Diplomats and officials of international organizations traffick, abuse, and exploit their migrant domestic workers, shielded by diplomatic immunity and their sending countries.
GENEVA/NEW YORK—When Rosario’s employer asked her and her sister, Virginia, to sign the backdated payslips, she refused.
“I will not sign that, sir. It is all lies,” Rosario said before walking out and slamming the door behind her.
By that time, Rosario and Virginia had been working without pay for their diplomat-employer for nearly 20 years.
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Rosario, Virginia, and two other Filipino domestic workers are suing the Pakistani Mission to the United Nations in Switzerland on charges of unpaid wages, trafficking, and other damages.
The request to sign the backdated payslips was meant to refute their allegations.
Virginia recalled that fateful day with her sister. The first of many when they braved the odds and faced off with power and the immunity that comes with it.
“In truth, it’s like we’re going up against a wall. They are so powerful. They’re untouchable. Faith in God and the truth. Those are the only two things that will give you the strength to stand up to them,” 46-year-old Virginia said.
Rappler reviewed evidence gathered starting in 2021 that supported the allegations of violations of Swiss labor law, threats, coercion, exploitation, and human trafficking.
Paola Ceresetti, spokesperson for the Swiss Mission, the government agency that monitors compliance with employment contracts between diplomats and their domestic staff, confirmed the ongoing case.
The Swiss Mission has suspended issuing visas for domestic workers employed under the Pakistan Mission until the case is settled.
In an email, the Pakistani Mission in Geneva said it does not comment on cases pending resolution, but also said: “The Mission takes its obligations under the applicable international law and local regulations very seriously. It also pursues its rights, including the right to defend itself against insinuations through available mechanisms.”
Protection and prosecution gap
A Rappler database constructed from open-source court documents, news reports, and case files from NGOs revealed that of the reports with details about wages, 79% of the allegations involved wage theft, excessively low wages, or not being paid at all, such as the case of Rosario and Virginia.
A Geneva-based labor rights lawyer who asked not to be named, said about wage theft being an alarmingly common practice: “Some diplomats, like those coming from less developed countries, cannot afford to pay Swiss wages to domestic staff.”
Jean Pierre Garbade, a lawyer who has handled cases involving Filipino domestic workers and their abusive diplomat employers posted in Switzerland, acknowledged this, but emphasized that this is no excuse.
“They could live without domestic care, but they want it,” said Garbade.
About 65% of the incidents recorded in the Rappler database took place while diplomats were posted in Switzerland and the US, two countries at the center of global diplomacy.
Rappler compared the incidents of wage theft with the minimum wage requirements in the US and Switzerland. We then examined government transparency documents related to the salary and benefits of diplomats and consular officers from the two countries with the most number of allegations of wage theft: the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.
Swiss law mandates a minimum wage of CHF19.50 (US$20.90 | P1,163) per hour for domestic workers, roughly translating to a monthly income of CHF3,120 ($3,585 | P199,576).
In New York, domestic workers are entitled to $15 (P835) per hour or about $2,400 (P133,608) per month.
At the highest level of Chief of Mission, a Filipino diplomat is classified at salary level 29 and receives a maximum monthly salary of P187,575 ($3,369). In addition, the official is entitled to a monthly overseas allowance of about $5,799 (P322,830) and $2,920 (P162,556) for housing. These allowances are adjusted based on the cost of living in the country of posting.
Meanwhile, the latest available pay scale document issued in 2011 pegged the highest salary for a Kingdom of Saudi Arabian (KSA) diplomat at the ambassadorial level at SAR32,055 ($8,548 | P475,867).
A KSA 2008 document, also posted on the government website in 2021, about diplomatic postings does not specify an allowance for domestic workers, but indicates that benefits include a car and a driver, alongside other benefits such as housing.
“If diplomats can’t afford to pay domestic workers, then they shouldn’t hire them. They cannot just pay them what they want, which is usually a pittance,” said Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch senior researcher for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.
