Malawian housemaid wins US human trafficking case
A Malawian woman trafficked to the United States by a diplomat, confined to a house for three years and forced to work long hours for little pay has been awarded $1 million in damages in a human trafficking lawsuit against her former employer. Fainess Lipenga began working for Jane Kambalame as a housemaid in her Malawi home in 2002, according to the case memorandum. When Kambalame accepted a diplomatic position at the Malawian embassy in Washington in 2004, she asked Lipenga to move with her.
“I was so excited,” Lipenga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview. “She (Kambalame) told me that I could finish my education in the US and that she would help me find another job.” She signed a contract written in English, which she did not fully understand, which stated Lipenga would be paid $980 per month for working 35 hours per week and would be paid overtime. But the reality was quite different. For the first few months she received nothing, and after that was paid between $100 and $180 per month.
“She made me work from 5.30 am to 11 pm on most days, and I had to sleep on the basement floor,” said Lipenga. “She said I couldn’t sleep in a room upstairs like the family because I would make them sick.” Nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labor globally, 1.5 million of them in developed countries like the United States, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Over half are women and girls. Forced labor among migrant domestic workers in particular is widespread, with women exploited even before they have left their home country and later abused by their employers abroad.
In 2006 Kambalame installed a lock on the door of the family home in Washington DC, confining her domestic servant to the house, Lipenga said. “She listened on the phone whenever I talked to my family, and would disconnect it when she left the house - I was trapped,” she said. According to the lawsuit, Kambalame subjected Lipenga to psychological abuse, such as by humiliating her in front of visitors and threatening to deport her. “She told me: ‘I’m a diplomat, you’ll never get me in trouble’,” Lipenga said.“I just believed her.”
Lipenga managed to escape the Kambalame household in 2007. “I thought: I will die if I stay here, they will take my body and dump it in the trash,” she said. “I stole my passport and my contract when the family were out of the house, and left in the morning when they were sleeping - I could not stop shaking.” Lipenga was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with tuberculosis and depression, which had gone untreated for years. — Reuters