Interdisciplinary Conference on Human Trafficking at the University of Nebraska


Date of this Version



Presented at First Annual Interdisciplinary Conference on Human Trafficking, Lincoln, Nebraska, October 29-31, 2009.
Copyright © 2009 Usama Kahf


On December 23, 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. This Act was hailed by human rights advocates as a great stride ―towards preventing the abuse, exploitation and trafficking of domestic workers employed by foreign diplomats in the United States. Acknowledging the particular vulnerability of these workers, the law contains specific provisions to enhance their protection and sanction their employers for exploiting the situation. These provisions seek to ensure that domestic workers are made aware of their rights in this country directly by consular officers who will be trained on U.S. labor standards and separately from their employers. It also requires a diplomat to have a contract with a domestic worker containing conditions of employment. It mandates that the State Department suspend the issuance of visas to a particular mission when the department receives credible evidence that a worker was exploited or abused and the mission tolerated the conduct. It further institutes mandatory record-keeping on diplomats and domestic workers by the State Department, including allegations of trafficking or abuse. The legislation also requires that several compensation approaches be studied and evaluated so that workers may receive appropriate compensation when their employment contracts are violated.

For a long time, diplomatic immunity has prevented any prosecution of foreign diplomats who enslave domestic workers in their homes. It has given power to abusers, rendering the servants helpless in the face of their untouchable masters. This new law is a reaction to this historic and persistent abuse. However, the law lacks any teeth because it fails to solve the underlying problem of absolute diplomatic immunity. It gives the Secretary of State the power to refuse to issue A-3 and G-5 visas under certain circumstances, but it does not suspend or limit the applicability of diplomatic immunity for diplomats suspected of trafficking. The law does not provide law enforcement or prosecutors any tools to criminally prosecute diplomats who enslave their workers. Nevertheless, what the law lacks in enforcement, it compensates for in prevention. Though the only recourse against current abusers is deportation, the law establishes a mechanism that can be used to prevent domestic workers from ending up in conditions of slavery by refusing to issue them visas in the first place. This paper will examine the provisions of the new law that pertain to foreign diplomats, explore the prospects of enforcement and prevention under these provisions, and identify areas for improvement.

Part II charts out the background of human trafficking in the United States with a focus on the trafficking of domestic workers and diplomatic immunity as a bar to criminal and civil prosecution of traffickers. Part III discusses the latest reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and examines the new provisions of the William Wilberforce Act aimed at preventing the trafficking of domestic workers by diplomats. Part IV critiques these new provisions by analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of the new anti-trafficking tools and the extent of their potential effectiveness.