Chilling Details: Pakistani High Commission keeps Kashmiri’s as slave. Every Kashmiri should see this
Driving through the empty Canberra streets of the embassy district in the shadow of the nation’s Parliament, there’s a sense that this is the ideal place to hide in plain sight.
The only people we see are security guards, gardeners and diplomatic figures glimpsed behind tinted windows, as cars glide through electric gates which quickly snap shut.
A Four Corners investigation has revealed that behind these walls, domestic staff are escaping conditions like working 12-18 hour days for a fraction of the minimum wage.
“It’s incredible to think that in the heart of Australia, that these sort of 19th-century practices are taking place,” said David Hillard, pro bono partner at the large law firm Clayton Utz, who acts for some of the escaped workers.
Mr Hillard calls it as he sees it. And in his opinion, it’s slavery.
Pakistani High Commissioner to Australia keeps Kashmiri slave. This is what those Kashmiris,who are already under Pakistan's rule, endure from the highest bureaucrats of the country. What's in store for those in the Valley, who want to become Pakistanis?
Jeeve Jeeve, Pakistan😀 pic.twitter.com/sa0r5jy5Gh
— Junaid Qureshi (@JQ_plaintalk) April 25, 2018
“It’s hard to think of a more isolated place in Australia than being inside a diplomatic residence in Canberra — it’s somewhere where you can’t be touched by domestic law,” Mr Hillard said.
And it’s true — diplomatic immunity means even the Australian Federal Police cannot enter these premises without consent.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that in those circumstances, there are people who are working for virtually no money in a number of different embassies and consular buildings across Australia,” Mr Hillard said.
One of those people is Mr Hillard’s client, Shahid Mahmood.
‘If you step outside, I will break your legs’
Mr Mahmood is a slight and shy Pakistani man of 32. His English is limited.
For 19 months to June 2016, in a house on a hill in the ACT suburb of O’Malley, Mr Mahmood said he lived in a storage basement.
“It wasn’t good because it was an absolutely filthy sort of place, I mean it wasn’t clean at all. There was no TV, nor was there any air-conditioning, not even a fan,” Mr Mahmood said through an interpreter.
The house was home to Naela Chohan, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Australia.
Before Mr Mahmood came to Australia, his employer signed a contract in Pakistan that was vetted by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and which stated he would start on $640 a week.
“The contract that he signed was a complete sham,” Mr Hillard said.
Mr Mahmood said he was given no money at all. The only cash he says he personally received was $5, to mark the Islamic festival of Eid.
“We usually would give that $5 to some beggar,” Mr Mahmood said.
Instead, some money was sent to his family in Pakistan.
For Mr Mahmood’s entire 19 months in the diplomatic residence, bank statements show his father in Pakistan received transfers of roughly $US6,000 ($7,700).
Mr Hillard said his client would work from 7:00am until 9:00pm or 10:00pm.
“On some days, when there was a function held by the High Commissioner, he would work until maybe 1:00am or 2:00am,” Mr Hillard said.
Mr Mahmood’s work included all the cooking, cleaning and gardening. He says he even had to put on the High Commissioner’s husband’s shoes.
And, Mr Mahmood said, he was not allowed to leave.
Australian Government guidelines require domestic workers in diplomatic homes keep their passports at all times, but Mr Mahmood’s was taken from him.
So he says he felt trapped in a place he compares to “a jail”.
Mr Mahmood says a member of the household told him if he tried to leave, the police could make him disappear.
“[They] said, if you step outside, I will break your legs,” Mr Mahmood said.
[He] said if you leave the house, I will break your legs.
Mr Mahmood remembers he only got four or five hours’ sleep and was so exhausted, it brought him to tears.
“Sometimes crying, you know, in the basement, sitting on the stairs sometimes, you know, crying.”
Mr Hillard said his client was even more vulnerable because his employer was his home country’s most powerful representative in Australia and came from a powerful elite family in Pakistan.
“He did not feel that he was able to ever escape because of the consequences that may happen to him,” Mr Hillard said.