Outside diplomatic channels
Diplomatic immunity is crucial in maintaining the delicate balance between political agendas and foreign policies among countries. However, diplomatic immunity presents both a protection and prosecution gap for migrant domestic workers.
Outside of court, cases are often better relegated to work tribunals or mediation bodies that negotiate disputes.
“Because of the principle of immunity, cases have to be dealt with – if at all – outside the norms and laws that usually apply,” said Sophia Wirsching, managing director of Berlin-based NGO Nationwide Coordination Circle Against Human Trafficking (KOK).
In Switzerland, the Bureau de Amiable Compositeur (BAC) is tasked with mediating between employees and employers who enjoy diplomatic privileges.
BAC data indicate that the arbitration body has handled about 1,329 reports from 1995 to 2022, about half of which are preventive consultations about labor regulations.
During the same period, BAC chairperson Martine Brunschwig Graf, said that payments made by employers to employees average about CHF128,000 ($145,000 | P8 million) per year. “Reputational risk” is a strong motivation for employers to pay back wages, she added.
Lea Rakovsky, project coordinator for Ban Ying, a migrant women’s rights NGO based in Berlin, has been part of such mediation meetings. When they were even successful at getting the diplomat concerned to come to the table, it was often “tense and awkward.”
“The wrongdoings can be so obvious, but the diplomat usually doesn’t care. They despise the worker, they despise us. They act like they are above everything,” said Rakovsky.
In Ban Ying’s experience, there has never been an instance where the worker was paid the entire amount owed in back wages.
The Rappler database of allegations against officials with diplomatic privileges showed that at least 29 of the 160 implicated officials were still holding positions in embassies or international organizations.
One such official is Efrain Baus, who currently serves as ambassador to the Permanent Delegation of Ecuador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a position he first assumed in 2021.
Ecuadorian domestic worker Alexandra Santa Cruz accused Baus of paying her about $2 (P111) per hour while he was first secretary of the Ecuadorian Mission to the Organization of American States (OAS), an international human rights organization in Washington, DC.
In an email to Rappler, Baus said that Santa Cruz’s charges were resolved by mutual agreement and added: “I rejected at the moment, and I reiterate it now, any wrongdoing or act of legal responsibility, and even less the misuse of diplomatic immunity since there was no legal case in any way. I oppose any intention to link myself in that sense.”
OAS, where Baus was cited as being employed at the time of Santa Cruz’s allegations, said it cannot comment on any individual case and added: “Member-states representatives accredited to the OAS are employees of the Government that they represent and are not…any other type of General Secretariat/OAS human resource.”
In response to questions about Baus’ current position, UNESCO told Rappler: “The nomination of ambassadors is the preserve of member states. They are not UNESCO employees. UNESCO is not in a position to comment.”
“The sending states are definitely complicit because they protect their diplomats, they help extricate their diplomats, they refuse to waive immunity for their diplomats and then they make it almost impossible to actually collect on judgments when there is a judgment (in favor of the worker),” said lawyer Martina E. Vandenberg, of the Human Trafficking Legal Center.
New York: Epicenter of diplomacy
The downpour in New York City on August 7, 2017 did not deter domestic workers and supporters from gathering in front of the German consulate.
The protesters, clad in raincoats, carried picket signs with the photo of German citizen Pit Koehler. Their chants demanded payment of unpaid wages amounting to $220,000 (P12.2 million) to Sherile Pahagas and Edith Mendoza, two Filipino domestic workers who formerly worked for Koehler.
Mendoza and Pahagas worked for Koehler and his wife, Marieke, over two separate periods while Koehler held diplomatic positions as an official with the delegation of the United Nations and then as counselor in the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations.
Pahagas was hired from the Philippines and worked as a domestic helper for the Koehlers from 2012 to 2014. Mendoza began working for them soon after, in 2014.
It was by chance that the two met at a park in New York and realized that they had worked for the Koehlers. Both worked a grueling 10-11 hours each day cleaning the Koehlers’ six-bedroom, six-bathroom home and taking care of their four children. They were paid an estimated $4 (P222) per hour.
