Indian Diplomat Case and U.S. Domestic Worker Organizing Linked

Print Share on LinkedIn More


January 12, 2014; Washington Post


Congratulations to Rama Lakshmi and her editors at the Washington Post for their thorough analysis of the other side of the case involving the Indian diplomat who was arrested in the U.S. for the mistreatment of her nanny or housekeeper (by which we mean paying insufficient wages and requiring work of 90 to 100 hours a week, the equivalent of $1.32 to $1.46 an hour in pay). The U.S. press has generally focused on the salacious part of the story, the strip-searching of diplomat Devyani Khobragade by New York City police, and the diplomatic back-and-forth between the U.S. and Indian governments, but with almost no attention to the situation of the nanny herself, Sangeeta Richard, or the conditions of domestic workers in India and much of Asia.

Human Rights Watch reports that 40 percent of the world’s 53 million domestic workers are employed in Asia where the employees “frequently experience physical, psychological and sexual abuse.” Lakshmi’s article describes the horrible conditions of domestic workers in India, who typically are paid very low wages and have few or any legal protections concerning their labor conditions, such as working hours and time off. She retells gruesome examples of abuse, such as an Indian federal lawmaker arrested on charges of torturing a domestic worker to death and an Indian airline steward who locked her underage maid in her home whenever she went to work. Many domestic workers in India, the exact number unknown, have been victims of human trafficking. 

A children’s rights group in India, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement), has been pressing the Indian government for improved legal protections for domestic workers, but the Indian government hasn’t acted yet. In fact, following the Khobragade arrest and indictment, the Foreign Minister of India proposed that Indian maids accompanying diplomats overseas should be designated as government workers to avoid being covered by the minimum wage and working condition laws that got Khobragade arrested. The Indian government has upgraded Khobragade’s diplomatic status, moving her to a post at the United Nations, thus giving her full diplomatic immunity and ensuring that she will not be subject to further U.S. prosecution.

But what about Richard? She may be without options—or worse. The national secretary of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Bhuwan Ribhu, said, “I have never heard of anybody being arrested and going to jail in India for not paying minimum wages to a worker.” Khobragade’s attorney actually charged that Richard tried to blackmail his client, and at Khrobragade’s request, the Indian government filed charges against Richard and her husband for breach of contract and illegally obtaining a passport with the intention of emigrating to the U.S. (which Richard denies). Because of harassing actions against Richard’s family, the U.S. government flew her husband and children to the U.S. for their own protection and to avoid pressure from the Indian authorities for Richard to return for likely prosecution.

Remember where the New York standards for domestic workers came from. In 2010, New York State enacted a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights statute that called for: 

  • The right to overtime pay at time-and-a-half after 40 hours of work in a week, or 44 hours for workers who live in their employer’s home;
  • A day of rest (24 hours) every seven days, or overtime pay if they agree to work on that day;
  • Three paid days of rest each year after one year of work for the same employer; and
  • Protection under New York State Human Rights Law, and the creation of a special cause of action for domestic workers who suffer sexual or racial harassment.

Among the nonprofits that played pivotal roles in passing this law was the National Domestic Workers Alliance, led by Ai-Jen Poo, who has been featured in NPQ articles for her domestic workers organizing and her broader vision of community organizing and activism.

The arrest of Khobragade, even if she will not be jailed, and the Indian government’s plan to treat all domestic workers assigned to their diplomats posted in the U.S. as government employees, rather than private workers with A3 visas, makes this incident more than a minimum wage and hours case. It would appear that this is nothing less than human trafficking, compelling domestic workers employed by Indian diplomats to work like indentured servants or slaves—and there are 14 additional cases concerning Indian diplomats and their maids and nannies currently being investigated by U.S. authorities, according to the International Business Times

Khobragade is from a family of Dalits (once known as the “untouchable” caste) and is actually known in India as an advocate for the rights of both Dalits and women. As so often happens, it appears that she was attentive to the inchoate rights of a broad stratum of poor women, but not for the woman who she personally employed to take care of her children and house.—Rick Cohen

  • Thomas

    This article has completely ignored the contention of the diplomat’s lawyer, that minimum wages were in fact paid, in part in the US and in part to her husband in India.
    Indian Government wouldn’t have stood by her if they didn’t have a solid argument. No such response from India was seen in the past 3 times, diplomats were caught for the same offence.
    I think you should give a chance for the trial to complete before judging an entire nation and its people.
    But State Dept messed up the entire process, which put the entire trial and and any form of justice for the victim in the back burner.
    Another interesting fact is that a case had been registered in Indian courts before in the US. It is unfair to think the maid wouldn’t get a fair trial and justice for exploitation if she was to allow herself to be deported. Indian NGO’s have made leaps and bounds to uphold the rights and dignity of workers through several landmark judgements and laws. They was no need to evacuate her family, to face a fair trial. All seems a little too fishy to me.

  • BG

    The whole US media has taken it for granted that Ms. Devyani Khobragade is guilty of what she has been charged with. In that case, what is the purpose of having a judicial system in the US? Let the prosecutor himself/herself deliver the verdict/sentence and punish those charged. The US could save a lot of money in these hard times.

  • AT

    US should have sent back the maid to India and supported her with the best legal assistance in India to ensure justice for the victim. Does the US expect to evacuate all victims from across the world and give them a trial in US courts?
    The answer lies in using its influence to support social change in these countries and not what it has done in this case.
    India is an important ally in the 21st century. Against the backdrop of extreme poverty and deprevation, it has made significant strides for social justice and equality. Indian media and politicians are extremely sensitive to any form of discrimination or violence to weaker sections of society.
    If this case would have been left to India to solve, then it would have been an impetus for general discourse, raising awareness, and laying the path for social change.
    Now its just seen as another reason for anti-US sentiment.

  • Loren

    Housekeepers not only from the consulate and private household do still experience mistreatment and receiving low salary.
    The abuse is still happening, taking advantage of the housekeeper or domectic helpers because these people are in need of job and money.
    Investigations should be done to stop these kind of abuse in modern day word specially here in New York.
    I am working for one of the Permanent Mission to the UN as a housekeeper and also one of the unfortunate one.