NEW YORK —In July 2017, two domestic workers served a lawsuit upon German diplomat Pit Koehler and his wife Mareike Koehler. Court documents reveal that the workers — who were lured to the U.S. with the promise of a good job that included room, board and a legal wage — were forced to work six days per week, for more than 90 hours, and were paid well below the minimum wage. The women were recruited through a website and interviewed before they were hired by Koehler, who at the time was a German civil servant working at the U.N.
Sherile Pahagas worked for the Koehlers from November 2012 to October 2014 and Edith Mendoza worked for them from January 2015 to June 2016. Pit Koehler had contracts with the women, promising around $10 per hour for between 35 to 40 hours of work per week. The contracts also promised overtime pay for any hours worked over 40 per week.
The Koehlers allegedly failed to live up to their promises. Pahagas and Mendoza arrived in the U.S. to find that they were responsible for cleaning the Koehler’s six-bedroom/six-bath home in Westchester County, in addition to caring for the couples four young children. The women were forced to work 80 to 100 hours per week for about $4 per hour. They received no overtime pay and never saw a pay stub.
“They fooled me into thinking I could come to the U.S. to make good earnings for my family at home but it was all lies. The Koehlers treated me like a slave,” said Pahagas. “I was on call do everything in the home: all the cleaning, caring for the children and even shoveling the snow in the winter.”
The overwhelming job demands — which included caring for four children, cooking meals, cleaning the home, shoveling snow and cleaning up after pet birds, who flew freely throughout the house — endangered the women’s health, according to the complaint. Pahagas resigned after becoming pregnant because she feared the grueling work and long hours would endanger her pregnancy. When Mendoza became ill, the Koehlers repeatedly denied her requests for time off to see a doctor. When she was finally allowed to take time for a doctor’s appointment and also took additional time off to recover from her illness, Pit Koehler threatened to terminate Mendoza if she took anymore sick time. When she fell ill again and took off work, Koehler fired her.
“I worked six days each week, sometimes for more than 90 hours, and they paid $350.70 per week,” said Mendoza. “The Koehlers worked me until I dropped and then they fired me for calling out sick.”
What happened to Pahagas and Mendoza is not unusual. According to Martina Vandenberg who runs the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, the abuse of domestic workers by diplomats is widespread.
“For decades, diplomats have abused domestic workers with complete impunity. In capitals around the globe, diplomats have exploited their immunity to thwart accountability,” said Vandenberg. “Trafficked and exploited domestic workers abused by diplomats now have allies. And dozens have filed complaints in civil and criminal courts.”
The Koehlers allegedly violated several labor laws, including minimum wage, overtime and spread-of-hour compensation. Additionally, they breached their contracts with the workers. In the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on June 28, 2017, the workers are asking for unpaid wages, damages and the cost of the litigation. But their attorney says that Pahagas and Mendoza want more than money.
“This isn’t just about getting the hard-earned money they’re owed; Sherile and Edith want justice,” said their lawyer, Reena Arora, who is a senior staff attorney at the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. “It is unacceptable for a U.N. diplomat to treat workers with such callousness and disregard for labor laws. Koehler’s actions disgrace the U.N. and his country.”
Arora’s clients clearly agree.
“I am standing and fighting for my human rights,” said Mendoza. “I am fighting to be paid what the Koehlers owe me and for a public apology, as well.”
The workers are both members of Damayan Migrant Workers Association (Damayan), an organization of Filipino immigrant and migrant workers that offers support to domestic workers who are abused by their employers. Damayan’s Co-founder and Executive Director Linda Oalican says that Filipino domestic workers are raising their voices against wage theft and human rights abuses to fight against modern day slavery.
“Edith and Sherile are not alone; they are surrounded by a strong support network of attorneys committed to the fight against labor abuses,” said Oalican. “By standing together, domestic workers are successfully rising up to free themselves from abusive employers. We are gaining more strength every day by shining a light on the modern-day slavery that continues to exist in the shadows.”