Trafficking victim wins R14m suit

Malawian taken to US by diplomat kept captive and exploited

A Malawian woman taken to the US by a diplomat, confined to a house for three years and forced to work long hours for little pay has been awarded $1-million (R13.88-million) in damages in a human trafficking lawsuit against her former employer.

Fainess Lipenga 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 said. “She told me that I could finish my education in the US and that she would help me find another job.”

She signed a contract written in English, which she did not fully understand, which stated she would be paid $980 (R13 633) a month for working 35 hours a 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 (R1 388) and $180(R2 500) a month.

“She made me work from 5.30am to 11pm on most days, and I had to sleep on the basement floor,” Lipenga said.

“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 labour globally,1.5 million of them in developed countries like the US, according to the International Labour Organisation.

Forced labour 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 DC, confining her domestic servant to the house.

“She listened on the phone whenever I talked to my family, and would disconnect it when she left the house – I was trapped,” Lipenga 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’. I believed her.”Lipenga managed to escape from the house in 2007.

“I thought: I will die if I stay here, they will dump my body in the trash.

“I stole my passport and my contract when the family were out, and left in the morning when they were sleeping.”

Lipenga was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with tuberculosis and depression.

With the help of a probono human rights lawyer, she obtained a T visa, issued for victims of human trafficking, in2009 and permanent US residency in 2011.