The special visas granted to foreigners who work as household domestics in the U.S. leave them vulnerable to serious abuse, Human Rights Watch charged in Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers with Special Visas in the United States.
Thousands of these workers, typically women, enter the United States every year to work for diplomats, officials of international organizations, foreign businesspeople, and U.S. citizens temporarily back in the U.S. from their homes abroad. In the fifty-six-page report, Human Rights Watch documents the cases of dozens of workers but believes that many more are exposed to some form of abuse.
"Often these employers come from a powerful, elite class, and they are abusing the rights of some of the most powerless," said Carol Pier, researcher for the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "This is a serious human rights abuse in the United States, but it has remained largely hidden from public view. This has to stop."
The most effective recourse for workers in abusive employment relationships is to change jobs. But under U.S. law, these workers' visas are tied to their employers and in most cases they cannot legally change employers. If they leave, they lose immigration status and can be deported.
In about ten percent of the cases that Human Rights Watch reviewed, workers were trafficking victims. Employers lured the workers to the United States with false promises about their employment conditions and then held them in servitude. These women worked long hours, up to nineteen per day, and were often paid less than $100 per month. They were rarely allowed outside and were prohibited from speaking to strangers. Some were physically or sexually abused.
In the cases Human Rights Watch reviewed, the average hourly wage was $2.14, from which deductions for room and board might, according to U.S. law, still be made. The average workday was fourteen hours. Most of the workers were not allowed to leave their employers' homes without permission, and most were only allowed to leave on their one day off per week-Sunday.
The report, "Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers with Special Visas in the United States," sharply criticizes the structure of the special visa programs that allow these workers to enter the U.S. No government department or agency monitors the migrant domestic worker visa programs. No laws establish specific employment conditions that must be provided these workers. Unless these workers publicly complain about employer abuse, they are ignored by the U.S. government.
"The U.S. government has developed visa programs that facilitate the abuse of migrant domestic workers," said Pier. "These workers trust that because they are following the rules and coming to the U.S. legally, the U.S. government will protect them from abuse. In too many cases, they are sadly mistaken."
Workers who want to publicly complain face many obstacles. Most workers do not speak English and do not know where to go or how to complain. If a worker complains while still with her employer, she risks being fired and losing her legal immigration status. If she complains once she has left the employer, she is already undocumented and risks discovery by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and deportation.
Even workers who sue or press charges against their employers might not find justice. The INS is not required to allow the workers to remain in the U.S. to have their day in court. Even if they are allowed to stay, the INS may deny them the right to work. Since they are also ineligible for federal public benefits, such as welfare and food assistance, survival during this time may be exceedingly difficult.
If a domestic worker actually manages to sue or press charges against her employer, she finds she does not enjoy the same labor and employment protections as many other workers. Live-in domestic workers are not covered by federal laws governing overtime pay, workplace health and safety, the right to organize, and sexual harassment.
Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. government to establish an effective monitoring mechanism for the visa programs, under the Department of Labor, and urged Congress to amend immigration law to include mandatory employment conditions for these workers and to allow them to transfer employers when their rights are violated.
Human Rights Watch said that all workers seeking justice against their employers should be allowed to stay in the U.S. to do so and to work during that time.
The rights organization also urged international institutions, such as embassies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose employees hire these workers, to adopt and effectively enforce internal codes of conduct governing the workers' employment.
Below are testimonies from the Human Rights Watch report "Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers with Special Visas in the United States."
Rokeya Akhatar, a Bangladeshi domestic worker employed by the family of a Middle Eastern businessman from approximately July 1998 through September 1998, told Human Rights Watch:
I couldn't go out for even one second . . . I wasn't allowed to leave the house [alone] at all. [The family] told me that if I went outside, the police would arrest me because I did not have my papers [with me]. They said that without a green card, the police would arrest me. [They said] America is bad and that it would be bad if I went outside as a single woman, so I never went outside. I was like a bird in a cage.
Akhatar explained that the reason that she did not have her papers was that, upon her arrival in the United States, a member of the family for whom she worked confiscated her passport. Akhatar continued, "Now I know that I can go outside, but at that time I did not." According to her attorney, Akhatar left her employer's premises only once or twice during her employment to accompany a family member grocery shopping. Akhatar recounted that on those few occasions that she was allowed to leave her employer's premises, the family member "said [I had to] cover my head and hair and not speak to anyone in Hindi."
Fariba Ahmed is a Bangladeshi domestic worker who was employed from December 1998 through August 1999 by a representative of a Middle Eastern mission to the U.N. During her approximately nine-month employment, Ahmed was allegedly paid only $100 per month-money which she said she never saw because it was sent directly to her husband in Bangladesh. Ahmed claimed that during her employment, she performed typical household duties for her employer and cared for the couple's two children, a four-year-old boy and an infant girl, seven days a week, with no days off, for an average of fourteen hours per day-from 6:00 AM until 10:00 PM. Ahmed stated that when she arrived in the United States, her employer confiscated her passport at the airport and that during her employment she was not allowed to leave her employer's apartment alone. According to her civil complaint, Ahmed was "allowed to leave the apartment only on two occasions, both times to go to the market to assist [her employer's wife]."