Every year, more than a thousand domestic workers are brought to the U.S. by diplomats and other foreign officials. What happens when those workers face abuse?
She remembers wearing the baby around her like a shield. Taking care of him was part of her job: Sri Yatun was the one-person housekeeper, cook and nanny for an Indonesian consular official and her husband in Los Angeles. Sri loved the baby deeply — but she says that she had another reason to keep the child close. She claims that the husband was an explosive man; he would verbally abuse her and once, Sri says, threw a remote control and hit her in the head. Wearing his son provided a measure of protection against his outbursts.
But the child grew wigglier and heavier until suddenly he was a toddler — and then, unbelievably, he was on the verge of starting preschool. That meant Sri would be in the house with the husband alone, while the wife was at the consulate working.
Sri had weighed escape countless times. But consul Cicilia Rusdiharini, and Cicilia’s husband, Tigor Situmorang, had threatened her with jail should she step outside without their permission, she says. And why leave? America was a nightmare of mass shootings and gang members waiting to snatch up lone women and sell them into the sex trade, they had told her. Especially someone like Sri, a poor farm girl who’d had only six years of schooling in Indonesia. She barely spoke English, had no money and knew no one outside her powerful employer’s orbit.
But one day, she found her passport hidden in a nightstand drawer. Sri had asked for it repeatedly over the more than three years of her employment, wanting to just look at this thing so prized in Indonesia. She was also terrified of overstaying her allotted term. If her visa had expired, she could be deported, she knew, and maybe even barred from ever returning to the United States. She says Cicilia had reassured her that the visa extension was in process. (Neither Rusdiharini nor her husband responded to numerous messages requesting comment.)
Her heart pounding, Sri saw that her visa had expired, and it did not appear to have been renewed. Sri took the passport, concealing it in a plastic bag she wore underneath her clothes.
Shortly thereafter, Sri says, Cicilia and Tigor accused her of theft — money, a missing watch. Sri finally snapped, shouting that she hadn’t stolen a thing. As Sri tells it, Cicilia had to leave for work and stormed out in a fury. Tigor made a similarly noisy exit with his son — taking with him, Sri was startled to realize, the last thing tethering her to the house.
Sri was alone; the house was silent. For once, the dishes were unwashed, the beds unmade. She opened the door and left.
Sri had arrived in the United States on May 26, 2004, one of the many domestic workers brought in every year by diplomats and international-organization staff under a special U.S. visa program. Each year, the State Department issues 1,200 to 1,800 of these visas: A-3s for workers employed by diplomatic officials, G-5s for employees of staff at international organizations like the World Bank. Specifically attached to the employer, the visa provides the domestic staffer with both work authorization and lawful immigration status.
It’s a powerful document, and one that can enable abuse. The domestic worker’s ability to live legally in the United States is in the hands of the employer — who may have diplomatic immunity from U.S. law. While many of these domestic workers have had respectful and deeply sustaining relationships with their employers, the power imbalance embedded in the visas can lead to problems: overwork, underpayment and much worse.
In researching this story, I came across many cases like Sri’s; ultimately, I built a database of more than 100 reports of alleged abuse of domestic workers by diplomat employers going back to 1988. More than half resulted in legal action, including out-of-court settlements and civil and criminal cases; I learned about these cases from court documents, law enforcement news releases and a database of cases maintained by the Human Trafficking Legal Center. The other instances came from victim statements, studies by anti-trafficking and domestic-workers’ rights organizations, reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Human Rights Watch, media accounts, a petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other partners, and interviews with advocates, lawyers, government officials and survivors of diplomatic trafficking.
But the true scale of the abuse is almost certainly much wider. Anti-trafficking and domestic-worker experts believe the problem is underreported because of law enforcement agents’ lack of familiarity with cases involving diplomatic immunity, workers’ fear of deportation and police (often stoked by their employers), and their isolation in the homes of esteemed diplomats — some of whom speak out against human rights abuses publicly while exploiting workers in private.
