Following the arrest of Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade (39) in New York last week, which escalated into a full-fledged diplomatic crisis between New Delhi and Washington, details emerged for the first time on Thursday from the lawyers of the domestic worker whom the senior Indian diplomat was alleged to have underpaid.
In multiple media interviews Safe Horizon, the organisation representing the worker, Sangeeta Richard, said there was “frustration and disappointment that the media and the officials portrayed this story in the way that they have,” and that Ms. Khobragade “grossly underpaid [Ms. Richard] and required [her] work far more than she had expected.”
Reports quoted Dana Sussman, Staff Attorney in the anti-trafficking programme at Safe Horizon, saying Ms. Khobragade wrongly represented the information on the terms of Ms. Richard’s employment to the U.S. government.
She said, “My client worked for her [Devyani] for quite a while and eventually she decided that she could not tolerate the situation any longer,” adding irrespective of the position of the Indian officials about Ms. Richard’s conduct, the charges against Ms. Khobragade “speak for themselves.”
The preliminary information from Ms. Richard’s side came even as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara on Wednesday evening sought to shine a spotlight on America’s long-standing fight against abuse of domestic workers by diplomats under the shield of immunity.
In a statement that also refuted the claim that Ms. Khobragade had been handcuffed during her arrest on December 12, he said, “There have been other public cases in the U.S. involving other countries, and some involving India, where the mistreatment of domestic workers by diplomats or consular officers was charged criminally, and there have been civil suits as well.”
The fact is that the U.S. has, in recent years, faced a slew of ‘maid abuse’ cases within the diplomatic community here. Even as far back as 2008, a government watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, “identified 42 household workers with A-3 or G-5 visas, who alleged that they were abused by foreign diplomats with immunity from 2000 through 2008, but the total number is likely higher.”
However, an important blow for workers’ rights in this context was struck under the former President, George W. Bush, in 2008, when the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorisation Act was passed.
Under this law, domestic workers must be made aware of their rights in this country directly by consular officers and, most relevant to the Khobragade case, diplomats are required to have a contract with a domestic worker containing conditions of employment. It also requires the State Department to suspend the issuance of visas to a particular mission when the Department receives “credible evidence that a worker was exploited or abused and the mission tolerated the conduct.”