Embassy workers describe "personal hell"

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.”

Now the pair, after filing a formal complaint, has decided to speak out seeking justice and reparations for their lost wages, “so this can end once and for all.” They hope to spare others the same experience, akin to living as a slave in the heart of a modern, progressive society.

In October 2008, Bogarin and Torres filed a complaint that eventually reached Paraguay’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government body responsible for the country’s embassies abroad. The complaint described their treatment by the ambassador who employed them, Luis Fernando Avalos Gimenez, a career diplomat who previously held posts in Korea and Spain.

In repeated calls to the embassy, Elina Lopez Caballero, the first secretary, said the ambassador would not comment on the allegations, citing the fact that it was a “private matter.” Both Lopez and the Ministry in Paraguay confirmed that Avalos would be leaving his post in July and returning to Paraguay in a government reshuffle. The embassy, with Avalos at its helm, is presently under investigation in connection with “irregularities,” according to Fabian Silva, of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s communication office.

Silva said a total of 20 embassies were part of a routine audit resulting from a change of government. In April, Paraguay, a landlocked South American country of less than 7 million, elected Fernando Lugo as president and ended 61 years of continuous rule by the conservative Colorado party. Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop who has been embroiled in paternity scandals since taking office, set high on his priority list rooting out corruption and fighting economic and social inequality.

Silva said the employees' complaint has sparked an unusually intense investigation of the Paris embassy, which includes a look into the mismanagement of funds. “It is a very serious accusation that these employees have made,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against practices like those that landed Bogarin and Torres far from home and feeling “exploited.” “Modern slavery, a crime that spans the globe, providing ruthless employers with an endless supply of people to abuse for financial gain,” according to Clinton; the topic was the subject of a U.S. government report released in June.

“The Obama administration views the fight against human trafficking, both at home and abroad, as a critical part of our foreign policy agenda,” she said in her remarks. “With this report, we hope to shine the light brightly on the scope and scale of modern slavery so all governments can see where progress has been made and where more is needed.”

Regarding Paraguay, the U.S. report said the country had revised and reinforced penalties to prosecute trafficking crimes but still needed to step up efforts to “launch criminal investigations of public officials who may have facilitated trafficking activity.”

If the investigation of the Paris embassy, which has not yet concluded, determines that Avalos broke the law, he could be prosecuted in Paraguay, Silva said. He cited as an example the case against the former ambassador in Buenos Aires who was accused of corruption and is now facing charges.

The Paris-based Committee Against Modern Slavery in its annual report acknowledged the difficulty in pursuing cases against those benefiting from diplomatic privileges, stating that “such cases are normally subject to fairly rapid treatment, owing to the limited possibility for our lawyers of successfully recovering the rights of the victims.”

One day in August 2008, when both Bogarin and Torres had had enough, they said they walked out, in spite of the threats from the ambassador. In their complaint, the pair wrote that their employer accused them of abandoning their jobs.

While many of the domestic workers whose cases are handled by the Committee Against Modern Slavery have their identification taken from them to coerce them to stay in abusive situations, Bogarin and Torres have their passports. Although they no longer have the papers that allowed them to work in their embassy-related jobs, they hope to stay and earn money in France so they don't have to go home empty-handed.

Bogarin was recruited for the embassy job by her boss back in Paraguay — the ambassador’s mother, the same person who recruited Torres.

“I will take this to the grave,” Bogarin said. “I will never forgive her for separating me from that which is most precious to me, my daughter.”

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