Runaway Justice

Botswanan Domestic Sues UN Diplomat for ‘Involuntary Servitude’

She considered showing up in disguise. But in the end, Keabetswe Letsididi decided she couldn't attend the protest, held last Sunday afternoon, on her behalf. Sunglasses and a scarf wouldn't obscure her five-foot, bone-thin frame. A 23-year-old Botswanan domestic worker who is here without legal status and is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against a United Nations diplomat, she felt the risk of discovery was too great.

She had, after all, run away from her former employer, Leutlwetse Mmualefe, the deputy permanent representative and chargé d'affaires (i.e., acting ambassador) for Botswana's mission to the UN. This February, she carried out a year-old plan to escape from his Forest Hills home, where she worked as a live-in nanny and housekeeper. She arranged for friends to put her up, and snuck her belongings out one bagful at a time. Then one evening, while the others were busy elsewhere in the five-bedroom house, she slipped out a side door and disappeared.

Four months later, on June 6, 2001, she filed a federal lawsuit against Mmualefe, charging he had employed her "under conditions which were tantamount to involuntary servitude." He had paid her no wages whatsoever for more than 40 hours of work per week between July 1999 and March 2000 and only $250 per month from April 2000 to January 2001, according to her complaint. Mmualefe refused to provide the penniless worker with clothing, medicine, and, at certain points, food, Letsididi claims. She says he forbade her from using the telephone and computer, from making friends and going to church, and, ultimately, from leaving.

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.

Asked to comment last week by the Voice, Mmualefe said, "I'm not sure that I can do that," and did not, in fact, respond to any of Letsididi's allegations. He added, "I need to explain my own side of the story to the authorities that are in a position to deal with this matter," that is, he said, the U.S. State Department and the Botswanan government. "Not that I don't care," he said. "I am concerned."

Letsididi says she doubts he is. "I told him, I'm not happy in his home, and I feel like I have to go home [to Botswana]. He said I have to work for him whether I like it or not," she says, recalling a dispute with Mmualefe last year.

In 1999 Mmualefe had convinced the young woman to leave her parents in Botswana and accompany him to New York, where she would clean his house and care for his two children, by promising that he would provide her with a college education, she says. The deal, she says, was never supposed to exclude fair compensation for her labor. He brought her into the U.S. on a G-5 visa, one of several types issued by the U.S. that bind an immigrant's legal status directly to her employer under a sponsorship agreement.

Only after nine months of unpaid work on her part, she says, did Mmualefe allow her to enroll at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. "I thought I'd have a chance now to go out and have friends, instead of being in the house seven days," says Letsididi, who wanted to go to school to change careers, possibly by becoming a nurse. But, she claims, her boss's meddling became worse. "He said my friends would control me. But he was controlling me."

She says tensions with her employer forced her to drop out of school after two or three weeks. That's when she told Mmualefe she wanted to return home to Botswana. He refused to let her leave, she says, but he did start paying her $250 per month—even as a weekly salary, that amount would have violated minimum wage requirements, based on the number of working hours Letsididi has reported.

Plus, the wages came with a catch. "He started saying I'm owing him the rent, food, linens, before I leave his house"—a requirement that, Letsididi says, would have consumed all her earnings and then some. He also demanded she reimburse him for the price of her plane ticket from Botswana to New York and for her visa, according to the court complaint. "But he's not the one who's paying. The Botswana government is paying," Letsididi suspects.

She says Mmualefe told people he thought of her "as a daughter." If she needed any more proof to the contrary, she says, it came last January, when she contracted chicken pox from his youngest son.

"I can show you the marks," she offers during her interview with the Voice, rolling up her sleeve and pulling aside her collar to reveal the telltale scars. She says she showed her employer the bumps and told him she had a fever. "They wanted me to work," she says of Mmualefe and his wife, "but I couldn't." After she'd been ill a week, she says, "they called me into their room and asked me why I can't just wake up and do the work.

"I decided to leave," the worker says. She made up her mind in early 2000, but it took her a year to figure out how. "I didn't know where to go, how to make it." An acquaintance eventually found a number for her to call, which led to a long string of referrals. "So many phone calls" later, Letsididi says, she found the Women Workers Project of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, which organizes immigrant domestic workers. A staffer there helped, over two days of phone conversations, to solidify her plan to run away.

"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.

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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