The Slaves in Our Midst

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, December 23, 2006

Last Tuesday morning, one mile north of the White House, I sat in the upstairs dining room of a Dupont Circle cafe having a cup of tea with a slave. Well actually she's now a runaway slave who's living in the Washington area home of a good Samaritan.

But yes, she could have been considered a slave, if you define that as being bound to a specific area of land, forced to work without compensation, stripped of her passport and left at the absolute disposal of a master.

She is African. However, unlike her ancestors who arrived in America on slave ships, she came here voluntarily. She was, however, deceived about her working conditions, and she began her involuntary servitude once she entered her master's suburban Maryland household.

Our meeting took place in the presence of her lawyer, Elizabeth Keyes of CASA of Maryland Inc.'s Domestic Worker and Trafficked Persons Project. CASA and the Break The Chain Campaign of Washington, D.C., have represented dozens of immigrant domestic workers held in similar slavelike conditions.

The ground rules for the interview limited the amount of information that could be disclosed in today's column because a lawsuit against her alleged employer-master won't be filed in federal court until next month.

But details about the exploitation and degrading treatment of this young woman, and women from other impoverished nations, will appear in future columns devoted to the topic of 21st-century slavery in the nation's capital.

America prides itself on being among the nations that "have eliminated servitude as a state-sanctioned practice," to quote the State Department's June 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report, which documents such abuses in foreign countries. Truth is, traffickers are also at work in the nation's capital. What's worse, they couldn't get away with their abusive practices without the weak oversight of the U.S. government. Chief among the federal enablers: Condoleezza Rice's State Department.

The State Department gets fingered because so many of today's human traffickers and slavers are diplomats, flaunting U.S. and local laws, under the protective shield of the department's interpretation of diplomatic immunity.

Here's a case I can tell you about.

The lawsuit does not allege trafficking or slavery, but it aptly illustrates the claims of egregious labor exploitation by diplomats in Washington.

Lucia Mabel Gonzalez Paredes of Paraguay says she was hired in Argentina two years ago by Jose Luis Vila and his wife, Monica Nielsen, to perform housework and take care of their soon-to-be born baby. Vila, learning he was being posted to the Argentine Embassy in Washington, asked Gonzalez to move here with him and his wife to take care of the infant, because his wife wanted to pursue a legal education in the United States.

To obtain a State Department visa for Gonzalez, Vila and Gonzalez signed a contract specifying that she be paid $6.72 an hour to work a 40-hour week, with overtime pay for extra hours.


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