A Bolivian woman has been awarded $56,000 in back pay and damages on her claim that a Bolivian family brought her to the United States to be a maid and then never paid her for nearly three years of work in virtual servitude.
The award is one of the largest ever made in a case involving failure to pay a domestic worker. U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. ruled in the woman's favor on Thursday, finding that her employers "exploited for their own purposes a young, poorly educated, naive alien who was completely at their whim and mercy."
According to Robinson's findings, Gabina Camacho Lopez, 23, worked from October 1976 to June 1979, seven days a week, for 10 to 12 hours a day, yet she was never paid and never permitted to leave her employer's home unless she was accompanied by one of them, their children or by her employers' friends.
In return, she received room and board, medical expenses, some clothing and toiletries and "minimal pocket expenses."
When she asked for her back earnings, her employers, Manuel and Mirtha Rodriquez, refused to pay her, Robinson said in his order.
"As educated, intelligent, bilingual persons, (the Rodiquezes) failed to demonstrate a good faith effort to comply" with federal regulations governing labor practices, Robinson said.
Lopez, who left the Rodiquez home in June 1979 and is now employed as a domestic in another Washington-area home, could not be reached for comment yesterday. But her attorney, Kenneth Weckstein said, "We are pleased with the decision, obviously."
The Rodriquezes were stunned to learn of the order yesterday.
"We won't be able to pay that. No way," said Mirtha Rodriquez, an employe of the Pan American Health Organization."I earn about $12,000 a year and my husband earns about $10,000. We have three children and a house we just bought."
"I can hardly make ends meet trying to pay for our family expenses right now," said Manuel Rodriquez, who works as a travel agent for The American Express Co.
Those who work with foreign domestics were elated by the decision, however.
"I'm glad someone finally took one of these cases to court," said the Rev. Sean O'Malley, who runs a Catholic organization established to help Central and South American residents of the Washington area.
"It's very common for these Latin Americans who work in homes to be abused and taken advantage of," he said. "Every week there's a case like this."
"There's a great need for suits of this kind," said David Goren, a Washington attorney who specializes in the problems faced by foreigners in the United States. "They often work as slaves in people's homes. But there's not a whole lot of cases brought because the domestics are usually very afraid they could be deported if they complain."
Most of the cases, unlike Lopez's, involve foreign domestics imported by diplomats or employes of international organizations based here in Washington, O'Malley and Goren said.
According to O'Malley, the Justice Department, the Centro Catolico, in the Adams-Morgan section of Washington, to compile a list of cases involving the abuse of foreign domestics by diplomats.
"We came up with a list of 50 just over the last couple of months," he said. "I think at last people are becoming concerned in the government about these people's welfare." He said that the Justice Department is apparently considering taking an active role in trying to stop such abuses. The Justice Department official who had made the request for the information could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The Rodriquezes maintained yesterday they had done nothing wrong.
"She was part of our family," said Mirtha Rodriquez. "We brought her here so she could come to the United States and have the chance to better herself. It's just hard for me to believe this has happened. She was just a very nice girl. This wa something I never tried to do; harm anybody."
The Rodriquezes said that they are considering filing an appeal, but their attorney, Irwin Goldberg, said no decision has been made yet.