13 Years Later, Law Students’ Research Addressing the Exploitation of Foreign Domestic Workers Moves Forward

October 23, 2020

By Jess Clarke

A petition filed by foreign domestic workers, aided by UNC School of Law students and human rights and legal advocacy groups, has been moved forward to the merits stage by an international human rights commission.

The decision that the petition is admissible by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has been a long time coming — it was filed in 2007.

But for Carolina Law professor Deborah Weissman, who directed the students’ work on behalf of six female domestic workers employed in the U.S. by foreign diplomats, the news marks a milestone. And, although 13 years have passed, the issue is still timely.

“It’s so significant that there’s some perseverance here, with the combination of women who continue to push forward and haven’t been intimidated, the legal advocates and the commission, which is so under-resourced, but they got to it,” Weissman says. “After all these years, we can move forward, and it’s moving forward at a time when the rights of foreign workers are precarious. It’s a real shot in the arm of hope.”

Three students in Carolina Law’s Human Rights Policy Lab worked for months with the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Program of Global Rights on the petition, which represents domestic workers from Africa, Asia and South America and three organizations that provide services to domestic workers employed by diplomats. The petition charges that the U.S. fails to prohibit foreign officials with diplomatic immunity from committing human rights abuses, which leaves the people they employ in the U.S. with no recourse. The petition calls on the U.S. to develop a system to protect and compensate domestic workers who suffer such abuses.

“It was a long, arduous process to put this petition together. The students who worked with me were brilliant and hardworking. They heard the stories from the women who were petitioners from their own mouths,” Weissman says. “They did a fabulous job on all the legal issues we raised in the petition.”

Students engaged in fact-finding, legal research and case management to demonstrate that U.S. laws didn’t provide adequate legal protection for the plaintiffs, who traveled to the U.S. on special visas to work for foreign officials. Their immigration status is legal only if they remain employed by a diplomat. The petition was filed soon after the U.S. State Department expelled a Kuwaiti diplomat and his wife from the country because they abused their Indian domestic workers.

Before drafting affidavits, Carolina Law students interviewed the plaintiffs, who talked about wage and hour violations with no time off, invasion of privacy, being deprived of passports and other abuses.     

The petition work shaped the career path of Lauren Joyner ’09, a research assistant to Weissman on the project. Now Joyner is an immigration and civil rights attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, where she defends survivors of domestic violence, violent crime and human trafficking against detention and deportation.

“My work on the IACHR petition was my first exposure to the issues of labor exploitation and trafficking, which disproportionately impact immigrant workers and women of color. That experience helped motivate me to choose a career where I could continue helping immigrant workers and families, both documented and undocumented,” Joyner says.

“Many of my clients are domestic workers who have suffered the same abuses and indignities faced by the brave women who dared to petition IACHR when our U.S. justice system failed them,” she says. “The tenacity and resiliency of those women and others like them, even in the face of rampant injustice, keep me motivated in my work.”

The next step with the IACHR petition is for the case to get a merits hearing, a quasi-trial. If the hearing were successful, foreign diplomats who exploit migrant domestic workers could be held accountable.    

In the time since the petition was filed, Weissman sometimes wondered if the case would progress at all. “It’s like a glowing ember in the back of your mind: what will happen?” she says.   

Whatever does happen with the petition, the work of Carolina Law students has made a difference in addressing the exploitation of foreign domestic workers. “Just by declaring the petition admissible, it means we have raised relevant claims. Right there we have had an impact,” Weissman says, “and that will reverberate for countries that bring foreign diplomats to the U.S. It’s a huge victory.”