The case of a Saudi princess arrested in Irvine this week for allegedly holding a servant against her will has drawn new attention to a problem that often goes unreported, officials said.
Meshael Alayban, 42, was arrested Wednesday in Irvine and charged with one felony count of human trafficking.
Prosecutors said the member of the Saudi royal family forced a Kenyan woman to cook, clean, do laundry and perform other household chores for meager pay and long hours. The servant's passport was taken from her and stashed in a bank safe deposit box, prosecutors said.
When the servant escaped she carried a red, white and blue pamphlet given to her at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia about the dangers of human trafficking, part of the government's effort to draw attention to the problem.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who was appointed in 2009 to coordinate the federal government's efforts to combat modern day slavery, said the pamphlet was one of several changes introduced in recent years to draw attention to the issue of human trafficking.
CdeBaca said that it was once common practice for household managers in countries like Saudi Arabia to come to the embassy with a stack of passports in order to apply for travel visas on behalf of domestic staff.
Now each visa applicant is required to apply in person and embassy workers must sit down with each worker and make sure they understand their rights.
According to the State Department's "Trafficking in Persons" report issued in June, workers from all over the world come to Saudi Arabia to work as domestic servants and "many subsequently face conditions indicative of involuntary servitude, including nonpayment of wages, long working hours without rest, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement such as the withholding of passports or confinement to the workplace."
Vanessa Lanza, of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, which is based in Los Angeles, said there were still many workers who do not know their rights or who are afraid to come forward because they fear deportation. Victims of forced labor are eligible for a special visa that could lead to permanent residence but many times they don't know it.
Some of the most difficult cases to identify are people who, like the Kenyan woman, are forced to work as domestic servants, Lanza said.
Often servants are isolated from the outside world and can be held for several years, she said. When they are identified, she said "it's often the neighbor that says something."
According to prosecutors, Alayban's servant found the job through a Kenyan employment agency in 2012. She had gone looking for work because her 7-year-old daughter was sick and was promised she would only have to work eight hours a day, five days a week.
When she arrived in Saudi Arabia, her contract was torn up, her passport was confiscated and she was forced to work seven days a week, up to 16 hours a day, and made $220 a month, prosecutors said.
On Tuesday, two months after arriving in the U.S. with Alayban and her family, the woman packed a suitcase, walked out to the road, flagged down a bus and talked with police.