Hollywood executive treated his Filipina maid like a slave

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The Independent US

Three years ago, a Filipina housemaid called Nena Ruiz found herself a virtual slave in the household of a Hollywood movie executive, working 18-hour days for next to no pay and receiving markedly worse treatment than the family's two dogs.

Three years ago, a Filipina housemaid called Nena Ruiz found herself a virtual slave in the household of a Hollywood movie executive, working 18-hour days for next to no pay and receiving markedly worse treatment than the family's two dogs.

Now, however, she has emerged victorious from a lawsuit against her tormentors and become an outspoken advocate against modern-day slavery - a rarely glimpsed reality in many US cities, where unscrupulous families exploit the desperation and precarious legal status of immigrants.

Ms Ruiz was awarded $825,000 in damages by a southern California court earlier this month after describing her hellish existence in the home of James and Elizabeth Jackson. Beaten, abused and worked to the bone, she was forced to sleep on a dog bed in the living room of the family's Culver City condominium and given three-day-old food to eat. At the same time, she was expected to prepare chicken nuggets and fresh fruit for the Jacksons' beloved dogs, clean their teeth and wash out their ears.

The housemaid was refused permission to go to the doctor and allowed just one haircut in a year. Mrs Jackson, she said, regularly slapped her and pulled her hair. Her total pay before she ran away: just $300.

Mr Jackson, a vice-president for legal affairs at Sony Pictures, and his wife denied everything, saying Ms Ruiz received a regular salary and was not mistreated. But they failed to sway the jury, which found them liable for a long list of infractions of Californian labour law. These included involuntary servitude, false imprisonment, invasion of privacy, negligence and fraud. Mrs Jackson was also held liable for assault and battery. Mr Jackson was put on unpaid leave from his job and is expected to be fired.

The couple filed for bankruptcy protection before the lawsuit trial began. Their attorneys have asked the judge to overturn the punitive damages and indicated they may appeal against the ruling.

For a long time Ms Ruiz, a former schoolteacher, said she felt unable to protest because her visa had expired. The Jacksons threatened to call the immigration authorities if she left, and told her that she would be locked up and would never see her family again, said Dan Stormer, one of Ms Ruiz's attorneys.

After she was hit on the mouth with a water bottle in February 2002, however, she ran to a neighbour's house for help. The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking took up her case. She has since applied for a special visa reserved for victims of slavery.

"I want others who are enslaving people to know that they could have the same future as the Jacksons," she said at a news conference last week. "Slavery still exists, and I want to tell victims they should not tolerate it and not be afraid to seek help."

The Department of Justice estimates more than 15,000 people are trafficked to the United States each year, many to work as sex slaves or in restaurants or domestic jobs.

Los Angeles, New York and Miami are the top three destinations, said Kay Buck of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, which has helped Ms Ruiz become certified as a nursing assistant.

The predicament of Filipinos working as domestics in the US, many of them illegally, is a big issue in their native country. The Manila Times commented on the Ruiz case: "The harsh treatment of many foreign maids in the US is well documented. Among the worst offenders, according to State Department and independent reports, are members of the diplomatic community and those working in international organisations. The decision puts exploitative employers on notice that their abuse of domestic help will not be tolerated."

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