Letter from the Hague: Low standards in high diplomatic places

Ambassadors are abusing domestics and acting badly, an FoI request reveals

The ministry for foreign affairs confirmed that over the past five years it has received 26 complaints of exploitation of domestic staff. Photograph: Getty Images

The ministry for foreign affairs confirmed that over the past five years it has received 26 complaints of exploitation of domestic staff. Photograph: Getty Images

 

There’s nothing like the power of advertising. Think diplomats, for instance, and into our minds pops the old Ferrero Rocher advertisement with that precarious-looking golden pyramid of chocolate at the entrance to the ambassador’s reception. It depicts a charmed life, to be sure.

What we don’t see in this gilded hallway are any of the ambassador’s domestic staff – the “help” dispensing the canapes, running the cloakroom, manning the kitchen or invisibly replenishing that mission-critical chocolate pile.

And yet, we’re sure they’re well looked after. Working in the homes of such well-paid, typically well-educated, overseas civil servants – often the last bastion of public service privilege – why should anything else be the case?

Why, indeed? Especially in a prosperous European city such as The Hague, where UN courts, EU agencies and other international institutions mean there’s a large diplomatic corps of 25,000 people, including diplomats’ families.

And yet all is far from well in many of these gilded cages, as the ministry for foreign affairs revealed in reply to a freedom of information request from De Volkskrant newspaper.

The ministry confirmed that over the past five years it has received 26 complaints of exploitation of domestic staff – ranging in nature from unacceptably poor working conditions to low pay to what’s euphemistically termed “inappropriate behaviour”.

Naming and shaming

While acknowledging the problem, the Dutch stopped short of naming and shaming the nationalities involved. Those who’d been mistreated were “a vulnerable group” who needed to be protected, they said. Add to that the implications for diplomatic relations, and well . . .

Less squeamish was an NGO named FairWork, which campaigns on behalf of exploited workers and which said staff from 13 embassies had been involved: Saudi Arabia, India, Lebanon, Qatar, Kuwait, Somalia, Oman, Jordan, Cameroon, Ghana, Bolivia, Suriname and the United Arab Emirates.

In addition, two complaints of exploitation were made against staff of international institutions – one in the case of the International Criminal Court, and another in the case of the European Patent Office.

In fairness to the Dutch authorities, they know full well the high gates of many foreign diplomatic residences hide realities of which their nations should be heartily ashamed.

They encourage whistleblowing, requiring workers from third countries, such as the Philippines or Indonesia, to appear in person to collect or renew their work permits – and informing them of their rights to a 40-hour week, a minimum wage, holidays and overtime.

But the reality is that in too many cases these invisible “domestics” – usually nannies, cooks, cleaners, waiters or gardeners – have rights in name only. Some are little more than slaves and their legal entitlements illusory.

FairWork can quote instances of workers forced to endure 18-hour days, seven days a week, left to scavenge for scraps in their employers’ dustbins, and even, in some cases, forbidden from leaving the grounds of their employers’ residences at all.

In one case, a complaint of persistent sexual abuse was dropped when the diplomat involved was recalled, though it’s unclear whether that had anything to do with the complaint.

Bad behaviour by diplomats here is nothing new. In 2014, foreign minister Frans Timmermans – now first vice-president of the European Commission – promised to look at the legal issues when it emerged that 85 diplomats had been accused of crimes since 2010 but couldn’t be prosecuted.

Shoplifting and violence

These were no minor matters either. Of the 85, 42 were stopped by traffic police and, in two out of three cases, they were drunk. The remainder refused to take breathalyser tests. In 13 cases, diplomats were caught shoplifting. In eight there were allegations of domestic violence. There were also cases of vandalism and public violence.

In one instance, an Afghan diplomat was sent home after hitting a Dutch motorist repeatedly during a road rage row. In another, Colombia recalled a diplomat allegedly linked to drug gangs.

Most notorious was the case of the number two at the Russian embassy, Dmitri Borodin, who was handcuffed by police in his luxury apartment and hauled off to the local cells when neighbours complained that he was drunk and a possible danger to his young children, which he denied.

Borodin protested his immunity. The police ignored him and released him when he sobered up. In response to a furious President Vladimir Putin, the Netherlands apologised for the diplomatic infringement. Borodin was quietly recalled to Moscow.

The next time we see that chocolate ad, let’s all try to recall some of these less tasteful diplomatic realities and remember the victims.

Agreed?

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