When Shahid finally escaped ‘he looked broken’
Mr Mahmood did eventually escape after he was sent to hospital and a Pakistani security guard he met there explained his rights to him.
With the guard’s help, Mr Mahmood fled the residence while the family were out.
“I had nothing. Just two or three shirts and two or three pants,” Mr Mahmood remembers.
“For me, I thought, at least I would be able to escape that jail.”
Sally Irwin, who runs a survival school in Sydney for escaped domestic workers, remembers meeting Mr Mahmood soon after.
“He was thin, his clothes were falling off him and he looked gaunt,” Ms Irwin said.
“He looked broken — he was just sad, and I think he was lost.
I’ve been in the area working for eight or nine years now, and very few cases make me tear up nowadays, but that one really did. When I met him, I actually did cry.
A visa designed to protect Mr Mahmood was ultimately granted in September 2017, following investigations by the AFP and the Immigration Department.
Correspondence sent to Mr Mahmood by the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection said: “The Attorney-General has issued a certificate confirming that you have made a contribution to, and cooperated closely with, an investigation in relation to a person who allegedly engaged in human trafficking, slavery, or slavery-like practices.”
“The basis on which that permanent residency was granted in September 2017,” Mr Hillard said, “was the Australian Government was satisfied that he had genuine cause to fear for his safety if he returned to Pakistan.
“The Australian Government’s aware [and] the Australian Federal Police are aware of these examples of exploitation.
This is not a one-off case and it’s not some sort of fantastic story. It’s happening now and it’s being repeated and has been for repeated for a number of years in Australia.
“Things need to be done so that this sort of exploitation doesn’t continue.”
Ms Chohan is still High Commissioner for Pakistan in Canberra.
She declined to speak to Four Corners, but the High Commission sent a statement:
“The High Commission has not received any formal or informal communication in this regard from any Australian Authority.
“I can assure you that all and each of the allegations mentioned in your email are baseless, unfounded and motivated.”
Diplomatic immunity means abusers are untouchable
A long-settled international legal principle prevents authorities from taking the case further against Ms Chohan.
Diplomatic immunity means foreign diplomats can’t be brought before Australian courts.
Dr Alison Pert, a specialist in International Law from the University of Sydney, says introducing exceptions to diplomatic immunity might mean diplomats from Australia would be liable to the same treatment elsewhere.
“The options [for redress] are really moral or political,” she said.
“They’re not legal.”
That could mean the sending country waiving the diplomat’s immunity, removing them from their post, or the diplomat simply electing to pay the money owed.
For some years, the international legal community has been wrestling with this issue, with cases in Britain, Ireland and the United States.
In October, Britain’s highest court delivered a landmark judgment in the case of Reyes v Al-Malki.
The Supreme Court found a Saudi diplomat could potentially be held responsible in the case of human trafficking of a domestic worker because he was no longer a diplomat and the actions happened outside of his official duties — that is, in his residential home.
In Ireland, the case of three Filipina women enslaved by an Emirati diplomat saw Ireland introduce safeguards meaning a case worker is appointed to each new arrival working in a diplomatic home as domestic staff.
Irish case workers regularly check in with both the domestic staff and the diplomats, ensuring wages are as agreed and labour laws are followed.
That appeals to the Salvation Army’s Jenny Stanger, who has supported exploited domestic workers for a decade.
She is aware of 20 workers who have escaped embassies.
But she expects there are far more, because those workers have discovered the Salvation Army’s program by chance and they’re extremely isolated.
“You can’t imagine a more vulnerable worker, I think, than someone in this situation,” Ms Stanger said.
“It’s shocking to me that someone of such high status would take the risk of paying such a low wage and on top of that, potentially heaping abuse to the point where it becomes a slavery-like condition.”
Forced to sleep on the floor, conditions ‘like in a prison cell’
In the Philippines, Four Corners met a woman called Ruth who also had cause to run from a diplomatic residence in Canberra.
Ruth, whose experiences in Canberra have left her fearful of using her surname, was forced to leave her family when her husband was out of work.