A Qatari diplomat, for instance, called for redoubling efforts to end “today’s slave-like practices” at a United Nations event — even as he and his wife were allegedly forcing their Filipina domestic employee to work more than 17 hours a day, every day. They eventually hired another worker to join the first. The wife regularly slapped the women — who lived in the pantry — and called them “animals” and “slaves,” according to court documents filed by the women in a lawsuit. (The diplomat denied the allegations. The case was later voluntarily dismissed with prejudice. This outcome often indicates that a case has ended with a confidential settlement in favor of the plaintiff, says Sarah L. Bessell, deputy director of the Human Trafficking Legal Center. The diplomat’s attorney said that neither he nor his client could comment on the case.)Sri still has pain in her back and knees. “Little things to remind me,” she says. For her efforts, she was paid the occasional $50 to $100 or so a month, she alleges.
The allegations in my database included long hours and scant pay; extreme work conditions, such as being forced to shovel snow in bare feet or washing a child’s soiled sheets by hand in the middle of the night; and conditions that meet the definition of human trafficking — that is, the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel another person’s labor, as alleged in both civil and criminal cases.
In the reports I identified, well over half of the employers allegedly confiscated their workers’ passports. About half of the workers said their employers forbade them from leaving the house alone or speaking to people outside the employers’ family. More than 20 workers claimed physical abuse: One was beaten with a wooden shoe, another with a package of frozen chicken before later being kicked unconscious. Some employers sexually harassed or groped the women; a number of workers said they were raped by their employers or employers’ friends.
In light of these alleged abuses, critics of the special-visa program — including domestic workers, activists and human rights lawyers — have asserted that the U.S. government isn’t doing enough to protect workers and punish abusers. Domestic workers as a group — both those who are U.S. citizens and those who are not — have long been denied protections, including the right to organize. Add to this situation the power of diplomatic immunity and the precariousness of a temporary work visa, and these foreign workers have little recourse if they encounter exploitative bosses.
Advocates have been pressing their case for decades through civil lawsuits, organizing campaigns and a still-unresolved 2007 petition filed against the United States with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States. In August 2020, the commission decided that the petition could move forward and indicated that it would also examine the broader issue of all domestic workers’ exclusion from many U.S. labor laws. The State Department now has until early February to respond to the petitioners’ final brief.
The U.S. government has made some efforts over the years to address the problem. In 2008, Congress instituted a mandatory work contract and a know-your-rights pamphlet for workers; it also granted domestic workers filing lawsuits against their employers the ability to live and work legally in the United States. The State Department began requiring that a diplomat’s employer sign off on any special-visa request. Additionally, the agency established a check-in process for workers living in the D.C. area, as well as New York and Houston, in which they meet with State Department officials within 30 days of their arrival and go over their legal rights and work requirements. The agency intends to expand the check-in program beyond these three locations, once it is safe to do so in light of covid-19 precautions, according to a State Department spokesperson.
When abuse does occur, the U.S. government has a number of options for providing remedies. Should a law enforcement agency decide a case merits prosecution, the State Department will request a waiver of diplomatic immunity, according to department guidance to law enforcement. The department can require a diplomat to leave the United States, or ask the diplomat’s sending country to provide payment to a wronged worker — a goodwill, or ex gratia, sum that does not indicate legal liability. Finally, the State Department can cut off access to special visas to any country that has tolerated abuse of domestic workers, according to federal anti-trafficking law.
And yet it’s far from clear how often these measures are taken. The State Department did not provide any specifics in response to repeated queries about its enforcement actions related to the domestic-worker program; Freedom of Information Act requests I filed more than two years ago remain unfulfilled. There is only one known case of the department successfully assisting a domestic worker in receiving an ex gratia payment. And though a spokesperson asserted that, “in cases of serious criminal offenses, the Department requires the alleged offender to leave the United States,” only one such occurrence has been widely reported in U.S. media: a 2013 case involving an Indian diplomat. As for prosecutions, the department has requested waivers of diplomatic immunity in publicly known cases only a handful of times. In all, only 12 federal criminal cases and one state case have been filed against current or former diplomats since 2000.
Meanwhile, even though Congress has required suspension of countries in response to abuse since 2008, the State Department only acted on the requirement in 2019, after lawmakers stripped discretionary language from the law. Malawi was the first to be suspended, and Cameroon this year. But there is ample evidence to suggest that list should be longer. One of the suspension requirements is triggered by unpaid judgments against diplomat employers. By that measure alone, India, the United Arab Emirates, Zambia, Burkina Faso and Ecuador should be suspended, according to an examination of court dockets. And the judgment that triggered Malawi’s suspension remains unpaid, according to the department’s trafficking in persons report. (I contacted the embassies of all the governments named here; none replied.)
