The listing is fitting for its past occupants, a son of the late king of Saudi Arabia and his wife, a daughter of the late crown prince. For years, the couple resided in the Great Falls, Va., mansion, where they employed nannies, cooks and other domestic workers — some of whom had traveled from faraway countries to work there.
That employee relationship is at the heart of a lawsuit that was the subject of a hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on Friday, in which one of those employees claims she was subjected to human trafficking, forced labor and psychological abuse, and was paid less than $2 per hour despite consistently working 15-hour days. Simret Semere Tekle, a citizen of Eritrea, whose case has attracted the representation of several high-powered firms, is seeking damages not limited to the alleged loss of wages.
Stuart Nash, an attorney for Princess Nouf Bint Nayef Abdul-Aziz al-Saud and Prince Mohammad Bin Abdullah al-Saud, called the allegations false at the hearing. “She was paid thousands of dollars above the minimum wage,” he said, adding that pictures exist that undercut her claims. “She had a wonderful life in the house. . . . They treated her wonderfully and with respect and dignity.”
The allegations are the latest in what has become a recurring legal contest between diplomats and foreign officials, many of whom have diplomatic immunity, and their former live-in domestic servants. Over the past 15 years, 35 lawsuits have been filed in federal court by domestic workers alleging that they were trafficked into the officials’ homes, where they said they faced a range of unexpected circumstances including wage theft, abject isolation, and, in a few cases, repeated sexual and physical assault.
Six of the cases, which were primarily filed in the Washington and New York regions, ended in default judgments worth around $1 million for the domestic workers, according to the District-based Human Trafficking Legal Center, whose president represents Tekle. Twenty-five were settled or dismissed, either voluntarily or on grounds of diplomatic immunity, and four are ongoing, the center’s case tracker shows.
The issue has long troubled government agencies and human rights activists. As far back as 1981, the State Department expressed “deep concern . . . over the evidence that some members of the diplomatic missions have seriously abused or exploited household servants.” In 2001, Human Rights Watch published its own assessment, calling domestic employees “some of the world’s most disadvantaged workers held captive by some of the world’s most powerful employers, who exploit, abuse, degrade, mock, and humiliate them.” In 2008, the Government Accountability Office identified 42 instances in which a diplomat allegedly abused a domestic worker, between 2000 and 2008, calling the real number “likely higher.”
A review of 10 cases reveals similarities in the allegations. Many of the domestic workers hailed from developing countries and were desperate to find work. An ailing mother needed money for her medication. A father’s kidneys had failed and he could not afford dialysis. Then came opportunity: a chance for a family member to live in the United States, making substantially more than was possible at home, a contract enumerating the terms of the employment and, finally, a U.S. visa.
In most cases, the workers qualified for either a G-5 visa, reserved for the employees and domestic workers or foreigners working for international organizations such as the World Bank, or an A-3 visa, for domestic workers and servants of diplomats. The State Department has steadily enacted tougher measures to protect this vulnerable population, but advocates say the measures are inadequate. One issue cited is that the worker’s visa is tied to the employer: Domestic workers consequently find themselves trapped in potentially difficult situations because quitting would leave them undocumented.
“When you have a worker who lives in your home and whose immigration status is tied to them, they have this worker by the neck, basically,” said Riya Ortiz, a case manager for Damayan Migrant Workers Association in New York City.
Many of the plaintiffs are recipients of T visas, reserved for alleged trafficking victims. To qualify, most applicants need to have reported their allegations of abuse to federal law enforcement authorities. The visa is valid for three years, after which the holder can apply for permanent residence. Federal law enforcement agencies can revoke it and even bring criminal charges if they determine the beneficiary is lying about being victimized.
One worker who obtained a visa was Fainess Lipenga, originally from Malawi. For more than two years, she was a domestic worker for a Malawian diplomat living in Silver Spring, Md. Her passport, she said in her complaint, was confiscated. Next, Lipenga, who said she knew next to no one in the area, alleged that she learned that the contract she barely understood but had signed — promising $980 in monthly pay and 35-hour workweeks — would not be followed.
