An African woman trafficked to the United States by a diplomat, confined to a house for three years and forced to work long hours for little pay has been awarded $1 million in damages in a human trafficking lawsuit against her former employer.
Fainess Lipenga from Malawi began working for Jane Kambalame as a housemaid in her Malawi home in 2002, according to the case memorandum.
When Kambalame accepted a diplomatic position at the Malawian embassy in Washington in 2004, she asked Lipenga to move with her.
“I was so excited,” Lipenga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview. “She (Kambalame) told me that I could finish my education in the U.S. and that she would help me find another job.”
She signed a contract written in English, which she did not fully understand, which stated Lipenga would be paid $980 per month for working 35 hours per week and would be paid overtime.
But the reality was quite different. For the first few months she received nothing, and after that was paid between $100 and $180 per month.
“She made me work from 5.30 am to 11 pm on most days, and I had to sleep on the basement floor,” said Lipenga. “She said I couldn’t sleep in a room upstairs like the family because I would make them sick.”
Nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labor globally, 1.5 million of them in developed countries like the United States, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Over half are women and girls.
Forced labor among migrant domestic workers in particular is widespread, with women exploited even before they have left their home country and later abused by their employers abroad.
In 2006 Kambalame installed a lock on the door of the family home in Washington D.C., confining her domestic servant to the house, Lipenga said.
“She listened on the phone whenever I talked to my family, and would disconnect it when she left the house – I was trapped,” she said.
According to the lawsuit, Kambalame subjected Lipenga to psychological abuse, such as by humiliating her in front of visitors and threatening to deport her.
“She told me: ‘I’m a diplomat, you’ll never get me in trouble’,” Lipenga said. “I just believed her.”
Lipenga managed to escape the Kambalame household in 2007. “I thought: I will die if I stay here, they will take my body and dump it in the trash,” she said.
“I stole my passport and my contract when the family were out of the house, and left in the morning when they were sleeping – I could not stop shaking.”
Lipenga was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with tuberculosis and depression, which had gone untreated for years.
With the help of a pro bono human rights lawyer, she obtained a T visa, issued for victims of human trafficking, in 2009 and permanent U.S. residency in 2011.
Lipenga filed a civil complaint against Kambalame in the state of Maryland in 2014, with claims ranging from false imprisonment to intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A district court handed down a default judgment and against Kambalame, who failed to respond or participate in the case. Damages were set at $1,101,345.
Lipenga now works at the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Centre in Washington, and hopes to encourage other victims of trafficking to come forward.
“What happened to me happens to others over and over,” she said. “I want to help them and break the immunity for diplomats.”
Kambalame left the United States in 2012, according to the lawsuit, and appointed Malawi’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe and Botswana. Lipenga believes she currently resides in Malawi.
“We are exploring various options to enforce the judgment,” said Lindsay Reimschussel, one of Lipenga’s lawyers.
The Malawian embassy in Zimbabwe said in an email that Kambalame no longer worked at the mission, but is still an employee of Malawi’s foreign affairs ministry. The Malawian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Houtan Homayounpour, forced labor specialist at the ILO, said migrant domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to forced labor.