The Khobragade-Richards Episode

Tale of US Govt.’s Racism and High-Handedness, and Indian Govt’s Class Bias and Irresponsibility

- Kavita Krishnan

Several urgent concerns need to be addressed in the wake of the arrest of Indian Deputy Consul Devyani Khobragade on charges of visa fraud and under-paying her domestic worker. The issues of the mutual and reciprocal dignity of nations, reflected in diplomatic protocol, and those of the rights of domestic and migrant workers; the rights and dignity of Devyani Khobragade as an Indian diplomat and those of Sangeeta Richards as an Indian citizen and worker should not be used to undermine each other.

The charges against Ms. Khobragade are serious. But let us first look at the manner in which the US Government has dealt with them, before coming to the Indian Government’s role in the entire affair.

Would the US Government have treated a diplomat from a non-‘Third World’ country, charged with the same offences, in the same manner? US Attorney Preet Bharara states that she was not hand-cuffed or arrested in the view of her children, but he does admit that a strip search and cavity search – routine in the US – were conducted. But this is neither here nor there. The question is – would a diplomat from, say, the UK or France have been subjected to invasive searches and treated like a common criminal, and would the US allow its own diplomats to be thus treated in other countries? Again, this is not to undermine the seriousness of the charges brought against Ms. Khobragade. Rather, the question is, are the rules somehow different where US diplomats are concerned? When CIA operative Raymond Davis was charged with killing two men in Lahore in broad daylight in 2011, the US quickly claimed diplomatic immunity for him, even though he was not even officially a diplomat. So the US claims ‘diplomatic immunity’ even for its clandestine operatives charged with heinous crimes like murder, but claims it has no choice but to arrest, invasively search and jail an Indian diplomat? It is really this double standard that is the primary factor behind the anger that many Indians feel at the treatment meted out to Ms. Khobragade. It is difficult to evade the conclusion that imperialist high-handedness, as well as the structural racism of the US criminal justice and prison system, played a part in allowing the US Government to forget diplomatic conventions that it would expect as its due for its own diplomats. Of course, the US was no doubt encouraged in its high-handedness by the fact that the Indian Government never made an issue of the US’ refusal to extradite David Headley or Warren Anderson, of the shooting of an Indian fisherman by a US warship in 2012, or of repeated instances of frisking of senior Indian Government representatives in US airports.

What about the Indian Government’s response to the ongoing episode involving Khobragade and Richards? When the issue surfaced several months ago, India’s Ministry of External Affairs took no measures to prevent the matter from escalating. The MEA is well aware of the fact that Indian diplomats regularly employ and under-pay domestic help, drivers, gardeners etc from India. The infamous ‘double contract’ is an open secret – where there is one contract that complies with the US regulations and another ‘real’ contract that actually governs pay and other conditions. In the past couple of years, there have been other cases involving Indian diplomats accused of employing ‘bonded’ or ‘slave’ labour. The diplomats’ complaint has been that the MEA does not pay them enough to employ workers at US rates. This cannot, of course, be an excuse for underpaying workers – the point is that the MEA was well aware of the issue and did nothing to resolve it.

Further, the Indian Government seems to think it owes no duty to the other Indian citizen in the matter: Sangeeta Richards, the domestic worker. Instead, they have endorsed the action initiated by Khobragade against Richards, including charges of blackmail, fraud, theft; making insinuations that Richards was attempting to facilitate illegal immigration of her husband and child; and revoking Richards’s passport. Richards attempted to legally raise her grievances, terminate her employment by Khobragade, seek a fresh passport and visa so that she might work elsewhere, and sought a payment of $10,000 since she claimed to have worked 19 hours a day. The Indian Government seems to have decided that for a worker to raise such grievances against an Indian diplomat, amounts to betrayal of the Indian State and Indian nationalism! Disturbingly, the Indian Government seems to ignore the indications that Khobragade’s conduct towards Richards (and perhaps of other Indian diplomats towards their employees) amounts to human trafficking.

The discourse of much of the media and most political parties in India is equally disturbing. Richards’s actions are being described as a conspiracy. BJP leader Yashwant Sinha talks of how it’s common for servants to get ‘star-struck’ by the ‘glittering lights’ of the US, and to want to illegally immigrate and feel dissatisfied with their lot! A professor at the University of Chicago Law School wrote to me saying, “People have said to me that the domestic worker should be happy with her wages because she would make less in India. Would these same people agree that an Indian who works in Microsoft in Seattle should make the same as an Indian who works in Infosys in Bangalore?”