“Sometimes, Ms. Lipenga had to work on no sleep at all,” the complaint alleged, earning pay “that equaled less than 50 cents per hour.” She went without soap, the complaint said, slept on the wooden floor in the basement, and was locked inside the house, finally escaping early one morning in January 2007 while the diplomat slept.
“I felt like a slave all the time,” said Lipenga, who was awarded $1.1 million in a default judgment by a federal court in Maryland in November 2016, and now has a green card. “I wanted to die. I didn’t want to live at all.”
The Malawian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. But the diplomat, Jane N. Kambalame, who did not defend herself in court and who could not be reached for comment, denied the allegations in a lengthy statement quoted by the Maravi Post in Malawi. “Some people have taken advantage of the systems in Western countries, making unsubstantiated claims about abuse and trafficking so that they obtain permanent residence,” she is quoted as saying.
Tekle, who has received a T visa and declined multiple interview requests, also alleged in her complaint that she was not paid what she was owed. “Ms. Tekle was held in forced labor in the United States for seven months, working morning to night, seven days a week, with no days off,” the lawsuit said, and in return was paid about $3,000.
Tekle also alleges in the lawsuit that throughout that time in 2011 and 2012 she was “forbidden” by the Saudi family from speaking with people outside the mansion and was told Americans would “attack” her if she went outside.
The Saudi family called her allegations “untruthful” in a statement made before the hearing. “At no time did Ms. Tekle express to us any dissatisfaction with her employment or living conditions, and she was certainly free to leave at any time, with our blessing and assistance in securing another position,” the statement said. “She was paid all the wages she was due under the employment agreement, as well as over $10,000 of gifts, in cash, over the seven months she worked in our home.”
In that time, Nash said, Tekle was taken along on the family’s vacation to a ski resort and to Paris. He showed a reporter a 15-minute slide show of photos in which Tekle was seen smiling, holding an iPhone, eating at a restaurant and taking a skiing lesson.
Martina Vandenberg, one of Tekle’s attorneys, called that a common and rarely successful defense in these cases. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it,” she said. “The fact that they’re seen on vacation with the family doesn’t mean that they’re on vacation with their family.”
Before the hearing, Tekle filed an amended complaint, omitting from her initial complaint that she was “imprisoned” at the house, in addition to other factual allegations, but inserting others. She added a claim that she met with government authorities in 2013 to report what she said happened to her, later submitting Department of Homeland Security documents in which an agent in 2015 certified her as a “victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons.”
At the hearing Friday, the Saudi family’s attorneys asked that the court dismiss Tekle’s claim for breach of contract, saying it is disqualified by the statute of limitations. The judge granted the motion, allowing the plaintiff time to amend the complaint.
Nash also said at the Friday hearing that Tekle is under investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for making what he described as “fraudulent claims.”
Nash said in a statement this summer: “When we learned, earlier this summer, that Ms. Tekle had made these false allegations to obtain a visa to remain in the country, we immediately contacted ICE and the Department of Justice, and, over the ensuing months, have shared with government investigators our evidence that included photographs, videotapes and contact information for witnesses who could disprove these scurrilous allegations. A government agent has informed us that Ms. Tekle would be investigated for fraudulently obtaining a T-Visa telling us that ‘what the government gives, it can also take away.’ ”
Agnieszka Fryszman, another attorney for Tekle, described as “categorically false” in court Friday the assertion that the government is investigating her client. “The only people I know who are under investigation are the defendants,” she said.
A spokesman for ICE declined to comment.
Neighbors on Aziza Court expressed doubts about Tekle’s claims. Loubna Ouchrif, 17, said she was at the Saudis’ home almost every weekend and many nights when she was growing up, and had never witnessed anything close to Tekle’s allegations. “There’s no way,” she said. “I was always with the kids and nannies, and they never complained and were always happy. . . . They genuinely enjoyed living there.”