RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

They say they were treated like slaves in the suburban home where they worked. Three servants from India have sued their ex-boss, a Kuwaiti diplomat. They say he made them work more than 15 hours a day and that his wife beat one of them repeatedly. Even if they can prove their charges, the women will have a tough time winning the case. The Kuwaiti couple deny the accusations and say they have diplomatic immunity.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: The women had lived for a month along a quiet street in suburban Washington, D.C., but the neighbors didn't even know they were there. That's because, the servants say, their boss rarely allowed them outside. A neighbor, Hector Rodriguez, says he first spotted one of the women late in the summer of 2005.

Mr. HECTOR RODRIGUEZ (Neighbor): I was washing my car here in the driveway, and one of them was pacing up and down the street, looking at me with the fear of God in her face.

LANGFITT: So Rodriquez crossed the street and asked if she was in danger.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: And then she proceeded on to explain the situation that she and her friends were in, that they were basically treated as slaves.

LANGFITT: That woman is Jaoquina Quadros. In January, she and two co-workers sued their former employer, Major Waleed Al-Saleh, a Kuwaiti military attaché. They say the diplomat illegally trafficked them from Kuwait. According to the suit, he seized their passports and told them not to look out windows or even open the door of his house. And the suit says the diplomat knocked one of the women, Kumari Sabbithi, unconscious.

Here Sabbithi describes working inside the million dollar-plus home in McLean, Virginia and caring for the couple's triplets. Her hands clasped in her lap, the young woman speaks in Telugu, a south Indian language, as another translates.

Ms. KUMARI SABBITHI (Plaintiff): (Through translator) The days started around 6:30, 7:00 and used to go to until like 11:30, 12:00 p.m. in the night. My work included feeding the babies - three babies - in the morning. Then again, helping cooking for the family, cleaning the kitchen, cleaning each and every room.

LANGFITT: For that she says she earned just $242 a month. That's less than 60 cents an hour. When she made mistakes, she says the wife struck her in the head - once with a wooden box, another time with a package of frozen chicken.

Ms. SABBITHI: (Through translator) They would beat me with hands. They would push me against the wall. They would hold my head and drag me.

LANGFITT: Major Al-Saleh declined an interview. But in a statement, he called the accusations, quote, "absolutely untrue."

I'll return to Sabbithi and her suit in a moment. But first, a little background. Her story is not unique. Foreign diplomats have been accused of abusing domestic workers here for years. One workers rights group says they know of 25 similar complaints this decade. And back in 1996, the U.S. secretary of state complained to foreign embassies in Washington about the confinement, overworking and underpaying of servants.

This particular case also provides a glimpse into a much larger problem in places like the Persian Gulf. A 2005 State Department report said foreign servants were treated so badly in Kuwait that 800 fled their employers and were living in shelters at any one time. Nisha Varia works with Human Rights Watch. She's interviewed hundreds of such workers.

Ms. NISHA VARIA (Human Rights Watch): The embassies of Indonesia and Sri Lanka in many countries have set up shelters onsite because every day they receive dozens of complaints from women who haven't received their wages, who have been beaten by their employers, who have lost 20 or 30 pounds because they're not being given enough food. So when I visit the Indonesian embassy in Riyadh, for example, there's 150 women in the embassy, because they have just fled abusive conditions.

LANGFITT: Why are employers so bad to these workers?

Ms. VARIA: The treatment of these women is very much tied into gender discrimination, racial discrimination. All of these attitudes really play into employers seeing domestic workers as not quite human.

LANGFITT: Back in the suburbs of Washington, Kumari Sabbithi was depressed and considering suicide. Finally, she confronted the couple in October 2005. Speaking up for the first time, she complained that they owed her a month's salary. She says the diplomat's wife called her ungrateful for all the good things they'd given her. Sabbithi describes the conversation in English.

Ms. SABBITHI: Madam say I give you the food, I give you the soap, I give you the clothes. Everything, everything, I give it. So I said, Madam, give me my money.

LANGFITT: She says the wife was furious and threatened to cut off her tongue and that the woman's husband, the diplomat, pushed her to the floor. The suit says Sabbithi hit her head on a kitchen table and blacked out. When she came to, her co-workers urged her to flee for her life. Sabbithi said she feared she might never return to India and see her husband and two young daughters.

Ms. SABBITHI: I think I'm still there, that people is killing, I never can see my family. I think about it and I left that house.

LANGFITT: She gathered a few belongings, including underwear and a Bible. As the family relaxed in the basement, she slipped away.

Ms. SABBITHI: (Through translator) I came out of the house around 7:15 in the evening. I started walking.

LANGFITT: But Sabbithi didn't know Hector Rodriguez - the neighbor her co-worker had met a few months earlier - and she didn't know where he lived.

Ms. SABBITHI: (Through translator) I stood there in the cold and prayed: what should I do? Should I go forward anyway? Or should I go back to the house? Then I decided, no, I'm not going back.

LANGFITT: She came to a house with a light on, a white Cape Cod. It was the home of Hector Rodriguez. I asked him to describe what happened next.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I hear a nasty knock.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Like that. My wife and I, we were stunned. I mean, somebody was trying to knock the door down.

LANGFITT: Rodriquez looked through his window.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: She only had a couple of plastic shopping bags. She was dressed in a summer maid's dress. Again, don't forget, it was very cold that night.

LANGFITT: He opened the door. She barged in and introduced herself.

Ms. SABBITHI: My name is Kumari. I'm working in the Kuwaiti people. That people give me trouble. Help me, please, I ask.

LANGFITT: Rodriguez called the police. They confronted the Kuwaiti, but he said he had diplomatic immunity. Rodriguez understands the limits of the law, but he has trouble stomaching it.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: How is it possible that in the country where freedom is relished, that these atrocities are allowed to happen under the umbrella of diplomatic immunity?

LANGFITT: Several months after Sabbithi left the house her co-workers fled as well. She knows she's unlikely to win her lawsuit, even with the help of her lawyer, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union. But Sabbithi says she's just hoping for some measure of justice. Today, she works as a babysitter in Manhattan. She says her new boss is a lot better.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we'll hear why it's so hard to prosecute these cases.

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