From Stand in Long Island Slavery Case, a Snapshot of a Hidden U.S. Problem
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: December 3, 2007
CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y., Nov. 30 The two tiny Indonesian women know just a handful of English words. They know Windex. Fantastik (the cleanser, not the adjective). They know the words Master and Missus, which they were taught to use in addressing the Long Island couple they served as live-in help for five years in the sylvan North Shore hamlet of Muttontown.
One domestic servant, identified only as Enung, had a mat on the floor instead of a bed, prosecutors say.
Their employers, Varsha Sabhnani, 35, and her husband, Mahender, 51, naturalized citizens from India, have been on trial in U.S. District Court here for the past month. They are charged with what the federal criminal statutes refer to as involuntary servitude and peonage, or, in the common national parlance since 1865, the crime of keeping slaves.
The two women, the government charged in its indictment, were victims of modern-day slavery.
It is a rarely prosecuted crime. But since passage of the 2000 federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, prosecutions have increased from less than a handful nationwide per year to about a dozen. The law is probably best known for its focus on prostitution and child-sex traffickers; yet in the last few years, in a few highly publicized cases like the Sabhnanis, federal and state task forces set up to deal with sex trafficking have also begun to focus on the exploitation of domestic workers.
Last year, the wife of a Saudi prince was convicted in Boston for keeping two house servants for three years in virtual slavery. In 2005, two doctors in Wisconsin were convicted of holding a Philippine woman as an indentured servant for 20 years. Federal prosecutors won convictions in 2003 against a Maryland couple who kept a Brazilian woman in their home as a servant for 15 years, paying her nothing.
In the Long Island case, prosecutors say the two Indonesian women were made to sleep in closets of the sprawling, multimillion-dollar home of their employers. They were forced to work day and night, threatened, tortured, beaten with rolling pins and brooms, deprived of adequate food and never allowed out of the house except to take out the garbage.
The defense lawyers, who are scheduled to begin their case on Monday, have characterized the two women as liars, practitioners of witchcraft, and inventors of a false claim designed to win them fast-track advantages that federal immigration law grants certain victims of torture and abuse. Whatever injuries the women may have suffered, the lawyers said, were self-inflicted in the practice of a traditional Indonesian folk cure known as kerokan.
Advocacy groups, prosecutors and researchers who study labor trafficking say domestic workers are as vulnerable to exploitation as sex workers, and in some ways even harder to reach.
The domestic servant cases are often the most brutal because of the total isolation in which these women are kept for years and years, said Cathleen Caron, executive director of Global Workers Justice Alliance, a New York-based advocacy group that provides legal help to exploited migrant workers. She has been watching the Sabhnani case with interest, she said.
The Indonesian women in the Long Island case are identified by the government only by their first names, Samirah and Enung. They are 51 and 47 years old, respectively. Each stands less than five feet tall. In their many hours of translated testimony and cross-examination so far, halted occasionally by fits of sobbing, they have told a grim tale at odds with every notion of modern life in the United States.
The Sabhnanis, who are perfume manufacturers with relatives and business contacts in Indonesia, lured them from their jobs and families in Jakarta in 2002 with false promises, they say, and then subjected them to relentless abuse until Samirah ran away in May.
Regardless of the jurys verdict, the case has raised the profile of a population, mostly of women, hidden in the folds of some very affluent American households, according to advocates for exploited workers.
Claudia Flores, a staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who recently represented three Indian women kept in involuntary servitude by foreign diplomats in Washington, said foreign workers unfamiliar with American culture and language, already vulnerable, are pushed beyond the pale by isolation.
Many times, they are forbidden to talk to people who come into the house, Ms. Flores said. If there are two of them, they are often forbidden to talk to each other. Their phone calls are monitored. They are not allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied. We are only seeing the women who are lucky enough and capable enough to find assistance. What we see is really only the tip of the iceberg.
A report released in July by the federal State Department, Pursuing a Dream and Finding a Nightmare, said the exploitation of women as domestic workers in the United States and abroad was a crime that has largely gone unpunished for too long.
The report, written by research staff in the departments Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, underlined the governments concern for unskilled women from developing countries, particularly women working as domestics, who it said often fall victim to conditions of servitude in developed destination countries, including the United States.
Jodi Bobb, a U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman, said the Long Island slavery case was one of about 100 prosecutions for involuntary servitude or labor trafficking since passage of the 2000 anti-trafficking law. Not all of them involved domestic workers, she said, but that number represents a two-fold increase in such prosecutions compared with the seven years before 2000.
The number of migrant domestic servants living in involuntary servitude in the United States is a matter for guessing, but there are some well-informed guesses. The State Department report estimated that the total number of people trafficked to the United States annually was 15,000 to 20,000.
The figures do not distinguish between people trafficked for prostitution or factory, farm or domestic work. But advocates including Ms. Flores and Ms. Caron, based on hundreds of cases that filter through their agencies, estimated that domestic workers accounted for about one-third of the total.
In other words, 5,000 to 7,000 migrant domestic servants take jobs each year in homes where they are highly vulnerable to abuse by their employers, they say.
Whether or not they live in conditions as violent as Samirah and Enung claim to have suffered, almost all are uneducated women from the worlds poorest countries, according to the State Department report. Some are children.
They may sign employment contracts promising wages that seem princely in their home countries Samirah and Enung agreed to $100 a month, for instance but which severely limit their options here. The temporary visas they obtain with their new employers help usually expire after three to six months, giving employers ammunition to threaten the servants with certain arrest if they leave the house.
Who would do this to another human being? said Suzanne Tomatore, director of the Immigrant Women and Children Project of the New York City Bar Association, which has assisted dozens of migrant domestic servants. All kinds of people. Doctors, lawyers, professionals, business people, diplomats the only thing the employers have in common as a group is they all have the resources to pay someone a fair wage, but they choose not to.
Ms. Tomatore said prosecutions were difficult for obvious reasons: language and cultural barriers. Fear. In many cases, depression. One of her clients, a 24-year-old woman, had been a domestic servant in one household since she was 6. She had never been to school, said Ms. Tomatore, who would not identify the woman or the employers except to say they were diplomats from an African nation who have since left. The woman was given permanent legal immigration status. She works in an office.
During the Long Island trial, sobbing sometimes overtook Samirah as she described the tortures she was subjected to being forced to run up and down stairs until exhausted, to eat whole hot chili peppers, to stand still while the Missus scalded her with boiling hot water. Sometimes the sobbing overtook Enung, who described being forced to help perform some of those tortures on Samirah.
The case is unusual, advocates say, because there were other witnesses to corroborate some of the womens claims. Among them was a woman who worked for Mr. Sabhnanis perfume company, which is based in an office attached to the Muttontown house. She said she was shocked one day to see Samirah crawling up the basement stairs, bleeding from the forehead. The woman testified that Samirah and Enung told her that Mrs. Sabhnani had beaten her.
A landscape contractor testified that Enung approached him furtively one morning, raggedly dressed, pointing to her stomach and uttering one of her few English words: Doughnut, he recalled her saying. Doughnut. He gave her the half-dozen doughnuts he had in his truck.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, she cried as she ran back toward the big house, he said.