Alleged Saudi princess human trafficking case highlights issue of forced labor of domestic servants

The Orange County courthouse.
The Orange County courthouse. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

A Saudi princess charged with human trafficking has posted $5 million bail a day after her arrest in Orange County.

Prosecutors say 42-year-old Meshael Alayban posted bail Thursday after appearing in court to face the felony charge and was released from county jail.

Alayban is accused of forcing a 30-year old Kenyan woman to work long hours as a domestic servant for very little pay and no days off.

The Orange County District Attorney’s office alleges that Alayban deprived and violated the personal liberty of the woman with the intent to obtain forced labor.

The unidentified Kenyan woman was first hired to work in Saudi Arabia under a two-year contract. But according to prosecutors, the victim says Alayban took her passport away when she arrived. It was temporarily given back in May when the family brought the victim to Irvine to live and work for them in a condo complex, prosecutors said.

The district attorney's office says Alayban has surrendered her passport, must wear a GPS tracking device and cannot leave Orange County without permission from the court. She's also barred from any contact with the victim.

This case is the first forced labor case the O.C. district attorney’s office is trying under the stiffer human trafficking state law, Proposition 35, that went into effect in January.

Prop 35, passed last November, increases the prison sentence for convicted labor traffickers from a range of four to eight years to a max of 12 years now.

During the campaign, Prop 35 was widely pushed as a sex trafficking law aimed at protecting minors. Many of the stiffer penalties were aimed at those in the sex trade, such as the requirement for convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders.

A requirement that registered sex offenders also disclose their Internet accounts is temporarily not in effect because it is being challenged in federal court for violating free speech rights. That case will be heard in September.

Los Angeles County is working on a sex trafficking case involving two minors that will be prosecuted under Prop 35. Orange County has tried seven Prop 35 human trafficking cases since January. Six of them are sex trafficking cases, with Alabyan’s case being the first labor trafficking case O.C. will try. 

“We are dependent on people coming forward,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff at the O.C. district attorney’s office.

Identifying victims of forced labor is difficult for authorities because it often happens behind closed doors in private homes, in factories, or in rural areas like farm fields. Prop 35 requires law enforcement agencies to provide training to its staff on human trafficking by July 2014.

The unnamed Kenyan woman told police she escaped from the condo Tuesday taking with her a human trafficking pamphlet she received in May from the U.S. State Department before arriving in Irvine.

After telling her story to a woman on a bus Tuesday, police arrested Alayban the next day at the condo, where they found four other Filipina women working as maids. The cops said the four women voluntarily left with them. Prosecutors are investigating whether those women were abused or forced to work against their will.

Schroeder said international victims are usually scared to trust authorities because some come from countries with brutal justice systems.

“You’re talking about a culture that if you’re convicted of say, stealing, you could get your hands cut off,” she said.

Alayban did not enter a plea Thursday. Her arraignment was postponed to July 29. Her attorney called the case just a dispute over work hours.

Katie Joaquin is the campaign coordinator for the California Domestic Workers Coalition campaign. It’s trying to get the state legislature to pass a domestic workers bill of rights.

She used the case as an example for the need to ensure workplace protections for domestic workers like maids and nannies.

“The case of the Saudi princess shows this industry is still an industry where the workers are very vulnerable to abuse because it happens in a private home, because it’s not seen as real work, because the workers in those homes can be vulnerable to abuse by their immigration status,” Joaquin said.

AB241 would guarantee rest and meal breaks and over-time pay to some house workers. Governor Brown vetoed the bill last year, calling for more study on how it would affect low-income disabled people who hire domestic workers to care for them or their homes. A similar bill was also vetoed in 2006.

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