By Kate Ryan | Thomson Reuters Foundation |
The U.S. government said it has suspended issuance of visas for domestic employees of Malawian officials after one of its diplomats failed to pay $1.1 million in damages to a woman she trafficked in the United States.
In 2016, domestic worker Fainess Lipenga was awarded the payout in a human trafficking lawsuit against her employer Jane Kambalame, who worked at the Malawian embassy in Washington.
Lipenga, who for years worked long days for less than 50 cents an hour and was subjected to psychological abuse, still has not received the money.
The U.S. State Department informed Congress on Wednesday that the A-3 visa sponsorship privileges given to the Malawi bilateral mission, which allow officials to bring domestic employees to the United States, had been suspended, a spokeswoman said.
“The department is committed to implementing all applicable provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and related laws,” the State Department spokeswoman said. “The A-3 visa sponsorship privileges afforded to Malawi bilateral mission members are suspended.”
Officials at the Malawian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Kambalame, who did not respond to or participate in the lawsuit, could not be reached.
Kambalame left the United States in 2012, according to the lawsuit, and was appointed Malawi’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe and Botswana.
The law allowing the U.S. government to suspend visa privileges in these cases was enacted in 2008, but this is the first time it has been used, according to Martina Vandenberg, head of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, a Washington-based anti-trafficking group.
“The reality is Malawi could have avoided this entirely if it had just resolved the case,” she said. “What’s so troubling here is the victim is also a citizen of Malawi …. This is something that involves one of their own people.”
Some 400,000 people are believed to be trapped in some form of modern slavery in the United States, according to the Global Slavery Index published by human rights group Walk Free Foundation.
The lawsuit showed Kambalame would listen in on Lipenga’s phone calls, humiliate her and threaten to deport her.
“She told me: ‘I’m a diplomat, you’ll never get me in trouble’,” Lipenga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2016.
“I just believed her.”
Vandenberg said she thought domestic workers working for diplomats were vulnerable because their visas chained them to specific employers.
“These are trafficking victims who came in with perfectly legally visas blessed by the U.S. government who anticipated good jobs and decent conditions,” she said.