“They are so powerful. They are untouchable. My faith in God and the truth are my only weapons against their immunity,” – Virgina, domestic worker
Four domestic workers from the Philippines are bravely suing their diplomat employers in Switzerland for non-payment of wages and exploitation amounting to modern slavery.
Up against diplomatic immunity
These four women were employed by diplomats in the Pakistan Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. As diplomats, they enjoyed diplomatic immunity meaning they are protected from criminal and civil lawsuits.
In previous cases of domestic worker exploitation in diplomats’ households, filed reports were usually dismissed as a result of diplomatic immunity. However, the Swiss Mission has confirmed that the case brought by these four Filipina women is currently being investigated. Paola Ceresetti, spokesperson for the Swiss Mission, said:
“Switzerland does not tolerate any abuse of the working conditions of private household employees in the diplomatic context”.
Though used to help diplomats to carry out their duties, diplomatic immunity has left domestic workers in their employment at great risk of exploitation and abuse as employers know that workers’ ability to bring them to justice is severely curtailed.
No wages for 20 years
Virginia is one of the women bringing the case against her former employer, alleging that she went unpaid for over 20 years. Veronica first signed an employment contract in 1999 that stated she would work 40 hours per week for a salary of 1,200 Swiss francs ($1,329).
Once Virgina arrived in Geneva from the Philippines it became clear that she was expected to work for no pay at all. Facing pressure from her employer, Virginia had no other option but to comply.
Allegations of exploitation, human trafficking, threats and coercion from Virginia and three other women have been supported by the ongoing collection of evidence since 2021 by the Swiss Mission.
Where domestic workers’ visas are tied to their employer, they are further disempowered from rejecting exploitative conditions. If they flee their employer, they risk breaching the conditions of their visa and at risk of detention and deportation.
Until the case is settled, the Swiss Mission has suspended issuing visas to domestic workers employed under the Pakistan Mission. Virginia’s case is unfortunately one of more than a hundred reported incidents of domestic worker exploitation at the hands of diplomats recorded between 1996 and 2020.
Ana P Santos at Al Jazeera reports:
Open-source court documents, news reports and case files from NGOs revealed more than 140 incidents of diplomats and employees of international organisations implicated in domestic worker exploitation and trafficking from 1996 to 2020.
If cases were filed, they were usually dismissed because of diplomatic immunity. Cases, wherein compensation was awarded to the victim, were usually not enforced because the diplomat had left the country or was transferred to another embassy.
Domestic workers work in private residences around the world providing vital care that keeps our societies going. Behind closed doors, they can be particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
But there is a global standard to protect domestic workers. It’s called Convention 189 and it sets out measures for governments to follow to better protect them. Many key countries have already signed on, however momentum has slowed since it was introduced in 2011, and we need to push our governments to act.