It was the chance of a lifetime for Edith Mendoza: $10 dollars per hour and 35 hours a week plus overtime as a live-in nanny for a German diplomat’s family in tony Westchester County, New York. Brimming with optimism about the position, which she found on an au pair employment website, Edith quit her nanny job in Qatar and came to the United States. She would be able to pay her family’s debts back in the Philippines, put her two children through college and afford her daughter’s medical treatment.
Things started out fine in the household of Pit Koehler, Counsellor of the German Permanent Mission to the U.N., and his wife, Marieke. When the job, which she started in January 2015, became more demanding, Mendoza would tell herself, “A quitter never wins,” or “Do your best before you complain,” and carry on working weeks that she says stretched to nearly 100 hours. Yet even after several reminders, the wages—weekly deposits of $350 into her bank account—never reflected the overtime. Mendoza says she was making less then $4. After one year, she began to get sick. Her employers refused to give her a day off to see a doctor. Sick, scared and bleeding heavily, Mendoza was reduced to wearing adult diapers while working. When she finally went to see a doctor, her employers threatened to fire her.
“Being Filipino, I carried the cultural value to honor and respect, as a debt of gratitude, but it was then that I realized they did not see me as human,” says Mendoza.
In a letter to the family that allegedly exploited her, Mendoza wrote, “Living in America is not that easy, especially when you are away from your loved ones. It’s because of ambition to give my family a good future, by God’s grace and power of love, [that] I have to fight to live and survive with such strong determination.”
Mendoza escaped in June 2016 with the help of Damayan Migrant Workers Association. She learned about the New York City-based group for Filipino immigrant and migrant workers at the Filipino evangelical church she attended on Sundays. She immediately googled the group, but a year would pass before she sent them an email with the subject line, “Cry for Help.” Damayan placed Mendoza in its four-part Know Your Rights training that summer and, with that knowledge, she began to plan her escape.
After a chance meeting in a Manhattan park with Sherile Pahagas, another domestic worker who had been employed by the of the Koehler family, the two women joined forces. They are now suing the Koehlers. The complaint alleges breach of contract, unpaid wages and labor violations.
For Edith Mendoza’s account in her own words, click here.
The International Labour Organization estimates that worldwide 14.2 million migrant workers are victims of labor exploitation. “It’s particularly egregious when there’s facilitation of the visa process and the people are working for a diplomatic agency,” says Reena Arora, the women’s attorney and a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center. “The fact that Edith and Sherile have been willing to come forward, share their story and stand up for their rights is incredibly powerful given the [political] climate.”
Fortunately, through the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, New York has distinct safeguards in place for Mendoza, Pahagas and the 200,000 women employed as domestic workers in New York. “The Fair Labor Standards Act states that live-in domestic workers are not entitled to overtime at 1.5 hours,” says Arora, “but New York law doesn’t respect this continuing exemption rooted in old concepts of racism and slavery.”
For organizers and legal aid workers, connecting with these workers, who are rarely aware of their rights, is a big challenge. “People like Edith and Sherile are living in these mansions super isolated and there’s no way for them to interact with the community and have access to resources,” says Arora, who also started the Wage Justice Program in Westchester County. “That was part of the problem when Edith was trying to seek medical care as well. It’s extremely important for these cases to be brought to light and create accountability because right now so much happens undercover in private households without anybody knowing.”
In July, Congress unanimously passed the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act allotting $520 million towards the prevention of human trafficking. Yet, with limited resources to advocate for themselves, survivors of human trafficking and labor exploitation escape their situation only to find themselves undocumented and at risk for more abuses.
“If you want to talk about prevention, A-3 and G-5 visas are flawed and give employers free reign to abuse [their employees],” says Riya Ortiz, a Filipino community organizer with Damayan Migrant Workers Association.
The State Department in its 2017 Trafficking in Persons report found “that some foreign mission personnel evade current protection measures for foreign domestic workers” and noted a call “for increased efforts to prosecute domestic servitude cases involving diplomats when possible, the inclusion of all domestic workers in federal labor and employment law protections, and strengthened protections under state laws.”
For civil servants like Koehler, asserting diplomatic immunity begets impunity allowing employers to evade protections for foreign workers and commit the same worker abuses the U.N. is trying to stop. Bringing cases against diplomats remain uniquely challenging for workers’ rights advocates. Under the Vienna Convention, diplomats enjoy almost unconditional immunity from criminal proceedings. However, the women’s attorney maintains that in this case Koehler is not entitled to diplomatic immunity.
Exploitation and trafficking cases brought forward by domestic workers are rarely criminally prosecuted. Diplomatic immunity makes prosecution even harder. A 2008 GOA report identified 42 cases of alleged abuses against domestic workers by foreign diplomats in the U.S. between 2000 and 2008. In that time 18,000 A-3 and G-5 visas were issued, and the report noted that the number of abuses was likely higher. Civil suits have become key to getting justice for many domestic workers. One notable example is the 2009 case of Baoanan v. Baja, where a federal court in New York ruled that diplomatic immunity does not extend to personal needs such as employing domestic workers. In a historic victory for workers’ rights, the court ruled in favor of Marichu Suarez Baoanan, a domestic worker hired during by Lauro Baja Jr., a Filipino U.N. Ambassador.
The Koehlers did not respond to the complaint by an August 18 deadline and they could not be reached for comment. Mendoza and Pahagas filed for a default judgment on September 22.
Christoph Braner, a spokesperson for the German Mission to the U.N., declined to comment on the lawsuit, stating only that, “on this matter, the German Mission to the U.N. is in contact with the U.S. Mission to the U.N. The German Mission does not provide further details in connection with the ongoing lawsuit that named a diplomat at the German Mission to the U.N. as defendant.”
Dana Ullman is a New York-based photojournalist with a focus on stories that humanize statistics and illuminate unheard voices. She has contributed to The California Sunday Magazine, The New York Times, CNN, The Atlantic, Time and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, among other outlets.