A Malawian diplomat who trafficked a Malawian woman to the United States of America (US) 12 years ago and forced her to work long hours for peanuts has been ordered to pay the victim $1 million (K723 million) in damages.
According to reports, the diplomat Jane Kambalame hired the victim, Fainess Lipenga, as a maid at her house in Malawi in 2002. Two years later in 2004 Kambalame took up a post at the Malawian embassy in the US and she took Lipenga with her.
Lipenga was to continue her role as maid and Kambalame offered her a contract written in English, which the maid did not fully understand, which stated Lipenga would be paid $980 (K708, 540) per month for working 35 hours per week and would be paid overtime.
However, in the US Kambalame did not pay Lipenga for the first few months and after that she paid her between $100 (K72,300) and $180 (K130,140) 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,” Lipenga told Reuters.
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 against Kambalame, who failed to respond or participate in the case. Damages were set at $1,101,345.
Lipenga now works with 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, associate at Jones Day and 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.
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.
Nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labour 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.