The American Civil Liberties Union has taken up the cause of defending Indian domestic workers forced into servitude by a Kuwaiti diplomat and his family in Virginia.
The civil lawsuit filed by the ACLU in the U.S. District Court in Washington on Wednesday accused Kuwaiti diplomat Major Waleed Al Saleh and his wife Al Omar of regularly beating and abusing three live-in Indian maids in his Maclean, Virginia, home.
The victims - Mani Kumari Sabbithi, 33, from Chinchinada, Andhra; Joaquina Quadros, 40, from Goa; and Gila Sixtina Fernandes, 39, also from Goa - claim the alleged abuses took place inside the diplomat's home 2005-2006.
The 43-page lawsuit outlines a host of alleged abuses. The women claim they were struck in the head with a package of frozen chicken, told they would be killed, had their hair pulled and that they were subjected to a variety of threats including that their tongues would be cut out. Sabbithi alleged that the Kuwaiti diplomat threatened to kill and send her "defiled body back to India."
In addition the suit alleges that the Kuwaitis violated US labor laws, anti-trafficking laws and the 13th amendment, which prohibits slavery. The suit also named the Kuwaiti government as a defendant, saying it enabled the abuse to occur. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages for economic losses as well as mental and emotional anguish.
The women, all citizens of India, were brought to the United States on A-3 visa - which allows representatives of foreign governments to bring private servants into the US for employment in their homes during their diplomatic assignment.
Subsequently their passports were taken away and they were forced to work 16-to-19-hour days, seven days a week. And instead of the agreed upon monthly salary of $1280 they were paid $250.
"I was scared of my employers and believed that if I ran away or sought help they would harm me or maybe even kill me," said Kumari Sabbithi, who is now living in New York. "I believed that I had no choice but to continue working for them even though they beat me and treated me worse than a slave."
The Washington Post reported that Al Saleh, a military attache at the Kuwait Embassy, who lives in the 7000 block of Elizabeth Drive, did not respond to a request made through an embassy spokeswoman for comment on the allegations against him and his wife.
Fernandes, Quadros, and Sabbithi, who now live in New York, have been granted special temporary visas issued to victims of human trafficking, said a lawyer for the women, Claudia Flores an attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project.
"No form of immunity should protect diplomats who abuse and exploit their employees and treat them like slaves," said Flores. "The Kuwaiti government knew that this conduct was illegal and is as guilty as the diplomats who abused the women," Flores added. "This lawsuit puts Kuwait and every other country that is granted the privilege of bringing domestic workers to the United States on notice that they cannot turn a blind eye to such despicable conduct."
As a diplomat, Al Saleh was required to sign a contract with each of the women guaranteeing them a fair wage, specific working conditions and safe passage home. As the ACLU lawsuit describes, he failed to uphold these basic contractual obligations and thereby violated the law.
Sabbithi, Quadros and Fernandes are represented by Flores, Lenora Lapidus, Jennifer Pasquarella and Steven Watt of the ACLU and Catherine Rosato, Reid Weisbord and David Kotler from the law firm of Dechert LLP.
In June of last year a similar lawsuit charging abuse of a domestic worker was filed against the state of Kuwait and the First Secretary of the Kuwaiti Mission to the United Nations in the Southern District of New York, Swarna v. Al-Awadi. The case is pending and awaiting a response from those charged.
According to Indian sources there are approximately 48,000 domestic workers among the 215,000 Indians working in Kuwait. Protection against abuse of Indian workers dominated this year's Pravasi Bharat Diwas meet, which called for effective intervention by the Government of India to protect the rights of a large section of its expatriate workers - especially in the Gulf countries.