive that they’ve been held in forced labor, that they’ve been held in a situation of human trafficking,” said Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, a legal nonprofit that assists trafficking survivors in Washington, DC.

Seeing her work as domestic servitude for the first time

Espanto began working for the Saudi diplomat in 1998 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

When the diplomat was posted to the Netherlands, he brought Espanto along as part of his three-person domestic staff. When the two other employees left, Espanto suggested hiring Sheryl and Jon-Jon.

But that time, it had been seven years since Espanto had seen any of her seven children. She thought it would be an opportunity to be with at least two of them.

Jon-Jon, then 33, was the first to arrive in May 2004. Sheryl, 19 at the time, followed a few months later.

It was Jon-Jon who had first proposed their escape. He provided the brawn and muscle needed by the heavy housework. He was the all-around handyman who washed the cars and scrubbed the swimming pool tiles with a cleaning liquid that made his nose sting and his eyes water. On nights when there were diplomatic parties hosted at the residence, he helped his sister and mother.

At his breaking point, Jon-Jon asked his mother: “I never thought you could do this to us. How could you work for them for so long? They treat us like slaves.”

The question, wrapped with blame, landed like a slap of guilt. For the first time, through the eyes of her son, Espanto saw her work for what it really was: domestic servitude.

“I didn’t feel the hardship of my work when I was the only one working in Saudi. But when it came to seeing my children experiencing difficulty, crying and blaming me…Why did I do that to them? It was so painful,” said Espanto, her voice cracking at the onset of tears.

Agreeing to Jon-Jon’s plan to flee was a mother’s plea for forgiveness.

For three months after their escape, Espanto and her children were – as she calls it, “inampon” (adopted) – by the Filipino migrant community. The owner of the cargo shipping company stored their belongings and had them ready when they took the Espantos into their home. A tight group of trusted others took turns bringing them food.

Now undocumented migrants because their visa permits were tied to their employer, the Espantos learned to live under the radar. They depended on discrete referrals – no questions asked, payments made directly in cash – for odd jobs to get by.

“I have a huge debt of gratitude to the Filipino migrant community here,” said Espanto.

It is a debt that Espanto, now 70 years old, is on a crusade to repay.

From survivor to advocate

Espanto’s apartment, in a suburb south of the capital of Amsterdam, is crammed with left-behind objects and momentos.

Duffle bags filled with thick jackets and sweaters no longer needed for the warm Philippine climate peek out from behind the sofa. Boxes stuffed with notebooks, shoes, and even a toolbox with screwdrivers and pliers are stacked under the table.

It is the trail of migrant workers Espanto has welcomed into her home. Some seek counsel about complex labor laws. Some need a transit point before the long flight back to the Philippines. Those who escaped like Espanto did many years ago, need a place of safety and refuge.

News clippings featuring Espanto hang on one wall. On the table under it are the many medals and trophies she has received for her work as chairperson of Migrante-Netherlands (Den Haag chapter) and cultural mediator for Fairwork, a Dutch anti-trafficking NGO.

Today, Espanto is sharing a meal with two other migrant domestic workers, Recil and Jane*.

Recil worked for a Greek couple, both employed by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, for 16 years.

When she needed to renew her identification documents last year, she presented her bank statements showing a monthly salary of €1,370 (P84,063). The Dutch foreign ministry told her that under minimum wage laws as of 2022, she was entitled to €1,725 (P105,846).

The Netherlands has a nationally legislated minimum wage that is usually adjusted twice a year, first in January, and then in July.

Stunned, Recil confessed that her employers also deducted €250 (P15,340) “for board and lodging,” which she had to hand over to them in cash every month.

The meeting unleashed a chain of events. Recil confronted her employer, citing what the Dutch foreign ministry had told her. In panic, they asked Recil to sign a termination letter and leave within two weeks. The Dutch ministry also alerted the couple’s office about the suspected violation of national labor laws.

Over the course of her narration, Recil’s bubbly character turned from angry to sad. “It was so painful. There wasn’t even any recognition for all those years I served them,” she said.

