Many immigrants hired to work as nannies and maids in private residences in the United States are instead being forced into virtual bondage, where some are beaten, barred from leaving and denied basic medical care.
Women and children may work unnoticed for years by outsiders. Some have been chained, sexually abused and paid less than 3 cents an hour. They typically work directly for an employer rather than going through a placement agency, so there may be no employment record. Often, they are illegal immigrants afraid to come forward for fear of being deported.
Those employers accused of abuse include influential and trusted figures: schoolteachers, social workers, restaurant owners, diplomats, engineers and homemakers. Many are foreign-born residents of the USA.
In an investigation of this hidden form of exploitation, USA TODAY compiled information on more than 140 cases of domestic worker abuse to examine for the first time what kind of abuses are occurring and what common themes can be drawn from victims' stories.
The cases were identified from civil and criminal lawsuits, Justice Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service releases, statements from victims provided by anti-slavery coalition and immigrant rights groups, interviews with domestic workers, a report on domestic workers by New York-based advocacy and research group Human Rights Watch, media accounts, congressional testimony and interviews with lawyers who have represented workers in out-of-court settlements.
The cases USA TODAY identified offer a glimpse of a larger phenomenon and are not meant to represent all allegations of abuse. Rather, they provide an unprecedented framework for exploring a problem many immigration experts believe is underreported and overlooked.
''This problem is enormous,'' says Ann Jordan at the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington. ''There should be legislation so that everyone brought in as a domestic worker is monitored in some way. This isn't just about long hours.''
Among recent cases:
* In a middle-class subdivision of Laredo, Texas, known for brick homes and manicured yards, a 12-year-old Mexican girl sent by her family to clean and provide childcare in exchange for schooling was found shackled in a backyard, according to prosecutors. Police were summoned after a neighbor doing roof work looked down, saw the girl and called 911.
The girl had been chained after finishing her work, starved until she became so hungry she ate dirt and tortured by having pepper spray blasted into her eyes when she dozed off, prosecutors say. She was so weak, she had to be carried on a stretcher, prosecutors say, and her skin had been seared red from days in the sun.
The employer, Sandra Bearden, a homemaker and native of Mexico, was found guilty on charges including injury to a child and aggravated kidnapping and was sentenced in October to life in prison. The attorney who defended her did not return calls seeking comment; the girl is staying at a shelter with family, prosecutors say, and doing well.
''This is the worst case I've ever seen, worse than any murder,'' says Assistant District Attorney Andy Ramos. ''It's tragic all the way around.''
* In Woodland Hills, Calif., the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles says that employer Supawan Veerapol threatened three undocumented Thai women and their families with harm if they tried to leave.
Two of the women testified that they were denied medical care and forced to extract their own teeth, prosecutors say. The victims also alleged that they were forced to serve guests at parties while crawling on their knees. Veerapol, a Thai national, was sentenced last year to about 8 years in prison for such charges as involuntary servitude and fraud.
Her lawyer, W. Anthony Willoughby, says some of the workers' claims were ''an outright fabrication,'' and the case is on appeal. ''I have felt hopeless and helpless, like my life had no meaning,'' Thonglim Khamphiranon, one of the Thai workers, said last year in a statement released by an anti-slavery coalition.
* In New York, two Nigerian girls were held in involuntary servitude by Prosper and Ifeoma Udogwu, a married couple in the Bronx, prosecutors say. One of the girls, Beatrice Okezie, who was 13 when she came to the USA, testified that she was beaten and forced to work as their personal servant for about 9 years.
The couple are from Nigeria. The wife's job included investigating child abuse; both were sentenced last year to more than 11 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin characterized some of the Udogwus' behavior as ''evil.''
''They deny ever abusing (them),'' says Jerry Tritz in New York, a lawyer for the husband, adding that a motion for a new trial has been filed. ''It's very likely that innocent people were convicted for a very long time.''
Passports are seized
Such allegations are not isolated. Some domestic workers have been made to work up to 20 hours a day, according to criminal and civil court documents, and some allege they were fed only scraps of leftovers or were made to work despite infected wounds and untreated tumors. Often, activists say, employers keep workers concealed by seizing their passports or barring them from leaving the house alone.
''When I come here, they treat me very bad. I work 6 a.m. to midnight, I work all day. It's very hurtful,'' says Hapsatou Sarr, 30, from Mauritania. She says she left her employer, who also is foreign-born, in Maryland. She now lives in Ohio. ''After I ask for money, (my employer) gives me no food. Finally, I just go, but I don't know where. I'm very scared because I don't know anyone, I have no family, I have no friends.''
