When Fainess Lipenga first came to the U.S. to work for a diplomat from her native Malawi with an A3 visa, there were no red flags.
She had worked for the diplomat in Malawi and was grateful for the opportunity, but once she arrived in Maryland with an A3 visa, the situation turned sour.
She was asked to sign a contract she couldn’t read or understand. The contract was in English, a language she could then neither speak nor read.
For three years, Lipenga worked 17 hours a day for a few cents an hour. Her boss, the diplomat, had “turned into a tiger,” she said.
Finally, Lipenga escaped with her passport and work contract. She was forced to live in a homeless shelter until she found help from the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center who put her in touch with an international law firm.
Lipenga took her trafficker to court and won a $1.1 million settlement.
Although she says she never saw all of the money, Lipenga told the audience that justice was more important to her.
“In America nobody is above the law,” she said.
Lipenga told her story at a forum convened at John Jay College of Criminal Justice last week to mark the end of Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
The forum made clear that, although Lipenga’s story finally ended happily, many other labor trafficking survivors in the U.S. are still suffering for lack of help.
Domestic workers trapped in situations of forced servitude are not always easy to identify, said Martina E. Vandenberg, founder and president of the human trafficking center. In a majority of the cases, they come into the U.S. with visas, but employers often disregard the officially stated conditions.
Vandenberg stressed the importance of “incidental contacts” –people who come into contact with domestic workers or others who are being trafficked. In such situations, she told the audience, there have been occasions where exploited domestic workers have tried to provide written evidence of the abuse they are enduring in a note to outsiders. Individuals who have received such messages can get in touch with the local department of labor on their behalf.
When the “trafficker,” as in Lipenga’s case, is a diplomat, governments need to waive diplomatic immunity in order to prosecute the individual.
“Diplomats are rarely prosecuted,” Vandeberg admitted.
That was the case for Lipenga’s boss, who went on to work as an ambassador in Zimbabwe, and has never accepted any of the charges brought against her.
Vandenberg first became involved in human trafficking work as a researcher for Human Rights Watch in the Balkans. Her 2002 report, Hopes Betrayed: Trafficking Women and Girls to Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina for Forced Prostitution, exposed the sexual violence, including forced prostitution, prevalent during and in the aftermath of the conflict that devastated Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995.
Also at the forum were experts from New York State agencies.
Estelle Davis, Counsel to the Division of Immigrant Policies and Affairs, and Frank King, Chief Labor Standards Investigator, described the work they do on behalf of labor trafficking victims.
New York State, especially New York City, they explained, is rife with labor exploitation. They cited restaurants, massage parlors, and nail salons as places where labor trafficking has occurred—and still occurs.
Sometimes individuals being exploited come forward. Other times, the Division of Labor may receive anonymous letters or tips.
Once someone comes forward, investigators decide whether it is possible to generate a claim. Since in many cases, employers train their employees to tell agencies they are making minimum wage, Davis said she asks complainants more specific questions, such as how many hours a day they work and how much they get paid an hour.
However, in the case of domestic servitude, this may prove challenging: the claimant is working in a household and not for a business.
Nonetheless, Davis reiterated, “The burden is on the employer to show their records.”
If the employer, or the head of the household, denies any wrongdoing, King said the agency uses “a variety” of evidence to prove existing exploitation, such as text messages between domestic workers and employers, or pictures of working conditions.
There is no guarantee that labor trafficking claims will be successful, but King said that a majority of investigative cases resulted in claimants receiving state funding as compensation for their lost wages.
Noting the current tense political climate surrounding immigration, Davis said the claimant is never asked about his or her legal status. That would “undermine” the entire point of their mission, Davis said.
The obstacles to securing justice never dampened Lipenga’s spirits:
“This is what freedom looks like,” she told the audience.
Now an American citizen, Lipenga is herself a labor trafficking advocate.
“We have to change the culture,” she said.
When someone is clearly suffering, as she had been, people need to react. She pointed the audience to the national human trafficking hotline and advised anyone who knew of abuses to call it.
“Survivors are not victims, they are leaders,” Lipenga said to applause. “What happened to me doesn’t define me; it makes me stronger.”
Julia Pagnamenta is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.