Runaway Justice

Botswanan Domestic Sues UN Diplomat for ‘Involuntary Servitude’

"Maybe he thought I was too stupid to know," Letsididi says of her right to a fair wage. She decided to sue Mmualefe once she was out of his reach and had found supporters in Domestic Workers United, a multiracial coalition of immigrant women that includes WWP of CAAAV. She won't reveal where she lives and works now, saying only that she'll return to Botswana, where she hopes to attend college, once the case is over.

But Letsididi's attorney, Michael Shen, says the lawsuit is far from being resolved. Although the court's deadline for responding has passed, Shen says he has yet to hear from Mmualefe. The New York-based counsel to the Botswanan government, Robert F. Van Lierop, says he is "waiting for instructions" to speak on Mmualefe's behalf. But Van Lierop says, "I've always found him to be a very nice person and a professional person."

A June Human Rights Watch report documents how difficult it can be for migrant domestic workers in the U.S. to win suits against foreign employers. The legal dependency created by certain visas inhibits a worker's ability to complain about her immigration sponsor in the first place, and U.S. authorities rarely enforce federal laws in the domestic work realm or against foreign dignitaries.

Supporters demand payment and an apology on behalf of a worker in hiding.
photo: Keith Bedford
Supporters demand payment and an apology on behalf of a worker in hiding.

A State Department official speaking on background wouldn't comment specifically on the case, but said UN dignitaries like Mmualefe are covered against charges like this by diplomatic immunity. The official said the department nevertheless "works with the parties to a dispute to reach a settlement when it is appropriate," but did not say the agency was involved in Letsididi's case.

Letsididi's supporters hoped Sunday's protest, in front of the Botswana mission to the UN on East 37th Street in Manhattan, would prompt Mmualefe to respond. Demanding payment of wages and damages and a written apology from Mmualefe, and accountability from the Botswana and U.S. governments, a group of two dozen Caribbean, South Asian, and Filipina domestic workers chanted, distributed flyers, and collected petition signatures.

Not surprising for a Sunday afternoon, the mission appeared to be empty. But protesters left a calling card—two poster-sized signs written in colored marker—taped to the building's front door. "Domestic Workers Deserve Dignity and Respect," one read. The other was a short letter: "To Mr. Mmualefe: You have violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and U.S. labor laws. Now you must pay! You owe your domestic worker 17 months' back wages. We will not stop until we get justice."

Looking up at the signs, one Caribbean nanny whispered to another, "Can you imagine Mmualefe coming in tomorrow and seeing that?" Her friend laughed, guessing what he would say: "Oh shit, they were here."

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