Workers rights groups yesterday called on the U.S. State Department and foreign embassies to hold diplomats accountable for labor and wage abuses against maids and housekeepers they bring to this country as live-in domestic help.
At a news conference, the groups said the State Department has a special role because it issues thousands of visas each year to allow domestic employees to work for diplomats and officials of international organizations stationed in this country.
Once in the United States, however, some employers fail to pay proper wages, confiscate workers' passports and threaten to send them home, according to law enforcement officials, advocacy groups and workers.
Employees of diplomats, who often have immunity from prosecution and lawsuits, say they often have little recourse.
The groups -- CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy organization, the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice and the Break the Chain Campaign, a domestic workers organization -- called on the State Department to take several steps. They recommended denying visa requests from diplomats and others who repeatedly violate worker rights, conducting private interviews with employers and workers to ensure compliance with federal laws and creating a database of complaints by domestic workers against employers.
John Miller, who heads the State Department's office to combat human trafficking, said some of the proposals, such as annual interviews with domestic workers and better record-keeping, were being considered as part of internal recommendations.
"We should do everything we can . . . to stop this," he said, referring to the exploitation of domestic workers.
In an article this month, The Washington Post wrote about two Ecuadoran nannies who were rescued by CASA from employers' homes in Falls Church because of alleged mistreatment. Their employers are officials of Ecuador's mission to the Organization of American States.
In addition, two other Ecuadoran domestic workers have left the employment of Ecuador's ambassador to the OAS, Marcelo Hervas, alleging that they have not been paid wages promised them, according to CASA. Hervas did not return telephone messages left at the mission.
Yesterday's news conference was held across the street from the building that houses the Ecuadoran embassy and the mission to the OAS.
Ecuador's ambassador to the United States, Raul R. Gangotena, told the advocacy groups and a lawyer for the two nannies, Alexandra Santacruz and Germania Velasco, that the women could file a claim with labor and judicial authorities in Ecuador. In response to a question, however, he said he was not aware of Ecuadoran authorities reviewing any such cases in the past decade. He said it would not be appropriate for him to seek an investigation of their cases.
Santacruz worked 80-hour weeks, cooking, cleaning and baby-sitting, and was paid little more than $2 an hour, according to her attorney, Victor Glasberg. Velasco's contract promised her $6 an hour, about three times what she ended up receiving, according to Glasberg, who also represents her.
Santacruz's employer, Efrain Baus Palacios, first secretary at the Ecuadoran mission to the OAS, and Velasco's employer, Veronica Pena, second secretary at the mission, denied any mistreatment. In a joint, unpublished letter to the editor of The Post, they wrote:
"It is hard to imagine that the two above mentioned persons, who worked in our houses for long time (including time in Ecuador prior to coming to the US), who begged to be given the opportunity to come to the US, who were free to study English on weekdays, who received friends at home, who enjoyed every weekend off, one of whom had enough money to pay for her parents' house in little more than a year and still had enough left over to shop and send suitcases full of presents to Ecuador, or that can carry her own cellular phone, would need to be 'rescued.' "