“Slavery is happening around the world and Australia is no exception,” Ruth tells me.
“Do you believe that what happened to you was slavery?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she nods.
Ruth came to Australia in 2011 to work for an attaché at the Saudi Arabian embassy, Khalid Mohammad Alghamdi.
Mr Alghamdi signed a contract saying he would pay Ruth the minimum wage — at that time $2,150 a month.
But when she got to Canberra, Mr Alghamdi told her the contract was just a formality for local authorities.
“He said the $2,150 that is stated in my contract is just, like, a show, or like a paper for my visa,” Ruth said.
Ms Stanger does not mince her words about this practice of contract substitution.
“I think it shows a real clear intention to disregard our laws and our expectations of what it means to employ someone here in Australia,” Ms Stanger said.
For the first week of her stay in a chilly Canberra autumn, Ruth says she was forced to sleep on the floor.
She started her working day at 6:00am and finished it at 10:00pm.
She was only ever paid roughly $US250 ($320) a month for the two months she worked there and it was paid into her husband’s account in the Philippines.
She said Mr Alghamdi also instructed her to sign 12 monthly payslips in advance for work she had not yet completed, saying she had been paid $2,150 a month.
She said her passport and employment contracts were taken, she wasn’t allowed to leave the home alone or to go to Mass to practice her Catholic faith.
“I was like in a prison cell,” Ruth said.
It took Ruth three years, and the intervention of the Salvation Army and its legal team, to finally get the money she was owed.
Ruth is one of 2 million Filipinos who leave the country every year to work overseas.
‘It’s a black hole, and women are falling through it’
Eden left a poor neighbourhood of Manila seven years ago to work for a former Philippines ambassador in Canberra.
She said she never had a day off or a holiday in two years, and was paid $350 a month.
She said she had signed a contract in Manila saying she would be paid $2,500 a month — the discrepancy in pay had a huge impact on her children in the Philippines.
Her son and daughter live in Manila, down a narrow, dark alley with open sewers.
Her son said he was studying aeronautical engineering when Eden went to work for the ambassador, but when the money didn’t come home, he couldn’t afford the fees and was forced to give up his studies and go to work as a janitor.
Back in Canberra, Eden despaired. Late at night, she passed the time online — where she fell in love with an Australian called Gary.
Eden was able to occasionally smuggle Gary into her room in the residence.
“I was shocked,” Gary said of Eden’s working conditions.
I was shocked that in this day and age that we will still have people treating other human beings in this manner.
Gary eventually helped Eden to escape one night while the ambassador was out.
The couple said they had to go into hiding because they were told the embassy was looking for Eden.
Her passport lapsed, and while as Gary’s wife, she was eventually granted permanent residency, she hasn’t seen her children in Manila in seven years and cannot return because she doesn’t have a passport.
The couple live in coastal NSW, where Eden has a job in a nursing home.
She feels desperately sad every day about the children she left behind.
“Even if I have this,” Eden said, motioning around her, “it’s a nice place, good life. Nice work. But in my heart, I’m not really satisfied, because I’m not whole.
I’m not whole. I know, in my soul, I’m broken. I’m broken. And I don’t know how not to be broken.
Gary wonders whether despite the limitations presented by diplomatic immunity, something can’t be done to prevent cases like his wife’s.
“Surely there’s a way where they can police it better or give somebody the authority to have jurisdiction over it, because at the moment, it’s a black hole,” Gary said.
“And women are falling through it.”
While the federal government set up a working group on this issue, which two years ago made changes including educating diplomats about Australian workplace laws, Ms Stanger says far more can be done.
She would like to see Australia adopt an anti-slavery commissioner, as recommended by a federal parliamentary inquiry last year.
Ms Stanger also likes the Irish example — there are only a hundred of these domestic workers arriving in Australia each year, and she said a case worker could help prevent their isolation and exploitation.
“We’re potentially talking about a relatively small group,” Ms Stanger said.
“We know who they are, we know where they are … and we know what their contracts say.
“We should be able to end slavery for this group of people.”