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Enslaved in Palo Alto 

A domestic worker from Kenya has accused her employer -- a prominent African journalist -- of human trafficking

Wednesday, Feb 18 2004
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Alice says she knew that what was happening to her wasn't right, but she felt chained to her job. In court documents, she says that Njuguna-Githinji had confiscated her travel documents and warned Alice that immigration officials would deport her if she strayed too far from the apartment; Alice also told me that Njuguna-Githinji had convinced her she couldn't wire money home. And though it wasn't part of the original arrangement, Alice was now expected to repay Njuguna-Githinji the cost of the airplane ticket from Kenya.

Njuguna-Githinji has denied all of Alice's allegations. "Wanja didn't threaten or mistreat Alice," says William Abrams, a Stanford professor and an attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop, who is taking on the case pro bono.

Alice didn't have a name for her problem, but according to United Nations protocol and United States law, the conditions she describes would make her a victim of human trafficking. Though the media tends to fixate on the more salacious stories of people trafficked into sex slavery (as evidenced by the controversial Jan. 25 New York Times Magazine story "Sex Slaves on Main Street"), those cases, while horrendous, constitute only part of this international problem; instances involving people like Alice, brought to this country to labor under false pretenses, remain a woefully overlooked and misunderstood crisis. Her claims are particularly poignant given Njuguna-Githinji's record of working on behalf of Kenyan women.

With the help of pro bono attorneys, Alice has filed for asylum and a special visa for trafficking victims, both of which are still pending. The civil suit she filed against Njuguna-Githinji (which does not specifically mention trafficking) seeks more than $25,000 in damages on claims of such harbingers of trafficking as peonage and involuntary servitude, fraud, false imprisonment, and violating California labor laws. Until her case is resolved, Alice lives on charity -- unable to work, unable to go home.


What some international experts have called "the human rights issue of the 21st century," trafficking typically involves a worker -- farm laborer, seamstress, domestic staffer, prostitute -- who has been deceived about the terms of a job abroad, and who is then forced to work against her will through, as federal law states, "the use of force, fraud, coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."

"Trafficking is not about chains and whips; it also has to do with psychological imprisonment -- as well as physical and sexual abuse," says Joy Zarembka of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, which offers legal and social service help to trafficking victims. "Using threats to keep [domestic workers] enslaved in the home has been an incredibly successful tactic. People are threatened or spoken to in a way that makes them feel compelled to work because they believe there will be negative consequences if they don't."

Alice says she was deceived about her pay and work hours when she moved to the Bay Area. And yet, because of alleged verbal abuse and physical threats from her employer, and because, she claims, her visa and passport had been confiscated, Alice -- whom I met with twice in the presence of her attorneys -- says she was not free to leave.

Situations like hers have been documented for years. "In [domestic worker] cases, workers' isolation is so extreme and the culture of fear created by their employers ... is so great that the workers believe they will suffer serious harm if they leave their jobs, and have no choice but to remain in and continue laboring in abusive conditions," Human Rights Watch researcher Carol Pier wrote in her 2001 report Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers With Special Visas in the United States.

Accurate statistics on trafficking are almost impossible to obtain because it remains such an underground problem and because the issue is not limited to one country or region. The U.S. government estimates that 800,000 to 900,000 people are trafficked to and from nations all over the globe every year, with approximately 18,000 to 20,000 people trafficked into the United States annually.

Though the true size and scope of the problem are unknown, what is clear is that American legal and social service organizations across the country handle more labor trafficking cases than sex trafficking cases. The Freedom Network (USA), a coalition of 20 groups that work with trafficking victims, sees primarily labor-related cases. In Northern California, Mie Lewis of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Task Force says a majority of the region's trafficking cases -- she has seen dozens in her law office alone -- involve forced labor of domestic workers.

Identifying and prosecuting cases of such domestics, who toil behind the closed doors of private homes, is a challenge. The workers' isolation makes it difficult for them to access outside help and corroborate their stories for authorities. "Domestic worker cases -- they're like this dirty secret," says Jenny Stanger of Los Angeles' Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking. "They're working in the private sphere, where you are least likely to detect slavery. I think it's an enormous problem; I think there are a lot of them out there."

"In many of these cases, it's one person's word against the other," adds Dr. Mohamed Mattar of Johns Hopkins University's Protection Project, a research institute dedicated to human trafficking. "In many cases of domestic servants, we're talking about [accusations made against] high-profile people, because who can afford domestics except somebody like a diplomat? So they could try to shift the credibility question to the domestic. But we believe that the servant should be allowed to testify, and his testimony should be viewed as credible, too, absolutely."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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