Abusive situations can be fueled in part by the USA's immigration practices and labor laws, activists and lawyers say. The government doesn't routinely inspect residences for labor violations. Immigrants here on special visas risk deportation if they try to leave their jobs. And employers have dodged prison by fleeing the country.
''There need to be more protections,'' says Martha Honey, at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington research group involved in migrant domestic worker rights issues. ''We need to have some legislation to address this. The problems we're seeing are just the tip of the iceberg.''
Among USA TODAY's findings:
* Some workers suffer abuse and sexual assault. Immigrant rights advocates say live-ins are often intimidated into staying by violence or threats.
That assertion held true in many of the 143 cases compiled by USA TODAY. In nearly 40 instances, domestic workers alleged physical abuse or sexual assault. Some women reported in criminal and civil lawsuits that they'd been burned with hot irons or soup, abused by hour-long beatings or raped by employers' relatives.
* Immigrants are paid below-legal wages. Activists say live-ins are exploited by being paid below minimum wage. In the cases identified by USA TODAY, some domestic workers asserted that they worked months or years without being paid, while others earned below minimum wage. The average monthly salary was roughly $200 and, in cases where the information was available, average workdays exceeded 15 hours.
* Workers may live for years in isolation. Live-ins may go unnoticed by neighbors and work for years without contact with outsiders, lawyers and activists say.
In at least 55 of the 143 cases, employers allegedly confiscated workers' passports and immigration papers or told them not to leave the house. Some said in interviews that they were kept in basements and told not to go outside or look out the window.
No one knows how widespread the problem of domestic worker abuse is, but advocacy groups that assist immigrants say hundreds are being exploited annually.
In 1999, two Washington-area organizations and attorneys who aid domestic workers received about 160 calls alleging some form of employer abuse, according to a Human Rights Watch report. The organization compiled information on cases; some of the lawyers did provide assistance to those with complaints.
Statistics on the number of immigrant domestic workers in this country are scant. In the 1990s, the government issued more than 30,000 special visas that allow immigrants to be employed as live-in domestic workers for such employers as ambassadors and officials at international organizations. But many more women are undocumented workers whose existence may be unknown. Many never complain, lawyers and activists say, because they fear being deported or jailed.
''This is a new issue coming onto the radar screen,'' says Torie Osborn, executive director of The Liberty Hill Foundation. The Santa Monica-based foundation funds grassroots organizations in the Los Angeles area. ''It's so shocking that it's easy to go into denial and say this isn't happening. But these aren't just one or two cases.''
Some employers and agencies say reports of the problems are overblown and that the majority of immigrant domestic workers are treated well and paid fairly. Government officials say they're taking complaints seriously and are determined to bring abusive employers to justice. Employers' lawyers say that in some cases, domestic workers have exaggerated claims to get money from their employers.
International organizations that hire foreign nationals say they've taken steps to curb potential abuse. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is one organization frequently singled out by activists as an agency where abusive employers have worked. But officials deny that problems exist. In 1999, the IMF launched a mandatory orientation for domestic workers and employers led by an immigration lawyer, officials say.
''We have no indication of any widespread abuse by our staff,'' says IMF spokesman William Murray.
Median hourly wage: $2.14
But according to a June study on domestic workers by Human Rights Watch, problems persist. A review of more than 40 cases found immigrants on special visas received a median hourly wage of $2.14, which is 42% of the $5.15 federal minimum wage. The median workday was 14 hours.
Among recent cases:
* Alice Benjo and Mary Chumo, both from Kenya, were ''kept as virtual slaves'' at the home of their employer, an employee at the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, according to legal documents. They worked for Elizabeth Belsoi, a citizen of Kenya, in the suburb of Bowie, Md. According to a lawsuit filed last year, they generally worked more than 18 hours a day, couldn't use the phone and were unable to freely leave the home.
Belsoi denied the charges through her lawyer, who says she fully complied with the employment agreement. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
* Supik Indrawati came from Indonesia to work for Robert Lie, a businessman. According to Indrawati's reports to police and prosecutors, she and another woman were made to work 12 hours a day and she was required to do such tasks as cleaning the dirt from beneath her boss' toenails at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Lie, an Indonesian native, was sentenced to 27 months in prison after pleading guilty in 1999 to charges that included alien harboring and willful failure to pay minimum wage. He is still serving that sentence, prosecutors say.
'Atrocities . . . in smuggling'
''This is an example of the atrocities and the ruthless nature found in the human smuggling trade,'' Immigration and Naturalization Service district director Thomas Schiltgen said in a statement.