On its website, the State Department proclaims that “it leads the U.S. global engagement to combat human trafficking.” Yet here in America, the holes in domestic law and international diplomacy have long lined up. And at least for a time, Sri Yatun fell through.
I first met Sri in September 2018 at a cafe. (Sri has officially changed her name to an Anglicized one that she asked me not to use, but many people still know her as Sri.) She was a small, glamorous slip of a person — 32 years old, not even 5 feet, in leggings and a spangly top, oversize sunglasses perched atop her head, hair straightened in a sleek curtain and her expertly applied eye shadow the shifting colors of a sunset. She didn’t always dress this way, however. For years, she’d worn nothing but baggy men’s clothes. “I didn’t want people to see me,” she says.
We spoke for hours, Sri in fluent English inflected with the richly rolled r’s of her native Javanese. We have kept talking for over three years now, and I’ve learned a number of things. She has a dark, droll sense of humor, which she deploys in describing the worst of situations — learning how to defend herself by watching “Kill Bill,” for example. She carries a stun gun thicker than her forearm, she’s an astonishingly talented chef who also loves McDonald’s Creamy Ranch Sauce, and she has the anticipatory eye and swift stealth of someone who has spent a lifetime answering needs before they can be named. To spend time with Sri means that your table will be expertly bused, takeout cartons packed, even used tea bags tidied.
Not everything could be so neatly put away, though. Her story, for one. Although she’d managed to hold on to her belief in God, her experiences had complicated her relationship with him (“What’s he doing up there, just sleeping?”), and deep into our first conversation, she hastily pulled down her sunglasses over her eyes but kept talking, tears slipping from under the frames. I’ve since corroborated her story in interviews with social-service providers and friends, as well as declarations submitted under penalty of perjury as part of Sri’s application for a T visa, a special document granted to victims of human trafficking.
Born in a village in central Java, Indonesia, she was the sixth of nine children. Her hair was big — unruly and thick — but she was so tiny that her family called her “Tonel,” or “small.” Her parents grew corn, bananas, coffee, tobacco and spices on their farm. She doesn’t remember a time without work, starting from when she’d roll tobacco leaves and pick cloves and cinnamon from the age of 4 or 5. The smell of spices reminds her of her parents to this day.
When she wasn’t working, she was reading — when she took the cow out during the day, by lantern at night. She loved school so much that she had a side business doing homework for other children. “I didn’t know that was wrong then,” she says. She got paid in money and in socks. (“What!” she told me. “They were nice socks!”)
But a drought blighted their crops when she was 12, putting an end to her schooling. One of her sisters died that year, and then typhus and malaria ravaged the rest of her family two years later. Her father started selling off slice after slice of their land; her older siblings also peeled away to seek work in the cities. When she was 16, a labor recruiter with whom she was friendly came to her village, looking for a domestic worker. She was determined to help her family and signed up immediately.
Her new employer was Cicilia Rusdiharini, a foreign-ministry official who’d be traveling to the United States soon. Sri didn’t know what to expect of living abroad, but, she recalls, Cicilia offered her a chance at more schooling in the United States. Sri made her decision even before her new boss had finished speaking.https://0c17a230afb2ce74dbc6f1fdd52d1383.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
In the meantime, Sri moved to Jakarta to work for Cicilia and her husband, doing housework and taking care of their 6-month-old baby. In the first sign of trouble, Cicilia told her she’d be working for free for four months until they moved to the United States, according to Sri and her T-visa documents. The money she should have been paid would instead be used to cover expenses for her visa application and plane ticket.
It would all be worth it, Sri tried to reassure herself. The U.S. contract looked good: $400 a week for 40 hours of work, $13 an hour for overtime. It was all laid out in black and white in Bahasa Indonesia, the main language of the country, and translated into English years later for her visa application.
Once in the United States, however, Sri was made to work day and night, with no days off, according to her T-visa documents, as well as interviews with a subsequent employer, three of Sri’s friends, and Ima Matul, an Indonesian anti-trafficking activist who assisted Sri years later. She still has pain in her back and knees. “Little things to remind me,” she says. For her efforts, she was paid the occasional $50 to $100 or so a month, she alleges. All this while enduring verbal abuse and threats from Tigor and Cicilia.
