Hidden abuse of diplomats' domestics


Some foreign diplomats in Ireland are taking unfair advantage of their domestic workers under the cloak of diplomatic immunity. Is there anything the authorities can do about it now? Or do safeguards need to be put in place?

JOAN WAS 17 years old when she came to Ireland to work as a childminder for a foreign diplomat. She had worked for the diplomat’s family for more than a year in her home country in Africa, helping to look after the couple’s seven-year-old son, who is disabled. She was paid and her conditions were reasonable. So when they told her the family was moving to Ireland because the father had got a job in the country’s embassy in Dublin she was happy to move with them. “I was ready to go because they said I could go to school here,” says Joan.

She says things changed quickly when they arrived in Ireland, though her claims have never been proven. “I worked all the time and was a prisoner in the home. I wasn’t allowed out or allowed to contact my family back home,” claims Joan, who is now 20.

The family expected her to get up at 5.30am and be on call 24 hours a day. She had to share a bed with the boy she was looking after and was given all the main household duties, such as cleaning, cooking and ironing.

“I worked all day long, seven days a week, but they didn’t pay me. The only time I got paid in three years was once in 2008 when my family was sent €400,” says Joan, who felt isolated as she had no friends or family here to turn to for help.

She managed to escape when a Jehovah’s Witness who had called to the house by chance alerted the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) to Joan’s situation. The centre provides legal support to migrants facing abuse.

Joan is one of seven domestic workers employed by diplomats here who have complained to the Labour Relations Commission, a statutory body that provides conciliation services in industrial relations. Three of these cases, including Joan’s, are so serious they have also been referred to the Garda’s anti-human trafficking unit for investigation, says the MRCI.

Yesterday one of the seven cases, involving a domestic worker formerly employed by the Philippines embassy, was heard by the Labour Relations Commission. The embassy chose not attend the hearing.

Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous employers, says Aoife Smith, co-ordinator of the MRCI’s domestic-workers action group.

“Many of these workers are migrants, who don’t know their rights. The majority are also women and many live in the same house as their employer, which makes it difficult for them to complain or to leave their employer,” says Smith.

Domestic workers in diplomatic households are more vulnerable than others because diplomats can claim immunity, preventing their employees from obtaining legal redress. Unlike other workers from abroad, they do not require work permits specifying the conditions of their employment as they are issued with diplomatic visas through the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“Employers can hide what is going on in their homes. They can also say they are not going to respect the legal system in Ireland by claiming immunity,” says Esther Lynch, social affairs officer at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu). “Ireland is way behind recognising this as a problem and way behind others in implementing solutions.”

Last year Priscilla Jana, the former South African ambassador, invoked diplomatic immunity to prevent a rights commissioner at the Labour Relations Commission following up a complaint by a Ukrainian domestic worker.

Valentyna Khristonsen was employed between February 2006 and August 2008 at the ambassador’s private residence. She complained to the commission about multiple breaches of her employment rights. However, the rights-commissioner service said it had no jurisdiction, based on the ambassador’s claim of diplomatic immunity.

The Labour Court was due to hear an appeal by Khristonsen against this ruling last month but the case was quietly settled out of court. the embassy would not comment on this to The Irish Times “due to a confidential understanding”.

The six other cases, including Joan’s are pending with the commission and it is unclear whether the African and Asian embassies involved will invoke immunity.

However, the Garda has told the MRCI that diplomatic immunity could be a barrier to following up the three cases it has been notified of. One of these cases relates to Breda, a young woman from an African country who also followed her employer when she was posted to Ireland in 2007.

She maintains she was employed to look after a child, to cook and to clean in the diplomat’s flat – although again her claims have not been proven.

“I was supposed to be paid €100 per month for working up to 18-hour days and being on call all the time. But the woman only paid me once every three months or so,” says Breda, who was forced to share a bed with the child she was minding.

“The girl I was minding was physically abusive and had big problems in school. Her behaviour got so bad that for a few months I was employed by her school as a special-needs assistant. I never got a break, and the mother was very unkind,” she says.

Breda was not allowed to use the phone, which was locked in the mother’s room. So she couldn’t ring home. At one point the mother flew back to her home country, leaving Breda in charge of the child for two weeks with no support. Living like this for two years made Breda sick and she stopped eating normally. She had a nervous breakdown and spent time at St Vincent’s hospital and later St John of God.

“She never treated me like a human being. I told the nurse I didn’t want to go back home,” says Breda, who begins to cry as she recounts her story of abuse and isolation.

A nun at St John of God contacted the MRCI, which is now working with the Department of Justice to arrange a visa that will allow Breda to stay in the country.

The centre and Ictu are lobbying the Government to create safeguards for domestic staff working for diplomats. They want to introduce a detailed and clear application procedure for granting diplomatic visas to domestic and other household workers, such as drivers, gardeners, childminders and cooks.

This should follow best practice in other EU states, such as Belgium, Germany and Britain, where visas must include a written contract of employment signed by both parties. This visa should also stipulate that the diplomatic employer agrees to comply with an existing code of practice for protecting anybody employed in another person’s home.

Diplomats should also agree to be open for inspection by the National Employment Rights Authority, which recently began a campaign of inspections in non-diplomatic households employing domestic workers, according to the centre.

Ideally, says Aoife Smith of the migrant rights centre, any diplomat who refuses to comply with the authority would face sanction from the Minister for Foreign Affairs. “He could refuse future requests for visas for household workers for a defined period or declare a diplomat persona non grata,” says Smith, who notes this is already the practice in Austria, Germany and Britain.

In a statement the department said it “wishes to ensure that all domestic workers at embassies are treated fairly” but so far it has not agreed to implement the recommendations. Until it changes its procedures, vulnerable young women like Breda and Joan are susceptible to abuse and isolation without redress, says the centre.

Some names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed for this piece

What is diplomatic immunity?

Diplomatic immunity is a form of legal immunity that governments give each others’ diplomats when they work in another country. It was formalised through the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, which is an international treaty ratified by 186 countries.

It gives diplomats certain privileges and immunity, including immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state and immunity from its civil and administrative jurisdiction.

But the convention also states that it is the duty of everybody to respect the laws of the receiving state. A decision to waive immunity rests with the sending state.