The US-India row isn’t really over diplomatic immunity—it’s about human trafficking

Protesters outside the US embassy in New Delhi, upset at the treatment of an Indian diplomat.
Protesters outside the US embassy in New Delhi, upset at the treatment of an Indian diplomat.
Image: AP Photo/Saurabh Das
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The US-India diplomatic fracas over deputy counsel general Devyani Khobragade’s arrest in New York has focused on whether US law enforcement was too heavy-handed, and sparked angry protests in India and top-level international detente. But the furor has mostly ignored troubling allegations against Khobragade—the latest in a series of clashes between US labor protection laws and some diplomats who seem perplexed by concepts like a minimum wage, overtime, and guaranteed time off.

Prosecutors say Khobragade illegally underpaid her Indian housekeeper and babysitter, Sangeeta Richard, and submitted a fraudulent contract to the US government to obtain a visa for her stating she would pay Richard many times what she actually received. A representative for the maid from “Safe Horizon,” a New York victim assistance group, told the Washington Post that Richard worked “from early morning until late at night,” seven days a week for months with no paid break, and fled the house in June when her request to go back to India was denied.

Khobragade isn’t the first diplomat to have come under fire in the US for mistreating household help. In many cases the diplomat or the government they were working for paid a high price:

  • In 2012, a press officer for the Indian government working in New York, was fined $1.5 million for her “barbaric” treatment of a 22-year-old Indian maid, who worked 16 hours a day and lost almost half her body weight over the course of the job.
  • A Taiwanese diplomat was deported from the US in 2011 for underpaying and overworking two Filipina women in a case prosecutors called a form of human trafficking, after reaching a plea deal that allowed her to avoid five years in prison.
  • The Kuwaiti government paid an undisclosed amount to three domestic workers who the American Civil Liberties Union said were held in “slavery-like” conditions by a Kuwaiti diplomat in the US.
  • Earlier this year, two other Filipina women working as domestic helpers escaped from a Saudi diplomatic compound in Virgina, and US officials are again investigating “human trafficking” allegations.

Underlying the deep divisions between the US and Indian point of view in the current case is a fundamental disconnect: US laws are clear about the need for everyone, including foreigners, to pay their domestic help the US minimum wage, and human trafficking laws covering “forced labor” and “involuntary servitude” specifically include these workers. In India there is no such rights protection for domestic help, and no minimum wage rule, so they often receive a relative pittance, and rely on the beneficence of their employer for many of their needs their salary doesn’t cover. The attitude was well summed in this recent India Today article:

Indian officials suggest there was really no exploitation in Richard’s case as diplomats who bring domestic help from India take care of all their needs such as housing, food, medical treatment, and trips back home besides paying a fairly decent salary by Indian standards.

In India, salaries for full-time domestic help can be as low as 2,500 rupees ($40) a month for a six-day week, though several times that amount is more typical in major cities. Domestic workers who work as uber-nannies are tasked with the care and feeding of children, as well as oversight of home repairs, laundry and shopping.

Richard was promised $4,500 a month, based on the US minimum wage, but was in fact paid $537 a month under a second, secret contract, according to allegations against Khobragade.  India’s diplomats and officials working overseas are themselves underpaid compared to many of their peers. Khobragade’s father told newspaper DNA that his daughter’s monthly take home pay was just $4,120—even less than she had promised to Richard.

After her arrest, Khobragade was transferred to a new role at the United Nations, a move that India’s Ministry of External Affairs said should give her diplomatic immunity. But a US State department spokeswoman said immunity is not retroactive.