“He speaks about promoting and defending the rights of women and children, meanwhile, there is a trafficked domestic worker living inside his home. So imagine the hypocrisy of Pit Koehler,” Riya Ortiz, executive director of Damayan Migrant Worker’s Association in New York, said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Damayan is among the groups that assisted the two women in filing a case against the Koehlers.
In its latest study, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog that provides information to aid Congress, identified 42 alleged cases of foreign diplomats abusing their domestic workers between 2000 and 2008. The actual number of cases is likely higher, said the GAO.
“It wasn’t enough that the Koehlers trafficked Sherile Pahagas. He trafficked Edith Mendoza, a few months later. There was no remorse over what they did to Sherile. They even did it again,” Ortiz added.
Both cases were dismissed because of diplomatic immunity. However, US court documents state: “Notably, nothing in the defendants’ motion to dismiss based on diplomatic immunity challenges the factual allegations of the complaint.”
In an email, a spokesperson at the German federal foreign office in Berlin said that they were aware of the allegations against Koehler, but dismissed them. “The Federal Foreign Office investigated the allegations made in the present case very carefully. The allegations have not been substantiated…If there are indications of misconduct in individual cases, we investigate the indications thoroughly. If allegations are confirmed, we take the appropriate consequences.”
“We see these serial offenders all the time. They just bring in a new domestic worker. There are many cases where they run through domestic workers, one after the other,” said Vandenberg of the Human Trafficking Legal Center.
Emotional price of facing off with immunity
For Pahagas and Mendoza and hundreds of migrant domestic workers, the same diplomatic immunity that is supposed to protect diplomats while doing their work leaves foreign workers vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
The long and tedious process of seeking justice can take its toll.
For Virginia and Rosario, the two sisters in Geneva, the nearly 20 years are blurred into back-breaking days of juggling their work for the Pakistani Mission and taking on extra housekeeping jobs to actually earn money.
Virginia still remembers the anxiety that rattled her nerves during court proceedings. Clumps of her hair fell out when she would pull it back into a ponytail. Panic attacks, outbreaks of cold sweat and difficulty breathing interrupted patches of sleep.
On Sundays, the sisters usually meet in Rosario’s home. Rosario talks about the new Netflix series — usually action, never drama — she is watching. Virginia describes the latest pair of sneakers she stops to look at in store windows. Always, there are long phone calls with their mother in the Philippines.
In the presence of family, they are able to overlook what they have been through as they await a decision on their case.
Domestic worker rights advocates say that the excessive dependency on an employer — heightened when the employer is a diplomat — and deeply ingrained social dynamics that devalue domestic work are among the intersecting factors that add to the precarity of the job.
This also exacts an emotional toll that makes it difficult for domestic workers to come forward and seek redress.
“When abuse and violence are part of the daily treatment and continue for a long time, the trauma and emotional aftermath are very difficult to heal. Confronting their abusers retraumatizes them…they couldn’t bear it without the support of others,” said Fernanda Valenti, media officer of the International Domestic Workers Federation, a global organization of domestic and household workers.
For Virginia and Rosario, it may not be an even battle, but not one that is impossible to win.
In 2022, the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled in favor of Filipino domestic worker Josephine Wong against her employer, Saudi diplomat Khalid Basfar.
The UK High Court determined that domestic employment in diplomatic households was a commercial activity and was not protected by immunity.
“They will need a lot of emotional support,” said Mylene Soto, a migrants rights activist and volunteer for a Geneva-based trade union.
As an ally, Soto has been mollifying the women’s apprehensions by translating and explaining documents. As a friend, Soto has been providing a listening ear.
“I will never forget what Virginia once told me while thanking me: ‘You didn’t just help us, you loved us, too,’” said Soto.
(To be concluded).
With reports from Michelle Abad and Gerald John Guillermo/Rappler.com.
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