“She takes care of the baby,” cooking, cleaning, “everything, nonstop,” recalls Tuti, one of the friends. (She requested that I not use her last name.) Tuti was also a domestic worker at the time of Sri’s employ with Cicilia. Friends of Cicilia and Tigor brought Tuti along on visits to their home, where she witnessed Sri’s unrelenting workload. She contrasts Sri’s experience with her own. Tuti’s boss would say, “ ‘It’s okay. You tired, you take a rest. You wanna working, you working.’ … It’s good,” Tuti recounts. “Not for her. … Different.”
To get a sense of the plausibility of Sri’s allegations, I also interviewed three colleagues of Cicilia’s, all of whom spoke on the condition that they not be named out of fear of retaliation. They detailed Cicilia’s 3 a.m. diktats for work to be completed an hour or two later, as well as her “bullying,” “toxic” and “narcissistic” behavior in the workplace. “Her impact on my mental health is very catastrophic,” one said. “This is her pattern of working style to us in a professional setting where we are not financially dependent on her. So I can just imagine her treatment of her housemaid who was financially dependent on her and her husband.”
Sri’s dependence on Cicilia — for not just work but also her legal status — caged her. Until, that is, the discovery of her passport — and her apparently expired visa status — steeled her in anger. And so that day in July 2007, Sri walked out with no plan and no money, and wandered the strange streets of Los Angeles for hours, crying, thirsty, utterly lost. She got to a gas station and, exhausted, just stood there and wept.
Then a middle-aged Asian woman pulled in to get gas for her car. She said something in English. Sri shook her head, uncomprehending.
“Yes! Yes!” Sri burst into renewed tears. The woman was Indonesian, from Sri’s native island of Java even. Incredibly, she too was a domestic worker.
As the woman would later recount in a declaration for Sri’s T-visa application, “I noticed an Asian girl, standing by herself, crying her eyes out. I thought that I had seen her before, and she seemed like she really needed help. So, I went up to her, asked her what her name was, and asked her why she was crying. She told me briefly that she had just escaped an abusive situation with employers … and that she really feared for her safety.” The woman took Sri home with her, to an Indonesian enclave only a few blocks from the consulate itself.
Sri praying. She keeps a gun hanging on the wall in her bedroom because she is afraid of break-ins.
Sri’s safe haven may have been near her former home, but it seemed worlds away — past the tony manses of Hancock Park and into the crowded commingling of Koreatown and Little Bangladesh, where the gas station good Samaritan lived in a two-story building the color of faded mustard. Sri felt utterly lost, in both time and place. One thing kept her going, though: the woman who found her, the woman who became her godmother. Like her, a devout Muslim. Her name was Djuariah Tabarzad; she went by Riah.
“I have known Sri for over six years and love her like a daughter,” Riah said in her declaration in support of Sri’s T-visa application. “My heart immediately went out to her. She was around my son’s age, and she reminded me of the struggles that I experienced when I first came to America from Indonesia. So, I decided to help her.”
Sri calls the woman Mama now. Just a few months before they met, Mama had lost her son; he’d died in a motorcycle accident in Indonesia. Mama had just gotten her green card to go visit him; instead she returned to bury him. So Sri’s meeting Mama at the gas station — a terrified young woman, a mother grieving for her child — was an act of divine intervention, they believed.
I didn’t hear about Mama’s family tragedy from her, however. A jovial, forcefully generous woman with a plump face and indomitable energy, she didn’t have time for slopping around in the past. She also did not approve of a journalist sniffing around for sadness, and declined to speak to me about the circumstances of first meeting Sri or Sri’s former employment. Instead, she tried to stuff me with Indonesian chicken soup, vegetable fritters, rice, salad, a dragon fruit the size of a softball, litchis and an immense chocolate muffin while flapping her hands at Sri and telling her she should move on from the past, forget it, let it go.
Riah was protective of Sri, but even her fierce care couldn’t banish Sri’s fears. Sri hid deep inside the apartment, afraid to be seen from the window, and cried constantly, terrified of her proximity to the consulate and of the sharp eyes of the surrounding community. Thankfully, Mama soon arranged for her to take a job with friends in Corona, 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Sri would live in a guesthouse on the property and take care of the family’s children, particularly the youngest, a little girl.
Her new life was disorienting, like sudden, roaring silence after living in a din for years. Having nothing to do — Sri never thought of it as “free time” — was confusing. The little girl would clamber into the guesthouse sometimes on Sri’s days off, despite her mother’s admonishments, and would want to play. But Sri welcomed her visits; the child was “a distraction from all the bad things in my brain.”