Recil was 22 when she first started working for the couple. Now 38, she helped them raise their children. The eldest, whom Recil calls “‘yun dalaga ko” (my young lady), has just started university in the United Kingdom.

Another domestic worker, Jane*, shared a similar story.

Jane had escaped from her Qatari diplomat employer in December 2020 with the assistance of Espanto.

“My boss kept my ATM card. He would withdraw and give me €500 (P30,680) each month,” said Jane.

Her employer justified the deduction as payment for her accommodations and internet.

Jane showed Rappler screenshots of an ABN-AMRO bank statement in her name with regular monthly deposits made by the embassy of Qatar in the amount of €1,800 (P110,448) in compliance with 2020 wage laws.

However, there were transactions made after December 5, 2020 – the date Jane had fled. A deduction of €1 (P63.36) was posted on December 12, 2020, as payment to Vendor Washroom in Rotterdam, a paid public toilet facility.

The last deduction of €13.99 (P858.42) as payment to New York Pizza was posted on May 14, 2021.

Circumventing laws to underpay wages

The US State Department and other host governments around the world have implemented measures specifically “to address domestic servitude in diplomatic households.” One of them is to require that wages be directly deposited to a solo bank account in the domestic worker’s name or paid by check.

Other international organizations have a similar protocol in place. In an email, a spokesperson for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Headquarters in the US told Rappler, “Wages must be paid by the IMF staff member employing the domestic worker through an IMF-approved payroll payment and tax service provider to the domestic worker’s bank account.”

According to Martina Vandenberg, president of legal assistance nonprofit Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, DC, bank statements like that of Jane’s can be damning evidence.

“We had bank statements in one case where it was clear that the wife of the diplomat was buying UGG boots and gas for her car. You have a record of things that have been purchased that the domestic worker – who had no car and couldn’t leave the house and didn’t need any boots – was certainly not purchasing,” said Vandenberg.

In cases where salaries of domestic employees are paid for by the diplomat’s state, it also points to corruption.

“These diplomats who receive domestic workers stipends are not only engaging in human trafficking, they’re stealing from their own government by taking the stipend and keeping it for themselves,” said Vandenberg.

Pocketing worker wages

Rappler reviewed documents related to diplomats and consular officers from Qatar, the sending state of the diplomat Jane worked for to determine where the funds for domestic worker salaries come from.

A 2011 decision issued by the prime minister and foreign minister indicated that the salary and benefits of Qatari diplomats include “rent for the head of mission, including electrical bill, water, gas, and the wages of servants.”

A 2006 decree showed that an ambassador receives a monthly basic salary of about 20,000-25,000 Qatari Riyals (US$5,494-$6,868 | P305,850-P382,341). In addition, the official receives 20% of his/her salary as living expense allowance.

Officials at the level of minister or delegate who have been in service for more than five years, receive a periodic bonus released five times a year. On the average, the highest periodic bonus a minister can receive is 17,700 Qatari Riyals ($4,862.63 | P270,667)

The Qatari foreign ministry did not reply to Rappler’s emails requesting for comment.

Intersections of class and power

The Rappler database of allegations made against diplomats and employees of international organizations also showed another pattern.

The countries with the most number of implicated officials were those where there is either a culture of employing domestic staff enabled by low wages and a highly stratified society or a lack of laws protecting domestic workers.

Nearly half of the top 10 erring sending states have the kafala system in place to regulate employer-employee relations. International human rights watchdogs have consistently called for an end to this system because the excessive power and control it gives employers traps migrant workers in conditions that are tantamount to slavery.

Outside of these countries, Asian and African nations dominated the list of sending states with erring diplomats. For these countries, there were 14 incidents where the domestic worker and the diplomat were of the same nationality.

“This is part of a broader issue where officials come from a context where domestic workers are already undervalued and there is a serious lack of rights for domestic workers. They are already treated badly in these countries,” said Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch senior researcher for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

“In their mind, the move to another country doesn’t matter. You still work in their home,” said Begum. (To be continued) – with the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and Gerald John Guillermo/Rappler.com

NEXT: How diplomats who traffick, exploit domestic workers get away

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the worker
US$1 = P55.67
€1 = P61.36

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