Immunity or Impunity: Rappler spotlights abuse of workers by diplomats

CHEERS TO Rappler for its investigative reports that exposed the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers by their diplomat employers. Looking at cases across several countries, the four-part series published from August 29 to September 1 revealed the scope of the problem and  showed how diplomatic immunity enjoyed by offenders results in impunity, leading to the perpetuation of abuse. The reports also highlighted the failure of the national governments to protect workers and hold abusers among their diplomats accountable.

What’s the Story?

Rappler leads the four-part report with an explainer to guide the public through the intricacies of diplomatic immunity, defined as a privilege in international law that protects diplomats and their families from civil and criminal lawsuits. The explainer justifies the need for such immunity, so diplomats can do their work unimpeded by the local laws which may have little to do with their work representing the national interests to their host counterparts. It points to different levels of immunity depending on rank, as some offenses are not covered by immunity.

Rapplers reports show how immunity evolves into impunity of abuse of workers in the employ of diplomats. 

All four parts draw from a database that Rappler produced from open-source documents, case studies and interviews. It is specifically referred to the second part of the series. Likewise, the different reports dramatize the points they make by presenting the victims themselves, their hardship, their attempts to escape, the resolution or the failure of their efforts to secure justice. The articles explore the different worlds where diplomats serve, focusing on cities which serve as global hubs for international relations. 

The first report, written by Ana Santos, recounts the story of survivor-turned-advocate Cora Espanto who, along with her son and daughter, served in a Saudi Arabian diplomat’s home in the Netherlands where they were treated like captive laborers, underpaid, restricted in their mobility, working long hours with no time off. Egged on by her son, she agreed to their escape, aided by a fellow domestic worker and an owner of a cargo forwarding company. The report followed Espanto as she began to work with other victims, providing assistance so they too could break out from inhumane work conditions. 

The stories identify diplomat offenders from countries that observe the kafala system, the highly stratified societies where highly placed members of society take advantage of domestic workers, with insufficient laws to safeguard them in the first place.

Establishing the patterns of abuse, the second report by Pauleen Macaraeg, Michelle Abad and Santos referred to Rappler’s consolidated database drawn from various sources, case studies and interviews, which counted 208 maltreatment reports from 1988 to 2021, primarily involving women mostly from poorer countries like the Philippines, India, and Indonesia. The report noted that most domestic workers in Asia come from the Philippines, and counted 25 Filipinos employed in Syria, eight in the United States (US), and three in Saudi Arabia.

Most victims reported multiple forms of abuse, with underpayment of “wage-theft” as the most common, usually serving as the gateway offense followed by more abuse. Such malpractice is usually followed by forced labor, the denial of basic needs, as well as human trafficking, among others.

The third report, also written by Santos, delved more into trafficking and enslavement of migrant domestic workers by diplomats and officials of international organizations. The piece focused on cases recorded in the two countries which are the largest hubs of global diplomacy: the US and Switzerland. Gathering testimonies of survivors of trafficking and other abuses, it also noted that at least 29 out of 160 officials implicated in worker abuse were still holding positions in embassies or international organizations.

The fourth and last report in the series written by Abad, called attention to the exploitation of Filipino workers by Filipino diplomats enjoying immunity perks, describing specific cases. Like other governments, the Philippines has been unable or unwilling to address the issue. In fact, the report noted, the government like other offending host countries resort to the same practice of merely reassigning offenders to other posts.

It singled out Hong Kong, another global hub, with hardly any cases reported because domestic workers want to be able to work and are hesitant to report abuse by their diplomat employers.

Significantly, the series noted that the complaints and cases filed did not produce satisfactory results for the workers for various reasons. Even in cases that ended with rulings that favored the workers, the report pointed out, civil society and domestic worker rights advocates are cautious about calling them “justice” as workers are rarely paid the full amount owed them. Lea Rakovsky, project coordinator for Ban Ying, a Berlin-based advocacy group for migrant women’s rights, emphasized the difficulty of negotiating with diplomats: “The wrongdoings can be so obvious, but the diplomat usually doesn’t care. They despise the worker, they despise us. They act like they are above everything.” 

What Rappler Got Right? 

The country’s media have been quick to report cases of abuse and even murder of overseas Filipino workers – but these have often involved private employers. Rappler’s series shifts the spotlight on abuse by officials assigned to serve as diplomats in different countries, including the Philippines. It has been largely unreported, perhaps because it involves a special kind of community, the members of which are expected to demonstrate exemplary conduct and understanding of laws.

Rappler’s explainer gave readers an idea of the complexity of the issue, justifying the need for immunity but unstinting in stressing the need to address the abuse. The data cited also show that the bad eggs do not make up a majority of those posted in the foreign service.  

To their credit, the reporters who interviewed victims gained the trust of their subjects who gave consent to the use their names, allowed the publication of photos and shared details of their trauma and pain. 

Aside from anecdotal evidence, Rappler referred to several accessible links of court records, news reports, legal journals, and case files from civil society. The interviews with experts and advocates provided further substantial information to corroborate the data and the accounts of migrant workers.

The effective presentation of data, particularly in the second part of the series, allowed readers to explore and understand the numbers in the database. By hovering their cursors or choosing from dropdown menus, readers can easily navigate the maps in the report.

Furthermore, the investigative reports also discussed policy issues and pointed to the need for stricter measures and enforcement, including screening records of diplomats as employers as well as instituting checks on the welfare of domestic workers. 

Why Is this Important?

Diplomats play a special function in the world. They enable and implement a system of international relations, facilitate sensitive negotiations, making possible partnerships, cooperation and assistance in times of crises. They have been known to take advantage of circumstances when peace can be considered, avoiding war and conflict. Because they play a special role, diplomats enjoy the measure of latitude in their work. But the same community must be prevented from causing harm with impunity. 

Diplomats’ abuse of migrant workers is a multi-layered issue. The legal and bureaucratic processes in resolving these cases are neither easy nor quick. Cultural, social as well as religious differences need to be considered. Often and sadly, these implications trump the urgency with which the international community must act to protect the welfare of workers, whose lack of citizenship make them even more vulnerable. Rappler’s series showcases the power of investigative journalism to expose human rights violations. Shining light on those who often work protected by confidentiality, even secrecy; media should discuss these violations, compelling governments and international organizations to respect and uphold the rights of the very workers who enable them to do their work.