After a few years, Sri began to yearn for something other than her quiet life far from the city. She moved back to Los Angeles and took a welter of jobs — cleaning, cashier at a Chinese restaurant, flower arrangement, informal hospice work — before she found stable employment near the west side of the city. Her new employer was warm and welcoming, and she continued to earn money to fulfill some of her deferred promise to her family.
Wanting to prove to herself that she was no longer afraid, Sri started returning to the consulate for special events. The staff at the consulate had turned over, Cicilia and Tigor long gone. Bit by bit, she was building a fragile sense of peace. Until the day she walked into a bathroom at the consulate and found a woman in distress. “She looked like she needed some help,” says Sri. The woman’s face was like a mirror into Sri’s own past. “She reminded me of myself.”Sri’s new life was disorienting, like sudden, roaring silence after living in a din for years. Having nothing to do — she never thought of it as “free time” — was confusing.
Her name was Elis — and like Sri, she’d also been brought to Los Angeles on an A-3 visa by an Indonesian official. Elis is now 40 years old, not even 5 feet tall, but has an outsize sense of style — a bright orange vest one day, perhaps, then a blush-pink formal jumpsuit for the end of Ramadan. I’d met Elis at a party hosted by Ima Matul, who herself had arrived in Los Angeles years ago as a trafficked domestic worker. Over the course of the day, I realized that at least five of the 50 women at the party had experienced trafficking as domestic workers; I’d read their stories or knew of their names through the community.
“More like 80 to 90 percent of them,” said Ima, when I asked her later. “It was very common,” particularly in the past, when workers and employers alike had less knowledge of labor rights — and before the passage of federal anti-trafficking legislation in 2000. Many of them, including Ima, had escaped thanks to the intercession of another domestic worker. “The system didn’t help us,” says Sri. “We had to help each other.”
As she would help Elis. Upon her arrival in the United States, Elis had allegedly discovered — according to Elis’s T-visa declaration, as well as interviews with Elis, Sri, Tuti and Ima — that her working conditions were not what she expected. And yet she continued at her job for years in the hope that her situation would improve — until she met Sri.
Sri said she’d help Elis find a place to stay and work. Months went by because Elis couldn’t decide whether to stay or go. Then her employer announced his term in the United States was up. He was leaving, and taking Elis with him. She decided she’d try to live underground in the States and make up for lost opportunity on her own. She and Sri sketched out a plan.
On her last scheduled night in Los Angeles, Elis slipped out the door and met Sri several blocks away. The women made it to Sri’s place and gasped with relief. They’d done it. Elis slept in Sri’s bed, Sri on the floor. It was a kind of idyll — both of them contemplating better days.
The next morning, or perhaps the one after that, Sri got a text from an Indonesian friend. The consul general and other staff were on their way to Sri’s apartment.
The women froze, then flew into a panic. Terrified, Elis wanted to hand herself over. Sri was just as frightened but convinced Elis they’d come too far to capitulate. Sri frantically called Tuti. Sri was “so scared,” Tuti recounts, and told her, “ ‘The consulate is coming!’ … I was so scared, oh my God.” Tuti called around and found a place for Elis to stay. Sri called a taxi, crammed Elis into it and then waited for the officials to come.
Consul General Hadi Martono barged into her tiny room, accompanied by five of his staff, Sri says. Martono threatened to call the FBI and have Sri jailed and deported. Sri called his bluff. “I said, ‘Go ahead,’ and handed him my phone.” She stonewalled them until, frustrated, they eventually left. (I reached out to Martono and received no reply.)
And then Sri went on the run. She stayed far outside Los Angeles and would commute to work; her time in the city was punctuated with a few nights with one friend, and then the next friend or room or couch. She always found a way to sneak back to visit Mama, but became catlike in her caution — darting into the apartment under the cover of darkness, alert by the door before she’d leave — when in such proximity to the consulate.
With good reason. Elis had found work far from Los Angeles — but was spotted by Indonesian neighbors one evening outside Mama’s apartment. Sri had met Ima Matul sometime after she’d helped Elis, and Ima had given her a card with a number to call in case she needed help; both women had also heard from other Indonesian women Ima’s organization had aided. Now, with their cover blown, the women called the hotline, and Elis was picked up by a team from Ima’s workplace, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. It was 2013, six years after Sri had escaped her employer.
