US imposes visa sanction on Malawi over failure to pay a 2016 court-awarded compensation

Malawi Embassy
Malawi’s Washington embassy

The U.S. Department of State has announced the suspension of Malawi’s A-3 visa privileges which allows the country’s diplomats to bring domestic workers into the US.

The suspension is in relation to a 2016 court-awarded compensation of $1.1 million to a former domestic worker of the embassy in Washington who accused her employer, Malawian diplomat Jane Kambalame, of human trafficking.

Fainess Lipenga claimed in the lawsuit that she was paid less than 50 cents an hour for three years and was forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, reports the BBC.

“She told me: ‘I’m a diplomat, you’ll never get me in trouble’. I just believed her.” Lipenga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

“She made me work from 5.30 am to 11 pm on most days, and I had to sleep on the basement floor. She said I couldn’t sleep in a room upstairs like the family because I would make them sick,” Lipenga said.

Before arriving into the U.S., Lipenga was already working as a maid for Kambalame in Malawi since 2002 and they moved together to Washington after the latter was made a diplomat in 2004.

“I was so excited. She (Kambalame) told me that I could finish my education in the U.S. and that she would help me find another job,” Lipenga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She said she signed a contract written in English, which she did not fully understand, stating that she would be paid $980 per month for working 35 hours per week and would be paid overtime, reported Reuters.

However, she received nothing for the first few months and after that, she was paid between $100 and $180 per month.

She claimed her passport was taken from her and she was locked in the house the entire period while her phone calls were listened into.

However, Kambalame, who left the U.S. after her appointment as Malawi’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe and Botswana in 2013, has denied the claims insisting that Lipenga lied to remain permanently in the US, reports the local newspaper Maravi Post.

“What sort of demon would have suddenly possessed me… that I would turn into a monster? What would be gained from imprisoning her?” she was quoted by the Maravi Post.

She explained that Lipenga left the embassy without notice after her resignation but they maintained communication and even visited her in the hospital when she was being treated for lupus, cites the BBC.

According to the case memorandum, Lipenga escaped the Kambalame household in 2007 and was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with tuberculosis and depression.

“I thought: I will die if I stay here, they will take my body and dump it in the trash… I stole my passport and my contract when the family were out of the house, and left in the morning when they were sleeping – I could not stop shaking,” Lipenga said.

She obtained a T visa – which is issued to victims of human trafficking – with the help of a pro bono human rights lawyer in 2009 and in 2011, she got a permanent U.S. residency.

Lipenga filed the civil complaint against Kambalame in the state of Maryland in 2014 claiming false imprisonment, human trafficking, mental abuse and intentional infliction of emotional distress among others.

Kambalame, who had left the country at the time, failed to respond in the case and a district court handed down a default judgment in 2016 setting damages at $1,101,345.

However, as at 2016 when the ruling was passed, the Malawian embassy in Zimbabwe said in an email that Kambalame no longer worked at the mission, but is still an employee of Malawi’s foreign affairs ministry, Reuters reported.

Lindsay Reimschussel, one of Lipenga’s lawyers at the time said they were exploring various options to enforce the judgment since both Kambalame and the Malawian authorities were not responsive.

Lipenga secured a job with the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Centre in Washington, where she hoped to help other victims of trafficking. “What happened to me happens to others over and over. I want to help them and break the immunity for diplomats,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2016.

The Malawian embassy in Washington has still not released a statement even after the suspension of the A-3 visa privileges on Friday. The US State Department spokesperson told the BBC that they had already informed the U.S. Congress on Wednesday about the decision.