Geneva/Berlin – On the morning of her court hearing, Virginia woke up with cold clammy hands and feet, gasping for air. She was having another panic attack.
“Never in my life did I imagine that I would find myself in a courtroom facing lawyers in a foreign country,” the 46-year-old Filipina told Al Jazeera.
What she knew about litigation from television court dramas made her anxious, but it was who she was up against that rattled her nerves.
Virginia filed a case against her diplomat employers at the Pakistan Mission in Geneva, Switzerland, alleging she had been unpaid for more than 20 years.
The contract, which she signed in the Philippines in 1999, indicated a monthly salary of 1,200 Swiss francs ($1,329) for a 40-hour week, along with board and lodging as well as health insurance.
Virginia, then a 22-year-old mother of two, found out after arriving in Geneva that she was expected to work for the Pakistan Mission three times a week without a salary. It would be up to her to find other jobs to have enough money to live on.
The sponsorship of her visa demanded her compliance and her silence.
Her employers have diplomatic immunity.
“They are so powerful. They are untouchable. My faith in God and the truth are my only weapons against their immunity,” said Virginia.
Virginia and three other Filipina domestic workers are suing the Pakistan Mission to the United Nations in Switzerland, claiming compensation for unpaid wages and other damages.
Evidence and testimony gathered from 2021 supported the allegations of violations of Swiss labour law, threats, coercion, exploitation and human trafficking.
The Swiss Mission, which oversees issuing visa permits to domestic workers in diplomatic households and monitors compliance with employee contracts, confirmed that the case was currently being investigated.
The Swiss Mission has suspended issuing visas for domestic workers employed under the Pakistan Mission until the dispute is settled.
“Switzerland does not tolerate any abuse of the working conditions of private household employees in the diplomatic context,” said Paola Ceresetti, spokesperson for the Swiss Mission.
In an email, the Pakistani Mission in Geneva told Al Jazeera they do not comment on cases pending resolution, but said: “The Mission takes its obligations under the applicable international law and local regulations very seriously. It also pursues its rights, including the right to defend itself against insinuations through available mechanisms.”
Data provided by the Swiss Mission showed that 102 visas were issued to migrant domestic workers from Africa, South America, Asia and other countries from 2019 to 2022.
Under the Vienna Convention, diplomatic immunity afforded to state envoys and employees of international organisations allows them to perform their duties without fear of retribution from foreign governments by protecting them from criminal or civil suits.
Ben Vanpeperstraete, a senior legal adviser for the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, a non-profit legal organisation, cites the importance of diplomatic immunity in maintaining cordial intercountry relations.
However, protecting domestic workers who experience abuse and exploitation by their diplomat employers remains a glaring gap.
Open-source court documents, news reports and case files from NGOs revealed more than 140 incidents of diplomats and employees of international organisations implicated in domestic worker exploitation and trafficking from 1996 to 2020.
Charges ranged from threats and coercion to physical, psychological and sexual abuse, as well as low wages or not being paid at all.
Almost all victims were women from developing countries.
If cases were filed, they were usually dismissed because of diplomatic immunity. Cases, wherein compensation was awarded to the victim, were usually not enforced because the diplomat had left the country or was transferred to another embassy.
“It is almost impossible to use classic labour rights tools to sanction a diplomat or monitor the conditions of workers in their household,” said Vanpeperstraete.
It was only in 2022 that the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled that domestic employment in diplomatic households was a commercial activity and was not protected by immunity.
The case brought forward by domestic worker Josephine Wong against Saudi diplomat, Khalid Basfar, was touted as the first in the world.
The nature of their residence permit tied to their employer, who acts as a sponsor, compounds the precarious situation of domestic workers.
In extremely rare cases, a diplomat’s host country can request a waiver of immunity.
In 2007, three Indian women in the United States accused Kuwaiti diplomat Waleed al-Saleh and his wife, Maysaa al-Omar, of trafficking, forced labour and physical abuse, including beating one of the women’s heads against a wall.
The United States requested Kuwait to waive diplomatic immunity. When Kuwait refused, al-Saleh was removed from the US and reportedly barred from entering the country.
In the case of the four Filipina domestic workers in Geneva, the Swiss Mission said the waiver of immunity was one of the measures that could be applied but refrained from providing further details in order to not prejudice continuing proceedings.
Often what happens is a “negotiated way out”.
“The ambassador gets rotated or goes back to their home country,” said Vanpeperstraete.
In 2017, two Filipina domestic workers charged Pit Koehler, a counsellor for the German Mission to the United Nations in New York and his wife with trafficking and forced labour.
Both cases were dismissed because of diplomatic immunity. However, US court documents state: “Notably, nothing in the defendants’ motion to dismiss based on diplomatic immunity challenges the factual allegations of the complaint.”
On at least three different occasions in Germany, Koehler represented the German Federal Foreign Office at NGO or academic events to speak about human rights.
In an email, a spokesperson at the German Federal Foreign Office in Berlin said that they were aware of the allegations against Koehler.
“The Federal Foreign Office takes such information very seriously. It investigated the allegations made in the present case very carefully. The allegations have not been substantiated … If there are indications of misconduct in individual cases, we investigate the indications thoroughly. If allegations are confirmed, we take the appropriate consequences.”
Outside diplomatic channels
Outside of court, cases are often relegated to work tribunals or mediation bodies that negotiate disputes between employees and employers who benefit from diplomatic privileges.
According to Geneva-based Bureau de Amiable Compositeur (BAC) chairperson Martine Brunschwig Graf, from 1995 to 2022, payments made by employers to employees resulting from BAC intervention average about 128,000 Swiss Francs ($145,000) per year.
“It has never happened that the worker is paid the entire amount that is owed. Most of the time, only a portion is recovered with either the diplomat or the embassy paying,” said Lea Rakovsky, project coordinator for Ban Ying, a non-government organisation based in Berlin and one of the few groups that specialise in cases of exploitation in diplomatic households.
Ban Ying estimates that in the about 200 diplomatic households in Germany, approximately one-third of domestic workers are from the Philippines, while a smaller number are from African countries and Indonesia.
“The whole situation leaves workers feeling helpless. They think that Europe is a better work option for them, but it is just the same,” said Krisanta Caguioa-Moennich, cultural mediator for Ban Ying.
Reporting for this project was supported by JournalismfundEU and the Pulitzer Center