Ex-Worker Sues Envoy Of Tanzania
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
A Tanzanian woman brought to the United States by a diplomat at his country's mission in Washington is suing the envoy and his wife, alleging that they treated her like a slave in their Montgomery County home for more than four years, failed to pay her and physically abused her.
Diplomats in the United States have broad immunity from civil and criminal prosecution, but plaintiff Zipora Mazengo's attorneys say they hope the case will be allowed to proceed because the woman worked for the couple's catering business, which they argue should strip the two of immunity.
The suit, filed late last month in federal court in the District, states that Alan S. Mzengi, a minister at the Tanzanian Embassy, and his wife, Stella, forced Mazengo to work 16-hour days, seven days a week, from June 2000 until she fled in August 2004.
Mazengo, who has a visa from the Department of Homeland Security that is given to victims of human trafficking, said in an interview that she filed the suit to collect unpaid wages and send a message to her former bosses.
"They should be fair," said Mazengo, who is being represented by CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group.
Alan Mzengi didn't respond to a message left with a woman who answered the phone at his home yesterday. The woman said Stella Mzengi was out of the country. It could not be determined whether they have a lawyer.
Calls to the Tanzanian Embassy went unanswered yesterday.
Mazengo was 20 when she arrived in Washington on a domestic worker visa issued at the request of the embassy.
The lawsuit states that Alan Mzengi drafted a contract stipulating that she would work eight hours a day, five days a week taking care of the couple's house and their children. She would be paid $900 a month, from which $150 would be deducted for room and board. The contract also stated that she would be eligible for overtime pay, according to the lawsuit.
About a month after she started working at the couple's home in Bethesda, Mazengo said, she realized her bosses weren't going to adhere to the terms of the contract. But she felt that she had no recourse, she said, because the couple took her passport and because she spoke virtually no English.
Mazengo said she was forced to work from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day caring for the couple's children, cleaning and cooking, according to the suit. Additionally, she cooked for the couple's African food catering business, which they ran from their home, the suit states.
On one occasion, Mazengo said in the interview and in the lawsuit, Stella Mzengi struck her in the face. The couple also refused to take her to a doctor for more than two years as ingrown toenails became so painful she couldn't wear shoes, Mazengo said. Despite her condition, Alan Mzengi "ordered her to shovel snow in her bare feet," according to the suit.
In August 2004, Mazengo said, when she asked Alan Mzengi for her wages, he bought her a one-way ticket to Tanzania and told her she would be paid when she returned home. Mazengo called one of the clients of the catering business, who had been friendly to her, to say goodbye. During the phone call, Mazengo said, she began to weep and told the customer about the conditions she had endured. The customer asked her to take a cab to her home, where she eventually got in touch with CASA de Maryland, Mazengo said.
In December, she received the visa given to victims of human trafficking, a turning point that she says emboldened her to take legal action.
Allegations of human trafficking by diplomats are not unusual, said Mazengo's attorney, Elizabeth Keyes. But she said courts have tossed out every such case she knows, citing diplomatic immunity. However, diplomats can be held liable for violating the law in the course of professional and commercial activities outside the scope of their diplomatic duties, Keyes said. In recent similar cases, she said, plaintiffs have argued that the sole act of hiring a domestic worker falls under the exception for commercial activities, but judges have disagreed.
"This is a novel argument," Keyes said, referring to the catering business. "It's hard to imagine something more commercial than running a small catering business."
Mazengo's lawsuit alleges involuntary servitude, trafficking, forced labor, and state and federal minimum wage violations, among other crimes. She is seeking about $500,000 in back wages and other unspecified damages.