‘Modern-Day Slavery’ Prompts Rescue Efforts
Groups Target Abuse of Foreign Maids, Nannies
Lena H. Sun, Wash. Post, May 3
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 Ecuadoran 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. The two 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.
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