Maid Says Qatari Official Enslaved her in U.S.

      ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – A Qatari couple trafficked a Filipina woman to the United States, abused and enslaved her and forced her to work around the clock, the woman claims in court.
     Christy Butigan sued Salwa Awad Saeed and Salah Al-Malki, a medical attaché for the Qatari Embassy in Washington, in Federal Court. She accused them of human trafficking, forced labor, involuntary servitude, conspiracy, fraud, assault and labor law violations: 16 counts in all.
     Butigan, 31, claims her ordeal began when she responded to a radio ad in late 2009 offering employment in Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait. She applied for a position with 5 Star Recruitment & Manpower Corp. and traveled to Manila for training, she says in the complaint.
     The only defendants in the case are Al-Malki and his wife.
     In Manila, Butigan claims, she and other domestic workers in training were forced to sleep on a cement floor, given a curfew and had their passports confiscated. Those who wanted to leave were told they would have to reimburse the agency for travel and training expenses, she says.
     Through 5 Star, Butigan says, she was assigned to work for the defendants, and was sent to Qatar, where her passport and employment contract were taken from her and her servitude began. The contract promised her $400 per month with sick day provisions.
     “Shortly after her arrival, defendant Saeed – who already possessed Ms. Butigan’s passport – seized her remaining identification documents, including her school records, OWWA (domestic worker certificate issued by the Philippines), POAA (identity document issued by the Philippines), NBI certificate, and medical certificate, as well as her personal photographs of her family and children,” the complaint states. “Ms. Butigan never possessed her passport again and never saw the remaining documents or the pictures of her family and children again.”
     She says she was forced to work around the clock, cooking, cleaning and caring for the couple’s 4-month-old twins.
     “Ms. Butigan worked from 5:00 a.m. until midnight, seven days a week, without any time off. She was often woken up in the middle of the night to prepare meals for the family. In return, defendants paid Ms. Butigan only meager wages – far less than promised under her contract.”
     The complaint adds: “In Qatar, defendants subjected Ms. Butigan to constant verbal abuse. Ms. Butigan was shouted at, told she could not leave the house, and called offensive names. Defendants made Ms. Butigan wear a uniform that covered her entire body and hair at all times. To sleep, defendants forced Ms. Butigan either to share a bed with another domestic worker employed by defendant Saeed’s mother or to sleep on a piece of plywood in a room the size of a large closet, with only a small electric fan in a climate that could exceed 100 degrees. Ms. Butigan was permitted to eat only once a day and was chastised if she ate anything other than rice.”
     Butigan says she made about 23 cents an hour working for the couple in Qatar, and was told she could leave if she could pay her own way home, which they knew to be impossible.
     After she and the family relocated to Washington, Butigan says her servitude continued in the same fashion, despite a new employment contract promising her better hours and higher pay – $1,500 a month – which was used for the sole purpose of obtaining her visa.
     She says she continued to work around the clock for roughly 75 cents an hour, and that Saeed repeatedly attacked her.
     “Defendant Saeed even blamed Ms. Butigan for a bacterial infection that the twins contracted,” she says.
     She claims Saeed told her she was “dirty because she was a Christian,” and that Al-Malki asked her to convert to Islam.
     “Ms. Butigan ate only coffee and some bread for breakfast and rice later in the day because Ms. Saeed yelled at or questioned her if she ate anything else,” she claims. “Some days she only had the coffee and bread. As a result of the restricted diet, Ms. Butigan lost weight and her clothes became loose while working for defendants.”
     She says she developed severe dental problems due to the neglect.
     Butigan claims she worked 138 days in the United States before she escaped during a rare instance when they left the house without her.
     Since her escape, she says, Al-Malki and Saeed have repeatedly called her family in the Philippines, and her contacts in the United States, looking for her.
     She seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
     She is represented by Erica Morin, with Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr in Washington.
     Filipinos are frequent targets of forced-labor scams. Foreign diplomats in the United States are frequently defendants.

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