Devyani Khobragade was arrested by law enforcement authorities on visa fraud charges.

At $ 9.75 an hour domestic maids earn more than Indian diplomats in New York, thanks to US labor laws

Dec 14 • International, News, Women • 1126 Views • No Comments

Khobhra-gate in NYC may end nanny service for Indian diplomats





Chidanand Rajghatta,TNN | Dec 14, 2013, 08.52 PM IST

WASHINGTON: Indian diplomats and officials serving abroad may lose the privilege of taking domestic help from India as a result of the Khobra-gate episode in New York where a mid-level Indian diplomat is in the dock for allegedly misrepresenting and underpaying her housekeeper.

The Indian government has vehemently challenged the US interpretation that led to the charges against Devyani Khobragade, but considering the number of such episodes in recent years and the financial implications (both in terms of legal fees to fight the cases and the restitution awarded to the complainants in some cases), the thinking is that the issue of taking domestic help abroad needs to be reexamined.

Even before the latest incident, the matter had been discussed at a Heads of Mission conference in New Delhi last year where various such cases were deliberated on. The Ministry of external affairs is said to be looking for a long-term solution, including withdrawing the provision enabling taking housekeepers abroad, and instead compensating diplomats for employing local personnel.

This is easier said than done, according to some officials. Not only are there security sensitivities involved in going down this route (In case of the .S, there are also heightened intelligence issues considering recent developments,) but the costs will also be enormous given that diplomats often entertain late and travel at short notice.

Officials joked sourly that at $ 9.75 an hour in New York ($ 8.25 in Washington DC) plus overtime, any local labor they employ will earn more than the diplomats considered the hours they will be needed, while contesting the general impression that foreign postings are lavishly paid. The salaries are modest, they insist, and in fact it is the perks such as taking domestic help abroad that makes such postings tolerable they say.

In fact, federal minimum wages in the US, which is stuck at $ 7.25 since 2009, is poised to go up to $ 10 soon (some states like NY will mandate more in keeping with higher costs)

”Which Indian would pay a help Rs 6500 ($ 100) a day?” asked Shakti Sinha, a former principal secretary in the government of India who did various stints abroad, including at the World Bank and various UN agencies, assuming eight normal working hours. Nevertheless, Sinha is for withdrawing the privilege of taking Indian help abroad while complying with local laws. At the same time, he says, New Delhi should also not ”spare any US diplomat who is even close to breaking any Indian domestic law.” The suggestion here is that New Delhi does not similarly enforce its domestic laws strictly against foreign diplomats and officials.

Indeed, Indian officials say foreign diplomats in India, including US officials, will be on weak ground if New Delhi took their various infractions seriously but the Indian view is that diplomatic niceties need to be observed. They are incensed that in the case of Khobragade, the young mother of two was jumped on and handcuffed by US authorities when she was dropping her daughters to school. ”It was not as if she is a terrorist or proven criminal and was about to flee or was endangering lives,” one official fumed. ”It could have been handled better.”

On Friday, Taranjit Sandhu, the charge d’affaires at the Indian Embassy in Washington once again conveyed New Delhi’ displeasure at the incident, and according to an Embassy statement, ”reiterated Foreign Secretary of India’s strong demarche to the US Ambassador in New Delhi regarding the treatment meted out to Dr Khobragade.”

”It was emphasised that Dr. Khobragade is a diplomat, who is in the U.S. in pursuance of her duties and hence is entitled to the courtesy due to a diplomat in the country of her work. She is also a young mother of two small children. Government of India is shocked and appalled at the manner in which she has been humiliated by the U.S. authorities. It was also conveyed in no uncertain terms that this kind of treatment to one of our diplomats is absolutely unacceptable,” the statement said calling on the U.S. State Department ”to resolve the matter at the earliest”

But US officials were largely unrelenting in the matter. ”We are handling this incident through law enforcement channels. We have a long-standing partnership with India, and we expect that partnership will continue,” a state department spokesperson told wire services.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the Indian diplomat who is at the center of a flaming row between New Delhi and Washington is also a Dalit women’s rights champion.

Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul-general of the Indian mission in New York, spoke in April this year on ”Women’s Rights and the Influence of Demographics in India” at the Australian Consulate in Manhattan. ”The continued entrenchment of women’s rights through affirmative action, such as reservations for women in parliament, a holistic approach to education and gender sensitisation were also discussed by Dr Khobragade and the round-table participants,” according to the Australian consulate, which identified her as a ”woman of the Dalit caste.”

On the social media though, there was little sympathy for the diplomat, with some readers pointing to her involvement in the Adarsh housing issue, where she is reportedly a member. Her father Uttam Khobragade, is a retired Maharashtra government bureaucrat and former head of Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA).

Others recalled several notorious cases of Indian families mistreating their domestic help and using them as slave labor, although the U.S charges against Khobragade mainly pertained to fraud and misrepresentation, not abuse.

In one of the most egregious cases the wife-husband team of Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani, NRIs who owned a multi-million dollar perfume business in New York, were sentenced in 2007 to 11 and 3 years respectively for abusing their Indonesian housekeepers. Their callousness and brutality provoked such revulsion that New York tabloids dubbed Varsha Sabhnani as ”Cruella De Evil.” The couple was also ordered to pay restitution of more than a million dollars to the women they enslaved.

While that episode brought to light what the judge hearing case called modern day slave labor practice, Bharara has signaled that the U.S will not tolerate exploitation of foreign workers even by diplomats.

”Foreign nationals brought to the United States to serve as domestic workers are entitled to the same protections against exploitation as those afforded to United States citizens. The false statements and fraud alleged to have occurred here were designed to circumvent those protections so that a visa would issue for a domestic worker who was promised far less than a fair wage. This type of fraud on the United States and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated,” he said in a statement.

But Indian officials insist there was no intended fraud or misrepresentation. They point out that the domestic help in this case, Sangeeta Richard, was flown to the U.S at government expense, and she had no problems with her wages, which were split between paying her in New York and her family in India, in the eight months she worked in the Khobragade household. Things only got complicated when she wanted to seek permanent residency in the US.

Officials explained that because diplomats typically take care of all the other needs of the domestic help brought from India, such as housing, food, medical treatment, and trips back home, their written commitment to mandated local wage in western countries ( $ 9.95 per hour of $ 4500 per month in the Khobragade case) is only of a ”technical nature.” The real cost does work out approximately to that, they maintain, adding that the situation has become complicated because in several cases, the domestic help from India have figured out they can make a killing and gain permanent residence by ”going legal.”

But the flip side is that this is the third such case involving the Indian consulate in New York. In June 2011, a former housekeeper, Santosh Bharadwaj, had sued India’s then consul general in New York Prabhu Dayal, accusing him of intimidating her into forced labor and seeking sexual favors. The case is close to being settled out of court. In February 2012, a New York City Magistrate Judge ordered that Neena Malhotra, a diplomat at the Consulate, to pay nearly $1.5 million for forcing an under-aged Indian girl, Shanti Gurung, to work without pay and meting out ”barbaric treatment” to her. The case is still being contested. There have also been such cases in Europe.

In most cases, Indian officials insist the complainants, helped by NGOs, exaggerate and conflate issues in an effort to seek permanent residency and restitution. ”The same complainants have had no problems working with the same officials in places such as Morocco or Cambodia. It is only when they come to US or Western Europe that all these issues crop up,” one official fumed.

But much of the public and media perception in New York has been shaped by one egregious case of domestic abuse (not involving Indian diplomats) that occurred in 2007. The wife-husband team of Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani, NRIs who owned a multi-million dollar perfume business in New York, were sentenced to 11 and 3 years respectively for abusing their Indonesian housekeepers. Their callousness and brutality provoked such revulsion that New York tabloids dubbed Varsha Sabhnani as ”Cruella De Evil.” The couple was also ordered to pay restitution of more than a million dollars to the women they enslaved.

For many, the case encapsulated the Indian practice of treating domestic help badly. It’s a rap that even diplomats have had to bear in the line of duty.






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