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Embassy workers describe "personal hell"

Two former employees of Paraguay's ambassador to France say they were treated like dogs.

PARIS — After working for 17 years as a housekeeper at a school in Paraguay, Fermina Bogarin was offered a chance in 2007 to come to Paris for two years to do a similar job at the official residence of her country’s ambassador. She hesitated at first but reconsidered because the $625 monthly salary would help pay the school fees for her daughter, a university student studying midwifery.

And so began Bogarin’s “personal hell.” Had she known what awaited her in France, Bogarin, 48, said she would have never left her small, comfortable house with mango trees growing in the front yard to come sleep on someone’s floor like a dog.

Through the embassy job, she got to know Ernesto Torres, 40, who signed his first contract in 2005 to be a chauffeur for Paraguay’s Paris embassy. He was recruited from a rural area about 30 miles from his country’s capital, Asuncion, with the understanding that if he stayed in the job in Paris for two years, he would be reimbursed for his round-trip plane ticket. He hoped to save some money as well as send some back home to his two daughters.

While Bogarin slept on the floor, Torres slept in what he called “an oven,” a basement chamber at the ambassador's home containing the electricity and gas meters. “Imagine if there was a gas leak, I would be dead,” he said.

Both said their meals were rationed; if they wanted tea or coffee, they had to purchase it themselves. If they took a day off on Sunday, they were not allowed food or access to the kitchen on that day or the next day. On a rare night off, if they wanted to go out, they had to return by 8 p.m. or risk being locked out of the house. They were not allowed to have keys.

Although the title on Torres’ contract was that of chauffeur, his duties included that of a janitor, gardener, dog walker, car washer, handyman and a slew of other off jobs at the embassy and the private residence, he said. On most days, he said he worked from dawn until 2 or 3 a.m., when he drove the last visitors home from the various social functions at the official residence.

Bogarin said her duties, beginning early in the morning, included baking fresh bread daily and climbing three flights of stairs several times per day to serve meals to the ambassador’s wife in her room. Bogarin’s contract stated that she was to serve an “administrative” function.

Both said they were threatened with being thrown in jail if they tried to leave. Bogarin said she tried to formally resign on two separate occasions but her resignation was rejected.

Neither Bogarin nor Torres had any idea that $625 U.S. dollars when converted to euros does not stretch very far. They were promised housing, meals and health insurance. Bogarin said she was told she would be able to contact her daughter by telephone at least twice a week. But none of those promises were kept. Instead, Bogarin said, she was treated like a dog. She later corrected herself: “A dog lives better in France than I did.”