Diplomatic Security Service agents from the State Department interviewed both Sri and Elis, but neither heard anything more from the agency. Sri felt some disappointment. She admitted that she “kind of wanted” Cicilia (who went on to work as a diplomat at the Embassy of Indonesia in Ottawa and Paris) and Tigor to face potential criminal charges. “But do you think it makes me a bad person to think about that? … She gonna lose her job. Her kid gonna suffer,” Sri says. “I’d rather just her give me the money that I was supposed to get when I worked with her.”
Sri and Elis both eventually received their T visas — an indication that the U.S. government found their stories credible — and Sri became a citizen this year. Two domestic workers receiving T visas should have provided ample reason to suspend Indonesia from the A-3 visa program at that time. But the Indonesian government did not face any public consequences, and the State Department did not answer questions about Elis’s or Sri’s cases, or about any actions it might have taken in response. In an email, a representative from the Indonesian consulate wrote that staff members had tried to reach out to Sri, Elis and their former employers to understand what had transpired and to offer assistance. Sri and Elis said no one from the consulate contacted them in this capacity.
In the same statement, the consulate also claimed it had learned that “to a certain extent,” Sri’s and Elis’s T-visa applications were “related to an effort to get a US Green Card.” When I relayed the consulate’s response to Sri, she barked out a laugh. “Bulls—!” she cackled over the phone. Getting a T visa would be impossible “unless you have a case and prove it.” Someone caught lying to law enforcement could “go to jail instead because you fabricated something that never happened. … The point is … of course we wanted a green card because we needed protection. From them. The Indonesian government. From getting deported. An opportunity to live here, right? But also reporting them is supposed to be bringing justice and preventing this from happening again.”
As for other remedies, Sri doesn’t recall her counsel advising her of the option to file a lawsuit. But even had she known, she thinks that she wouldn’t have wanted a potentially prolonged legal battle with Cicilia and Tigor.Former visa recipients have a flood of suggestions for the program. Some want a bond guaranteeing full payment, or a visa granting workers the right to keep their legal status even if they switch employers.
Civil suits have become an avenue for accountability. Although diplomatic immunity presents a daunting challenge, it is not insurmountable. Unlike ambassadors and high-ranking diplomats, most consular officials and international-organization members receive immunity only for actions undertaken as part of their official work. (And even for top diplomats, their full immunity converts to a “residual” form that only covers their official acts once they leave their post.)
In my research I identified at least 60 cases filed by domestic workers against diplomat employers. Most prevailed, according to my examination of court records, but some outcomes are unclear because cases may have been settled confidentially. Yet many domestic workers do not file suit. The cases can take years, says Ashwini Jaisingh, a onetime domestic-worker organizer and former student lawyer at the American University Immigrant Justice Clinic. “And then language … cultural barriers — it takes a lot to go through the legal process. Add trauma to that, and it isn’t surprising that people choose not to file.”
There is also the problem of unpaid judgments. Germania Velasco of Ecuador filed suit in 2007 — and won a default judgment of more than $45,000 after her employers failed to show up to court. But despite being granted the judgment, Germania and her lawyers say she has yet to see a penny 14 years later.
Germania is not alone. At least six other domestic workers are owed payment on judgments against their diplomat employers, to the tune of more than $6 million. Germania’s lawyers have reached out repeatedly to both the State Department and the Ecuadoran government over the years. Most recently, in March, they wrote to the department to request the suspension of Ecuador from the special-visa program and seek assistance in engaging with the Ecuadoran government to secure damages. There was no response.
Former visa recipients, I’ve spoken to have a flood of suggestions for the program. Some want a bond guaranteeing full payment, or a visa granting workers the right to keep their legal status even if they switch employers. Others suggested the State Department do its check-in interviews alongside outside lawyers or domestic-worker organizing groups. According to Antonia Peña, the D.C. organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a former A-3 domestic worker herself, at least 15 domestic workers within a two-year period informed her they did not tell the State Department the truth about being overworked and underpaid. Some were forced by their employers to lie under the threat of potential deportation and future blacklisting.
After escaping their employers, most of the workers whose experiences I researched for this story — I formally interviewed seven but have talked on background to more over the years — continued to work in poorly regulated, low-income sectors like housekeeping, custodial services or restaurant work. Many ended up in workplaces that resembled their former situations, with sexual coercion, physical violence and threats.
