Beatings instead of wages - domestic helpers in the diplomatic service | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 27.06.2011
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Beatings instead of wages - domestic helpers in the diplomatic service

A Saudi diplomat in Berlin is said to have mistreated his Indonesian domestic helper. A 50-year-old international convention guaranteeing diplomatic immunity means the attache will not face legal consequences.

Indonesian maids

Seeking a better life - maids from Indonesia

Dewi Ratnasari left her home in Indonisia in hopes of a better life. Via Saudi Arabia, she travelled to Germany, where she started to work as a domestic helper for the family of a Saudi-Arabian diplomat in Berlin in April 2009.

She did not find a better life. Later, she told authorities that she was forced to hand over her passport, was not allowed to leave the house alone and was prohibited to get in touch with her family. She worked up to 18 hours daily in the diplomat's large household. She slept on the bare floor in one of the children's bedrooms.

Ratnasari - not her real name but a pseudonym - managed to escape in the fall of 2010, and showed up on the doorstep of Ban Ying, a Berlin based, city-funded human rights association founded in 1988 as a shelter and counseling center for migrant women from Southeast Asia. The center deals with up to ten cases a year from among the 249 domestic helpers currently employed by diplomats in Germany.

Ban Ying's Nivedita Prasad told Deutsche Welle that the Indonesian woman is an example of particularly shoddy treatment. The entire family regularly slapped the 30-year-old Indonesian household help, beat her with objects, humiliated her and insulted her. "The worst part is that they never called her by her name, but by the Arabic word for 'shit,'" Prasad said.

Exploitation is not isolated

Nevedita Prasad

Nevedita Prasad of Ban Ying, the Thai term for 'House of Women'

NGOs across Europe are aware of the problem of exploitation of domestic help in diplomatic households. A common complaint is that employees are forced to work long hours without extra pay and that they have signed what amounts to a virtually worthless work contract.

Mistreating and locking up domestic help is regarded as a grave human rights abuse and a breach of the ban on slavery. In many European countries, stressful working conditions and measly pay violate both human rights and national legislation.

But the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations guarantees diplomats and their personnel legal immunity. Diplomats are immune from civil or criminal prosecution and no German civil court is allowed to, for example, require a diplomat to pay lost wages to an employee.

"This immunity blocks the legal process for domestic help in diplomatic households," Heike Raabe of the German Institute for Human Rights said. "It's a gap in the protection of human rights at the expense of women, who usually take on such jobs because of economic hardship."

Under the Vienna Convention, Dewi Ratnasari could have taken her employer to court in Saudi Arabia - in theory. In reality, according to Heike Raabe, that is impossible because of her gender, her family background, a lack of resources and visa limitations. "Without a male escort, women are forbidden to travel to or within Saudi Arabia. They also have to be accompanied by a man in court," she said.

Unrealistic legal claims

Ban Ying contacted the German Foreign Ministry, in the hope that it would negotiate compensation for Dewi Ratnasari, in exchange for a commitment not to go public about the case. But the sum the Saudi embassy offered was "outrageously low," said Nivesita Prasad.

Klaus Bertelsmann

Bertelsmann is up against slavery and exploitation of foreign domestic help

The Institute and other organizations helped to bring the case to trial, hiring labor lawyer Klaus Bertelsmann to take Dewi Ratnasari's case to Berlin's Labor Court. He filed a criminal complaint on the grounds of human trafficking and claimed 70,000 euros ($99,310) in back wages, overtime and compensation for personal suffering. On June 14, the court ruled against the complainant, citing her employer's diplomatic immunity.

Dewi Ratnasari has meanwhile returned to her native Indonesia. Ban Ying organized a fundraiser so she would not have to go home empty-handed, but she officially passed on her wage entitlement to Heide Pfarr, a women's rights activist who continues to act for her as claimant.

Lawyer Bertelsmann said he is appealing the Labor Court's ruling, and is confident of a solution along the lines of a ruling in a similar case earlier this year by France's top administrative court, which said that the state must pick up the tab for the foreign employee's back wages.

It can take up to six months before the next higher German court rules on Dewi Ratnasari's claim, but diplomats will in any case go scot free despite continuing human rights abuses and slavery practices.

But the situation will not be changed unless the 192 signatory states to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations decide to do so.

Author: Ulrike Mast-Kirschning / db
Editor: Michael Lawton

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