Domestic workers who come to the USA often hail from some of the world's poorest countries. They come from Haiti, where about 80% of the rural population lives below poverty level, or from the Philippines, an archipelago that's a large provider of domestic workers internationally, or from Nigeria, a country that's been beset by high unemployment and political unrest. They also come from Thailand, Mexico, Eastern European countries and others.
Some arrive with plans to send money back to their families, who might be in desperate financial straits. That's why, even in some of the most egregious cases of abuse, many do not complain or run away. They may fear returning to poverty or not being able to provide financial support to families they've left behind.
''In the Philippines, the country is so poor . . . it's hard to complain here when you compare what life would be like if you're still in the Philippines,'' says Amanda Vender, coordinator at the Filipino Workers Center, a New York-based organizing and advocacy center.
The journey to servitude varies. Foreign-born diplomats or business professionals living in this country can legally bring domestic workers with them. The practice of having a live-in worker may be more common in their native country, some immigrant officials say. But what's permissible under one cultural norm may be considered abuse in the USA.
''They export that practice here, where it's not legal,'' says Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman.
In other cases, live-in workers were smuggled into this country to work as household servants. Some are victims of trafficking, which means they are lured to the USA under false pretenses and forced to work.
A report last year by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated that roughly 50,000 immigrants are trafficked annually into this country.
In trafficking cases, immigrants may be promised an education or training in a trade, but once they arrive, they're barred from contacting relatives, forced to work for little or no pay and kept under surveillance.
Lasniati Marsiti, 29, says she came to this country about 5 years ago from Indonesia after being promised $250 a week to be a domestic worker. Instead, she says an employer in Maryland paid her $250 a month. She says she began work every day at 5 a.m. She cleaned, cooked and cared for the family's children until midnight, she says, or sometimes as late as 3 a.m.
''The mom hit me, he don't pay, he told me not to leave. He took my passport, and the mom is mean to me,'' says Marsiti, who left and works for another family in the Washington area that she says treats her well and pays her fairly. ''I'm scared, I know no English, have no friends. I sleep . . . on a mattress on the floor, they didn't have a room for me. I was so lonely and stressed. I felt like I couldn't trust people.''
Several factors continue to put domestic workers at high risk for exploitation, advocates and labor lawyers say. ''If you don't comply with the demand of the employer, they can fire you, and you lose your legal immigration status,'' says Carol Pier, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Among the problems:
* Federal laws fail to protect victims. Domestic workers are generally exempt from certain federal laws established to protect workers.
Domestic workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which means they could be fired or dismissed for trying to organize. Employers aren't required under federal law to provide live-in domestic workers time-and-a-half pay for overtime work. And federal statutes banning sexual harassment don't apply to firms with fewer than 15 workers, so live-ins generally aren't protected.
Groups working on this issue are hopeful that federal legislation will be introduced to provide more protections, but so far, no such action has occurred.
* Government visa programs can contribute to abuse. Under federal visa programs, domestic workers who flee their employers can lose their legal immigration status and be deported.
''We're aware of the problem and concerned about it,'' says Strassberger, at the INS. ''These kinds of problems can take place when you have one person's visa depending on another.''
* The system provides for total dependence on the employer. Workers rely on their employers for food, shelter, transportation, medical care and income. Unlike employees in other jobs, live-ins can be kept virtually shielded from outsiders. They don't have coworkers to confide in, they may be unfamiliar with the USA and, in their own countries, police may be seen as people to be feared.
Sometimes, domestic workers remain so hidden that they may spend years working before being found or freed.
Rene Bonetti, an engineer living in Gaithersburg, Md., was sentenced last year to about 6 years in prison in a live-in slave case involving a Brazilian maid, Hilda Rosa Dos Santos. He and his wife, Margarida, were sentenced for such acts as conspiring to harbor an undocumented alien and causing serious bodily injury, prosecutors say.
Some parts of her former employer's conviction and sentencing are being appealed, and Rene Bonetti's lawyer, Paul Kemp, says his client wasn't involved in any physical abuse.
But Dos Santos says she worked for about 15 years. She testified that she lived in a dark room in the basement, worked long hours and was made to wash herself in a tin tub in their four-bedroom house.
The wife spooned scalding soup on her face for not preparing it properly, according to prosecutors, and pulled her hair out for not properly grooming the family dog. Abdominal surgery also was needed to remove an untreated tumor that had swelled to the size of a soccer ball.
''She felt like she was dirt and like she didn't have any value as a person,'' Dos Santos said in a victim's statement through her lawyer. ''She felt lower than an animal and was often very sad and cried when she was alone.''
© Copyright 2001 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc