GAO Report Details Need to Address Domestic Worker Abuse

GAO Report Details Need to Address Domestic Worker Abuse
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Yesterday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its report [PDF] on government efforts to address the abuse of domestic workers by foreign diplomats within the United States. The report confirmed what advocates, service providers and victims have long known: that this deeply troubling problem runs deep, and through its inaction and dilatory behavior, the State Department has unwittingly facilitated the exploitation, abuse and enslavement of poor, vulnerable women, some in the shadows of the nation's capital.

The report made several important findings. Of particular note, it recognized that the exploitation of domestic workers is more pervasive than reported, and the specific cases referenced in the report are but the tip of the iceberg. It noted that consular officers who interview applicants and issue visas lack basic training and guidance about the duties required of them by the State Department. Incredibly, some officers were unaware that they should inform domestic workers of the telephone hotline for reporting the abuse of household workers and other trafficking-related crimes, or even to refer workers to call 911 in case of an emergency.

Further, although U.S. law protects domestic workers from wage and labor violations, exploitation and enslavement, the State Department fails to adequately and consistently inform domestic workers of their rights, leaving them even more susceptible to abuse by unscrupulous diplomats, employees of international organizations and others. According to the report, one of the consular offices didn't speak to applicants about their rights but instead distributed a one page handout. It isn't clear whether that handout was in a language understood by the worker or that the worker was even literate.

On a related note, the study found that although the State Department's Foreign Affairs Manual requires a written contract between the employer and domestic worker, most of the contracts executed were clearly deficient or contained contradictory terms. Even more disturbing, none of the contracts reviewed by the GAO were written in a language other than English.

Additionally, the GAO brought to light the State Department's unwillingness to cooperate, in a timely manner, with the Justice Department's (DOJ) investigations of abuses. The DOJ has asked to be provided with a list of investigative techniques that, in the State Department's view, are not legally permissible when the subject of the investigation has full or partial immunity. The State Department, however, prefers to handle the investigations on a case-by-case basis, thereby slowing down the investigation. This behavior raises serious doubts about State Department's commitment to hold diplomats accountable for abuse and trafficking.

Finally, the report noted that there is no system in place to track incidents, allegations or investigations of abuse and no mechanism to disseminate this information within the State Department and DOJ.

These are just a few of the highlights from the report. But each one clearly demonstrates the need for a comprehensive and thoughtful re-examination of the path the State Department has taken to address this problem. Indeed, the report is a clear indictment of the State Department's lack of a serious commitment to ending the exploitation and trafficking of domestic workers. While we agree with the report's recommendations and are pleased to know the State Department and other agencies concur, they don't go far enough. The report underscores the need for a more comprehensive legislative approach and additional congressional oversight. The ACLU thanks Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) for requesting this investigation and shedding light on this issue.

For more than a year, advocates, led by the ACLU, have worked with members of the House and Senate to craft legislation that would address almost all of the problems raised in the report. The bill passed by the House (H.R. 3887), and the bill introduced in the Senate (S. 3061), move us in the right direction. Given the GAO's findings, we are especially pleased that the Senate bill: requires mandatory, uniform contract language; requires consular officers to provide critical information to domestic workers, outside the presence of the employer; and requires the maintenance of specific records such as the employment contract. We also applaud the provisions in both bills that require the State Department to report back to Congress with plans for a system to monitor the treatment of domestic workers and compensate them when diplomatic immunity shields the abuser from being held accountable.

But the pending legislation needs to be strengthened even further. For example, the bills must require that information be imparted in a language understood by the worker. Moreover, neither bill requires the State Department to train consular officers adequately. There is now little doubt that such training is necessary, and advocates stand ready to assist. We look forward to working with Congress to achieve justice, prevent abuse and end the enslavement of domestic workers in the U.S.

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