Modern Slavery? Domestic Workers Fight For Fairness

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Housekeepers and hotel maids protesting in New York City.
From and

In the United States, domestic workers are unprotected from the most basic fairness and safety regulations on the job. When Congress passed the original Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, all domestic workers—nannies, caregivers, housekeepers, landscapers, farm hands—were exempt from its minimum wage and overtime requirements.

The maltreatment of domestic workers is currently be played out in at least one high profile case. Lucy Mwaka is a 23-year-old woman from Kenya's capital city of Nairobi. In June 2010, she came to America and began working for the Kenyan Embassy's Head of Public Affairs, Waithira Njuguna, at Njuguna's home in Rockville, MD.  

Lucy's written contract with Njuguna said she would work eight hour days, five days a week for $8.84 per hour. But Lucy was paid just $250 per month and did not receive promised vacation time, paid medical care, or good wages.

Lucy says that Njuguna often did not pay her, forced her to work for other Kenyan diplomats, and threatened that if she ran away she would end up homeless or be deported. After working 16 to 20 hour a days seven days a week—and sometimes not even being permitted to sleep—Lucy escaped from her employer's home on March 23, 2014.

This kind of domestic indentured servitude, what some often call a form of modern slavery, plays out quite often in the United States. Today, Lucy plans to sue Njuguna for $200,000 in back wages and penalties. Sheena Wadhawan, Lucy's attorney, wrote a letter to Njuguna and her boss, Ambassador Jean Kamau, outlining the labor violations and including the written contract signed between Lucy Mwaka and Waithira Njuguna.

Neither Njuguna nor Kamau have responded to interview requests.

The journalist who broke this story of alleged abuse and virtual slavery, Armando Trull, a senior reporter from WAMU, weighs in on Lucy's case.

"She alleges that during the entire time—four years—that she was kept in these conditions, and that she was not allowed any freedom of mobility, and her passport was taken away," says Trull. 

Trull adds that her employer intimidated Lucy so she would not leave. He adds that Lucy was not given things she was promised before she left Nairobi, like a living wage, vacation time, and medical care for accident she had suffered back in Kenya.

"She told me she had to remove stitches from her mouth herself because she never got any of these promises," adds Trull. "On paper, there are a whole series of legal rights that these domestic workers have, but when they go to these briefings, sometimes they're accompanied by minders from the embassy who say, 'Well, don't pay attention to what you're hearing, that's not really the way things are.' They would be told not to speak to anybody. It's a method to control these folks."

Trull says that while the State Department says that there are procedures in place to protect these workers, these safe guards often fall short because foreign diplomats cannot be deported or prosecuted for mistreatment.

"Sometimes the State Department is able to sanction specific diplomats and not allow them to bring in other domestic workers," he says. "It almost becomes a public affairs battle. The human rights organization that is helping Lucy is trying to get $200,000 in back pay for all of the overtime that she worked that was never paid for, but ultimately it's just a matter of whether the embassy bows to this pressure because they can claim diplomatic immunity."

Even though Lucy has a long way to go, she says she feels great.

"It's better to sleep under a bridge than sleep in a mansion where you are always feeling like you can't breathe," she says. 

But Lucy isn't the only person to experience this kind of maltreatment. Labor laws in 18 states specifically exclude home care workers from their own state minimum wage laws.

And as the number of domestic care workers employed across the country increases, the number of people working in these jobs without fair pay or protections is only increasing. 

Sarah Leberstein, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, joins us to explain.

"These workers are very lowly paid, and not only are their hourly wages low, but they frequently aren't paid for the work that they do perform," says Leberstein. "Often employers won't pay workers time they spend working before or after their official shift. In the case of home care workers, a lot of workers are missing out on pay when they travel from one client's home to another, or when they're working long overnight shifts and they have to get up in the middle of the night to care for a client, they're often not paid for that time."

Leberstein says that domestic workers are often placed in a tricky situation because working in the home creates an intimate environment for employer and employee.

"They feel a lot of pressure not to complain and not to damage that relationship," says Leberstein. "On the other hand, there has been some movement for domestic workers and home care workers to organize, and home care workers are increasingly organizing into unions."

Leberstein says that higher wages and better conditions for home care workers can be beneficial to all parties involved. 

"The more that we invest in the home care system, the more we're going to see an increase in the level of care and also the stability of the work force," she says. "These workers experience turnover and burnout at extremely high rates, so the person you might rely on to help get your grandmother out of bed in the morning might be someone who's brand new on the job, someone who's completely stressed out, or even someone who has had an injury but can't afford to take time off to get better."

Listen to the full interview for more analysis from Leberstein.