Like thousands of other women recruited from abroad to work as domestic servants in the Washington area, Elizabeth Iguago looked forward to her job as a nanny in Maryland, expecting to be paid the going rate. Instead, she says, she received little more than $1 an hour and found herself caught up in a visa fraud scheme involving an employee of the International Monetary Fund.
The case of the 22-year-old Ecuadoran is among the latest in what local human rights groups say is common practice: the exploitation of women from poor countries brought here to work as servants for employees of the IMF, the World Bank, foreign embassies, the United Nations and other international organizations.
Holding a placard that said in Spanish, "We are workers, not slaves," Iguago joined about 30 human rights activists in a protest yesterday at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, site of an annual World Bank-IMF meeting. The demonstrators demanded stronger steps to ensure that the institutions' staff members treat their servants fairly. They shouted slogans such as "Stop abusing domestic workers" and "World Bank slavery's got to go," as dignitaries drove up to the hotel in limousines escorted by D.C. police cars.
The main organizer of the rally, the Campaign for Migrant Domestic Workers Rights, says that the World Bank and the IMF have agreed to implement some internal reforms but have fallen short of the aggressive response they promised earlier this year and that new cases have surfaced in the meantime. The institutions have refused to allow independent monitoring of the servants or the participation of outside social service agencies in advising the domestics of their rights, according to the campaign, a Washington-based coalition of service agencies, religious groups and social action organizations.
IMF and World Bank officials said they are crafting a "beefed-up" code of conduct for staffers, imposing new internal reporting requirements on contracts with domestics and drawing up a system of "random audits" to check that proper wages and taxes are paid.
With the new code, "we will certainly be in a good position to conduct monitoring ourselves and follow up on any allegations," said Joan Powers, assistant general counsel of the IMF.
But Mark Schaefer, attorney for an Ethiopian woman who says she was virtually enslaved for more than eight years by a former IMF employee, said, "We're not convinced that their own internal mechanisms are adequate to protect against the abuses we've seen. Their policy is based on a lack of understanding of the scope of the issue."
More than 30,000 domestics have entered the United States in the 1990s under special employment visas, designated A-3 and G-5, to work for foreign diplomats and employees of international groups. The campaign estimates that 1,000 domestics work for World Bank and IMF officials under the G-5 category; thousands have fled their employers over the years, joining the area's vast underground work force.
Many of the domestics are treated fairly, but others "are being held as virtual prisoners, forced to work extraordinarily long hours . . . for little or no pay," the campaign said. Employers routinely confiscate their passports, confine them to the home, ignore written contracts and sometimes beat or sexually abuse them, the group said.
Among those at yesterday's rally was Yeshehareg Teferra, an illiterate Ethiopian who was brought to Silver Spring in 1990 to work for Dawit Makonnen, an Ethiopian employee of the IMF. Although Makonnen subsequently left the IMF, he kept Teferra as a servant in violation of her visa and paid her less than 3 cents an hour for more than eight years of work, she said. Makonnen fled the country this year after being sued by Teferra for back wages and damages.
On Sept. 13, a federal judge ordered Makonnen to pay $342,606, but Teferra said she has little hope of collecting. Makonnen now works in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, as a consultant for the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, whose director is attending the World Bank-IMF conference.