But some have also fought back against the system that allowed them to be abused. Germania engaged in domestic-worker organizing, while Sri trained as a survivor advocate for the anti-trafficking organization that helped her.
Elis, meanwhile, bent her will toward sending her earnings back home. She works a crushing number of hours: 5 to 10 a.m. at a grocery sushi counter six days a week, then as a nanny from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day. She can take time off but rarely does. “I know I’m crazy about working,” she told me. When she isn’t, “sometimes I get sad. Think too much. Better to just work.” She’s been able to build her parents a beautiful blue house in Indonesia; she showed me the pictures with pride. While she is grateful to “whoever cared about me” in the dark years, “now my life is better,” she says, almost defiantly. “I made it better.”
In the fall of 2020, Sri had to quit her job doing hospice work all around California. The reason was Mama. Her godmother had suffered a few mysterious health issues over the years, but the older woman was incorrigibly stubborn and thought it best to leave things in the hands of God — and avoid missing work and dealing with a sky-high insurance deductible. Sri was busy with traveling nursing-assistant work, so she didn’t have time to strong-arm Mama — until one day she admitted she really wasn’t feeling well. Sri squinted at Mama on the phone screen and saw the sallowness of her face, a yellowing of the whites of her eyes. Sri flew back and took her to the hospital, where they soon had their answer. Mama had Stage 4 bile-duct cancer, with a prognosis of six months to a year to live.
In mid-February, Sri moved Mama into her house. She was largely paralyzed from the neck down but just as obdurate as ever, wanting Sri to be the one to feed her, administer her fentanyl patch, bathe her and change her diaper, even though Sri had hired a home health aide to help. Sri tended to her with such devotion that several of Mama’s friends admitted to me, only half-joking, that they wished to adopt her so they’d have someone to care for them with that much tenderness in the future. The work and the worries took their toll, though: Sri slept so little that one day in April, she fell down the stairs and passed out at the bottom.
They’d had dreams. Mama had built a house in Indonesia for her retirement, which she’d planned for this year. She’d spend six months there, six months in the States with Sri, who would have moved to a more spacious house by then, she suggested. Someday Sri would settle down, have a child, and Mama would become Grandmama.
Sri had taken care of so many people, but it felt different to look after Mama. She’d started her career in caregiving with strangers who had felt entitled to extract what they wanted from her; she’d also cared for kind and generous people, and everyone in between. She’d mastered the domestic worker’s art of invisibility: the ability to take in everything in a home and render her own self unseen to avoid disrupting her employers’ perception of their privacy. So none of her experiences could prepare her for what it was like to care for — and potentially lose — the woman who had found her, who had truly seen her, at a gas station 14 years earlier.
Like any other group of experts from a formerly colonized, still-poor country, the Indonesian community was sharply divided between the haves and the have-nots, in an echo of the disparity between diplomatic employers and their domestic workers, Mama told me two years ago. They have identified with and “believe … the employers,” she said. “They just think, ‘She’s a bad girl, running away from the person who gave her a chance to be here and gave her a job. She should be grateful.’ They don’t know how much they make you work and what it is like. I knew.”
In early May, Mama began to slip out of consciousness. Her breathing slowed, 12 seconds between gasps, then 26 seconds. Sri gave Mama a manicure and pedicure. A facial. She called Mama’s friends. They gathered around her bed and prayed; after midnight, Mama tried to speak to them one last time, and then she was gone.
Sri spent the next days in a knotted fugue of grief, grappling with the paradox that Mama was everywhere and nowhere. Objects that never had life seemed animated with Sri’s memories of her, while Mama herself had vanished. Sri was seized with panic attacks: a flame inside her chest that convinced her she herself might be dying. Two days after Mama passed, she fainted at the funeral, unaware of what had happened until she blinked up and saw a ring of frightened faces above her and the blank sky beyond that.
Two of the faces would take her home after the funeral — Mama’s home health aide as well as one of Mama’s close friends. Without their help, Sri says, “I probably would have died.” Even before Mama passed, the women had told her they’d stay with her; in the days to come, they would make sure she ate, they would lead prayers and they would mourn with her. For now, however, the dishes were unwashed, the beds unmade. So the women walked back into the house together, and went to work.
Noy Thrupkaew is a writer in Los Angeles. This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. For more on this story, please listen to Latino USA’s “Trapped in Diplomatic Limbo.” Database design and analysis was provided by Dana Chinn of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.