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When Diplomatic Immunity Becomes A License To Treat Domestic Staff Like Dogs

She worked late hours for meager pay, and suffered constant abuse. But in the end, the case of the Berlin-based Indonesian housekeeper went nowhere – thanks to her alleged tormentor’s diplomatic status. Is it time to change the longstanding practice of di

The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Berlin, Germany (sporst)
The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Berlin, Germany (sporst)
Constanze von Bullion

BERLIN -- The life of a domestic slave takes place at floor level. That's the way it was described by the Indonesian woman who lived it. Sleeping on the floor, summer and winter, with only a sheet to use as mattress or to keep her warm. Scrubbing the floor. Kneeling on the floor to tie the shoelaces of her employer's children.

The children were already in their early teens – old enough to tie their own shoelaces, to get dressed on their own. But human beings are obsessed with comfort, and they get annoyed if they're not getting something they take for granted. And when the children of a slaveholder get whiny, it's dangerous for the slave. She may face not only a beating but have a bottle thrown at her – and then it's back down on the floor, picking up the shattered glass.

The story of Dewi Ratnasari (not her real name) reads like something out of another day and age. Not so. It played out in 21st century Berlin, and is one of many cases where diplomats enjoying immunity treat their house helpers like cleaning rags, pay them badly or not at all, mistreat them, sometimes even rape them, without having to own responsibility for their actions.

Regional Labor Court Berlin, Room 337, faux wood tables and linoleum floor: this is no place for the sentimental. "The plaintiff's appeal is turned down by the labor court," says the judge. And costs are at the expense of the plaintiff, which is the German Institute for Human Rights representing Ratnasari on a "trial" basis. But the intention, if necessary, is to take the matter to Germany's highest court for criminal and private law, the German Federal Court of Justice inKarlsruhe.

The core issue is this: can a diplomat be prosecuted for human rights abuse? The specific instance concerns Ratnasari, who worked for 19 months in the home of a Saudi-Arabian diplomat stationed in Berlin. The family paid her only once –150 euros during Ramadan. Not only did she have to work late into the night, but she never got a vacation. Ratnasari also claims the family called her "Nila" (the Arabic word for shit), and that even the children were allowed to hit her.

The Saudi diplomat denied the charges, saying in reply to inquiries by the German Foreign Office that he paid and treated the woman well. The man also showed receipts he says were signed by the former employee. The diplomat did, however, declare himself willing to come up with 6,000 euros in back pay. Asked for confirmation, the man's attorney stated that his client had already left Germany before the case could be cleared up.

Hitting a legal dead end

This week, Berlin's Regional Labor Court -- after their first judgment was appealed – stated that Ratnasari's claims were legitimate, but that nothing could be done about them. The court could not, it said, admit a criminal complaint against a member of the diplomatic corps. For hundreds of years, diplomats have enjoyed immunity, and that immunity was "indisputable" according to the judge – necessary for countries to conduct negotiations with each other also in times of war. Because this was in the public interest, an alleged case involving an individual could not be taken up.

Nivedita Prasad knows plenty about when happens when an "alleged case involving an individual" goes unproven and unpunished. The sociologist heads the Ban Ying center in Berlin that provides counseling for victims of forced prostitution and human trafficking. She is experienced enough to be able to distinguish between some trumped up tale and a credible one.

Dewi Ratnasari's story belongs in the latter category. Last November, she showed up at the center, a wraith of a woman weighing only around 40 kilos (88 lbs). Prasad also noticed her clothes. They were much too light for the time of year, and there was nothing in Ratnasari's suitcase to indicate that she'd been a properly paid domestic worker.

"It was the flimsiest of summer clothing, all of it from Asia: nothing had been bought in Europe," Prasad said. The crying woman said she didn't want any money, didn't want to file a complaint, she just wanted to get away. "Her biggest fear was being sent back to her employer."

Prasad is familiar with such cases, and says in the least serious ones the issue is money. One Turkish diplomat, for example, e-mailed a domestic worker in his employ that henceforth he would only be paying 350 euros a month. In Germany, the minimum monthly salary for a domestic worker is 750 euros.

More serious cases include that of a domestic worker for the Embassy of Bangladesh who filed a complaint because he'd been hit over the head with a chair. The police refused to investigate. A Filipina was allegedly raped repeatedly over a period of several months, and when her employer noticed she was pregnant he turned her out on the street. A paternity suit went nowhere.

And it is not only men who are charged with maltreatment. Another Filipina employee was asked by her employer, a female diplomat, to accompany her on a visit home. When they arrived, says Prasad, the employee's passport was taken away from her, and her employer told her that henceforth she would be looking after her elderly parents for 100 euros a month.

In another case, a female diplomat is alleged to have hit her own daughter with cabling. According to a medical report, the abuse left the girl permanently scarred. "The girl went to German youth welfare authorities, but because of the immunity issue they were afraid to take any action."

Of course, relatively few diplomats engage in such reprehensible activity, said Prasad, but "they all know that no matter what happens, nothing will happen to them."

Many diplomats are guilty of traffic violations. Some of them have been chased by police as they drove drunkenly through traffic but -- despite accidents and injuries caused -- suffered no consequences. In 2010, 15,000 parking tickets and complaints were issued against diplomats, and the trend is rising. The state of Berlin has seen not a single penny of the 157,000 euros in fines those tickets represent.

"It's a structural problem," says Petra Follmar-Otto of the German Institute of Human Rights, an organization that challenges constitutional law in defending the rights of victims.

For Dewi Ratnasari, the institute is financing legal costs and asking for 70,000 euros as compensation in unpaid salary and damages for pain and suffering.

The former domestic worker says she doesn't really care. She's since moved back to her village in Indonesia, and would rather not talk about anything concerning Germany.

Read the original story in German

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