A San Diego couple is accused of forcing an Indonesian woman to work in their home for up to 18 hours a day without pay, telling her she wasn’t allowed to leave — and even hiding her passport, federal authorities said.
According to the office of United States Attorney Laura E. Duffy, El Cajon residents Firas Majeed, 44, and Shatha Abbas, 38, were arrested and charged with forced labor, human trafficking and document servitude Friday for keeping a woman as their own personal worker in their home, without paying her or giving her a single day off.
Documents state the victim — who doesn’t speak English and is only identified as "W.M." — was told she was not allowed to leave the couple’s home at all, except to take out the family’s trash.
The documents say the victim "suffered verbal abuse and all the windows and doors [to the home] were locked," so she couldn’t escape.
The victim was rescued by authorities after she secretly gave a note asking for help to a nurse who visited the home.
Documents in this case allege Majeed and Abbas were involved in a scheme to make the victim believe that she would "suffer physical restraint" if she didn’t perform labor and services for their family.
In November 2015, the woman traveled to El Cajon with Majeed. Once she arrived, she was required to do housework for the family, including cleaning and laundry, for 16 to 18 hours every day of the week, the complaint alleges.
The victim told authorities she had not had a day off since she arrived at the home of the suspects and was not paid for her work. She also reported she was told she was not allowed to leave.
According to the complaint, Majeed and Abbas allegedly hid the victim’s passport in order to prevent her from leaving or traveling.
Health-care workers visiting the home noticed the woman, often seeing her in the back of the house being closely monitored by the suspects.
One day, the woman gave a nurse a note written in her native language.
The note begged for help.
The healthcare workers reported the incident to the national Human Trafficking Resource Center and this prompted the rescue of the victim, Duffy’s office said.
The victim was removed from the couple’s home on March 22 by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.
Documents said the victim told authorities her nightmare of forced servitude began in 2010 when a job agency in Indonesia placed her with Abbas’ family in Dubai.
At that home in Dubai, the victim claimed she was held in a similar forced manner by Abbas’ relatives, allegedly forced to provide domestic services for 20 hours a day to the family every day for five years.
She was not paid for her work there either. She was then allegedly told to travel to the U.S. and work at the home of Majeed and Abbas, investigators said.
The suspects are scheduled to appear in federal court on April 21 in San Diego. If convicted, they each face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for the counts of forced labor and trafficking. They also face up to five years for the document servitude charge. Abbas was released Friday, but her husband remained in federal custody.
A press release from Duffy’s office said victims of labor trafficking are often "overwhelmed by fear," which prevents them from reporting crimes.
"Frequently victims are unfamiliar with U.S. culture. They may be unaware of their rights or may have been intentionally misinformed about rights in this country. Many don’t speak English, and are unable to communicate with service providers, police, or others who might be able to help them," the release said.
"They many times don’t self-identify as victims and often blame themselves for predicaments. Many are not legally in the U.S. and they have a fear of being arrested or deported. And, even though an unfortunate number of victims have been beaten and/or raped, they feel their current situation may still be better than where they came from," the release continued.
Dave Shaw, special agent in charge for HSI San Diego, likened this victim’s case to that of "modern day slavery."
"Forced labor, which often involves individuals who are held in isolation, degraded, and most alarming — stripped of their basic human freedom, has no place in a modern society," said Shaw.
NBC 7 attempted to speak with the suspects involved in this case Friday night but the refused to comment.
"I don’t want to talk to anybody," Abbas said, closing the door to her home.
Neighbor Sandra Isaak said she was shocked to learn of this alleged case of forced labor happening next door.
"It’s sad that people can do that to someone, as a human being," she told NBC 7. "I wouldn’t treat an animal like that; it’s crazy. It’s not normal; it’s not human."