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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Aug 12, 2009, 6:00 am

Former UN Diplomat Denied Immunity in Labor Lawsuit

BY Akito Yoshikane

A federal judge in Manhattan denied diplomatic immunity for a former UN ambassador in a civil suit filed by his former domestic employee on charges of human trafficking and labor violations this past June.

The case is a continuation from last year when Marichu Baoanan – with the Asian American Legal Defense Fund (AALDEF) – sued ambassador Lauro Liboon Baja, Jr. the former permanent representative of the Philippine mission to the United Nations (2003-2007). She sued the family on 15 counts of violations, including forced labor, racketeering and slavery. The ambassador’s wife Norma, their daughter, and their company Labaire International Travel were also named in the lawsuit.

According to court documents, Baoanan said that Ambassador Bajas’s wife promised her that she could emigrate from the Philippines to the U.S. to find employment as a nurse, only to be forced to work as a domestic servant in the couple’s Upper East Side home.

Norma Baja arranged for Baoanan’s travel, work permits and job placement in January 2006 for 500,000 Phillipine pesos (roughly $10,000) through their company Labaire International Travel. Baoanan paid half of the fee, and upon her arrival, she was forced to work 126 hours per week for three months. Moreover, she was banished to the basement and fed only leftovers, and only paid $100.

In the court docket, Ambassador Bajas said the charges are a “total fabrication.”

At issue was the nature of Baoanan’s employment. If she was employed by Bajas as an “official act” through his diplomatic duties, as he alleged, he would be immune to civil and criminal procedures in U.S. courts under the Vienna Conventions of Diplomatic Relations. But citing legal precedent, U.S. federal judge Victor Marrero rejected Bajas’s claim and deemed the employment as a private act, not official. In other words, he falls under U.S. jurisdiction.

In a press release by AALDEF, Baonnan said:

I hope that other workers will have the strength to expose their situations so that diplomat abuses won’t be repeated in the future. If employers are not taught a lesson, they’ll continue to mistreat their workers.

The Baoanan case of infractions by diplomats is not unique. A report released last year by the Government Accountability Office found that there were 42 alleged instances of abuse by foreign diplomats since 2000, but concluded that the numbers were likely higher.

The report goes on state that investigations of abuses by diplomats are often difficult. The nature of diplomatic immunity complicates the process especially when an incident occurs at the ambassador’s residence, such as in the Baoanan case. A search of the diplomat’s home requires their consent and most of the family members also have immunity. Though these are indeed measures to prevent frivolous search and seizures, it also makes it difficult to corroborate details and gather evidence. Additionally workers are often intimidated by the political power of the diplomat, inhibiting them to cooperate with investigators for fear of retribution. Lastly, bureaucratic red tape; because of the international nature of the cases, consultations with governments on legal matters often take a long time, stifling the evidence gathering process.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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