Employer: Ex-servant using trial to get US status

A woman accused of keeping an illegal immigrant from India as a servant at her upstate New York mansion says the housekeeper has become a prosecution witness in an effort to get legal status to remain in the US.

But prosecutors say the woman, who faces a federal felony charge, kept her emigre servant overworked, underpaid and essentially captive for several years.

Both sides agree the housekeeper, identified in court papers only as VM, a middle-aged widow from India, worked for Annie George, her late husband and six children for five years.

Immigration investigators removed her in May 2011 after her son in India called the National Human Trafficking Resources Center, which says it has identified hundreds of similar US cases.

Bradley Miles, executive director of the nonprofit Polaris Project, which runs the 24-hour phone service, said the most frequently reported type of labor trafficking the organization hears about on the hotline are domestic servitude cases.

Since 2008, it has received more than 2,500 calls directly from survivors of sex and labour trafficking, and about 60 or 70 daily looking for referrals, resources, training or "crisis calls," he said.

"I feel it's just the tip of the iceberg," Miles said. They try to determine if there are specific indicators of force, fraud or coercion and since 2008 have recorded 340 domestic servitude situations "with high indicators" that the cases constitute human trafficking.

The callers are referred to a network of nonprofits and police across the country.

Miles said other highly publicised household forced labor cases over the past decade involved émigres from the Philippines, Indonesia and Egypt. His organisation is guided by a federal definition of human trafficking from the 2000 federal law and looks for types of control that include violence, threats, isolation or holding debt over someone's head.

The 40-year-old George, who faces trial August 27, is accused of harboring an illegal immigrant for private financial gain, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

US District Judge Gary Sharpe dismissed the charge in July on a scheduling technicality but prosecutors got a new indictment days later. George has pleaded not guilty.

Her lawyer, Mark Sacco, has requested that the case be dismissed and said he hoped prosecutors had better things to do with their time. He also said the pay dispute, using corrected math, was about USD 40,000 and could easily be settled in civil court.

Prosecutors said VM is due at least USD 240,000 in wages and USD 79,000 in overtime based on the minimum wage. 

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