By HARRY MISIKO
Three Kenyan diplomats are battling vicious multimillion law suits filed against them by the house helps (workers)they allegedly lured and conscripted into slavish service in the US.
A former Kenyan diplomat to the UN is facing charges of luring, human-trafficking and enslaving a countrywoman in the US for over a year.
Former legal adviser at Kenya’s Mission to the UN, Stella Kerubo Orina, is also accused of subjecting Ms Beatrice Awuor Oluoch to forced labor for 14 months, between July 10, 2006 and September 4, 2007.
Papers filed in courts across the United States accuse the three female envoys – one a human rights lawyer – of cruelty and offenses ranging from trafficking to forced labor up to 16 hours a day and being loaned to other diplomats to toil without pay.
A common thread in the three unprecedented cases is that the domestic workers were promised a higher pay, only to end up being given up to 10 times less.
The envoys now risk paying fines that could run into hundreds of millions if the precedence of US courts slapping diplomats found guilty of maltreating their domestic workers with heavy fines is anything to go by.
According to documents filed in a Manhattan court, Ms Oluoch first worked as Ms Orina’s domestic worker in Marlyland as the envoy served as a legal adviser to the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, DC between July 10, 2006 and May 31, 2007.
ESCAPE FROM BONDAGE
“Shortly after Ms Oluoch’s arrival in the US, Stella Kerubo Orina began accusing Ms Oluoch of having an affair with her husband,” lawyers Amy Rudd and Lindsey Stelcen for Ms Oluoch claim in the case filed on January 23.
Ms Oluoch, they allege, continued working for Ms Orina after the human rights lawyer was posted to the UN Mission in New York on May 31 until September 4, 2007, when the woman escaped from the alleged bondage. The former diplomat allegedly made Ms Oluoch to work for 13 hours a day, seven days a week without adequate pay through “the use of verbal abuse, threats and legal coercion”.
“Contrary to Ms Oluoch’s understanding that she would serve primarily as a nanny to the defendant’s children… the defendant required the plaintiff to perform virtually all the household duties as well, including cooking, grocery shopping, laundry, ironing, and house cleaning,” Ms Oluoch’s legal team alleges.
In the suit, Ms Orina is also facing charges of fraud, breach of contract, unjust enrichment and failing to pay her former servant US labor rates as they allegedly agreed in a contract signed in Nairobi.
Based on the current exchange rates, the lawyers claim Ms Orina was supposed to pay Ms Oluoch $1,280 (Sh111,360) per month in Maryland and $1,594 (Sh138,643) in New York in addition to a free room and board.
However, the accused allegedly paid Ms Oluoch $150 (Sh13,000) a month, and never kept records as required by US laws.
Ms Orina, who currently works at the Foreign Affairs ministry, is also accused of confiscating and keeping Ms Oluoch’s passport and falsely reporting to US police that her servant was missing while she was still working for her, leading to cancellation of Ms Oluoch’s A-3 visa.
A-3 visas are non-immigrant diplomatic documents granted to the attendants and servants of representatives of foreign governments on A1 visas like Ms Orina was at that time.
Consequently, Ms Oluoch was arrested in Maryland where she had secured a job after escaping from Ms Orina’s home in Fresh Meadows, New York. The woman was handcuffed, dragged, and locked up in Baltimore, according to her legal team.
“As a result of the illegal cancellation of Ms Oluoch’s A-3 visa, Ms Oluoch was forced to serve a lengthy and expensive probation period… The arrest and probation prevented Ms Oluoch from obtaining gainful employment elsewhere,” the lawyers claim.
Ms Oluoch wants the court to award her damages, all unpaid wages and overtime plus interest, liquidated damages, attorney’s fees and any other relief that the court deems fit.
The woman is currently staying in Maryland on a T visa meant for victims of human trafficking pursuing cases against their alleged perpetrators.
It is the third time Ms Oluoch has sued Ms Orina after the first two cases were dismissed by district courts in Maryland and New York.
Judge Peter Messitte dismissed the first case filed in Maryland District Court on January 20, 2011 after Ms Oluoch failed to serve Ms Orina, eight months after filing the case.
A New York court threw out the second case on August 28, 2012 over what Judge Thomas Griesa termed as “insufficient service of the process”.
This was after Ms Oluoch’s lawyers failed to seek an extension of service period, rectify the faulty service or oppose Ms Orina’s Motion to dismiss the suit.
Ms Orina, in an answer to the complaints in the third case, denies the claims and charges filed by Ms Oluoch.
In the documents filed by her lawyer Aaron Shapiro on July 17, the former envoy denies luring, human-trafficking, enslaving, breaching contract and subjecting her former servant to forced labor.
Ms Oluoch, the lawyer states, “voluntarily” accepted to travel to the US to continue working for Ms Orina, whom she had been serving since June 2004.
The complainant, he adds, provided her passport to enable the cancellation and change of her A-3 to G-5 visa to comply with US laws after her boss was appointed a legal adviser to Kenya Permanent Mission to the UN.
Mr Shapiro has punched holes in Ms Oluoch’s case, and filed a notice of Motion seeking to have five out of the eight charges against Ms Orina struck out.
In 2008 Tanzania diplomat Alan Mzengi and his wife, Stella, were fined over Sh92 million for holding their domestic worker, Zipora Mazengo, against her will in Bethesda, Maryland.