Immunity and Diplomats

Diplomats who are accused of abusing their own employees cannot escape compensation claims under the shelter of state immunity, the UK’s highest court ruled today.

In a case brought by two Moroccan domestic workers against the Libyan and Sudanese embassies who employed them, the Supreme Court ruled that the State Immunity Act 1978 to prevent claims was unlawfully wide and breached the two women’s human rights.

The judgment, with far-reaching implications for embassy workers, was welcomed as a landmark victory against slavery and abuse of vulnerable workers by the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), the charity that acted for the two women.

The case was brought by Fatima Benkharbouche, 46, a cook, and Mina Janah, a nanny, who were employed directly by the Sudanese and Libyan embassies in London. They claimed that they were paid grossly under the national minimum wage and forced to work unlawful hours. Ms Janah also claimed that she was unfairly dismissed and discriminated against on racial grounds.

In a second set of appeals, the Supreme Court ruled by a majority that diplomats employing domestic workers in their homes could not claim immunity from legal action either.

Emmy Gibbs, a solicitor with the ATLEU, which backed the appeals, said that the rulings were “hugely significant”. She said “overseas domestic workers working in embassies are exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including trafficking.

“We are delighted that the Supreme Court has recognised that the UK’s State Immunity Act is too generous to foreign states, preventing employees, including many vulnerable workers, accessing justice and going well beyond the requirements of international law.

“It’s a shame that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sought to defend the State Immunity Act rather than welcoming the opportunity to review the law in this area.”


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