The Delhi High Court injunction of September 20 restraining Richardss from moving court against Khobragade outside India, says: “It is pertinent to mention here that the plaintiff and her family treated defendant No. 1 [Sangeeta Richards] as a member of their own family...The (plaintiff’s) house is equipped with all modern domestic gadgets. Defendant No. 1 was being given leave/off on Sundays when she used to visit a beauty parlour, church and her friends.” In India, the most common euphemism for exploitative domestic labour and even child labour is “we treat them like family.” “Like family” justifies every feudal relationship with the domestic worker, suggesting that a formal work contract regulated by the law would somehow corrupt the “family relationship.” Similarly, of course, any attempt by women to invoke laws regarding dowry harassment or domestic violence inside the household, is painted as a violation of the sacred “family ties.” Domestic workers in India face exploitative work conditions, with no norms of work hours, pay, leave, and vulnerable to sexual violence and even bondage and torture. India is yet to ratify the ILO Convention on domestic workers’ rights.

Yashwant Sinha declared that India should retaliate to the arrest of Khobragade by arresting US diplomats with same-sex partners, since homosexuality is illegal in India. Flaunting homophobia as ‘national pride’ and implying that minimum wage and anti-trafficking laws are ‘foreign’ to India is condemnable and truly shames India as a democracy.

It also needs to be pointed out that while employing highly exploited domestic workers is of course more prevalent in the Indian middle class, it is also a major and growing phenomenon in the US among professionals and elites. In the US, large numbers of households employ Latina, Filipina and other migrant women as maids and nannies. Their work conditions are usually exploitative, and they are often profiled as ‘illegal’ and very vulnerable to harassment. Some years ago, these ‘undocumented’ workers participated in huge numbers in a series of massive protests against being branded as ‘illegal’ by US immigration laws, which, far from protecting such workers, render them much more vulnerable to exploitation. The draconian provisions of the US visa regime under which Khobragade was arrested are in fact primarily targeted at controlling and limiting the rights of these workers themselves.

Instead of muscle-flexing and grandstanding, India and the US must work on resolving the diplomatic impasse, without compromising either on India’s sovereignty and the dignity of its diplomats, or on the rights of Indian workers. India must work to end the exploitative practices and trafficking by diplomats and protect all Indian workers from such practices. And India and the US both need to protect the rights of domestic workers in keeping with the ILO Convention norms in their respective countries.

Support Sangeeta Richards’ Struggle for Her Rights

(Anannya Bhattacharjee, NTUI Executive Council member and activist of the Gharelu Kaamgaar Sanghatan-Haryana, writes about the violation of rights faced by Sangeeta Richards and other domestic workers and trafficked workers in the US and in India.)

What are the facts relating to Sangeeta Richards’ struggle for her rights?
Devyani Khobragade brought over a domestic worker, Sangeeta Richards, under an A-3 visa. According to the law, diplomats are required to provide a contract to the worker that lists hours, wages, and duties. The wage is required to be at least the prevailing wage, $9.75. Khobragade signed a contract that states that she would follow these laws. However, she has now been accused of lying to the US government. She is accused of signing a second unlawful contract that did not list fair hours or working conditions/duties, and included a wage of only 30,000 rupees per month (about $3.31/hr).
Richards worked with Khobragade from around November 2012 to June 2013 after which she escaped as she could not tolerate the working conditions. Richards’ lawyer is Dana Sussman, a staff attorney with a New York non-profit Safe Horizon that works with victims of trafficking and violence. Sussman says, “She essentially worked very long hours, was isolated within the home, and attempted to ask for more time off, ask for more reasonable hours, but those attempts to resolve the issues were unsuccessful.” Finally, Richards left the house when her requests were turned down. According to Sussman, Richards left with the clothes on her back, and lived with help from strangers from the Indian American community, including from a gurdwara.
In September 2013, Khobragade went to court in India and obtained an arrest warrant for Ms. Richards accusing her of theft. The Delhi High Court ordered an injunction against Richards, restraining her from initiating legal proceedings against Khobragade. To accusations of theft and extortion, Richards’ lawyer Sussman says, “There was no extortion or anything along those lines.”
During this period, Sangeeta Richards’ family in Gurgaon, India was threatened and intimidated by agents of the Khobragade family, urging them to pressurize Ms. Richards to drop all plans for filing complaint against her employer.
In the meantime, Ms. Richards had been granted T-visa – a visa that migrant workers’ organisations in the USA has fought hard over. Ironically, this visa is a new visa category won by a historic fight a few years back, by National Guest Workers’ alliance (NGA) in the USA when they fought with 600 workers from India who had been trafficked to the United States by a US multinational called Signal International and made to work in labour camps in southern US after Hurricane Katrina. T-visa allows a trafficked worker to not be deported from the USA as s/he fights for justice. As per the visa, families of the victim can join the worker and Ms. Richards’ terrified family members in India have now gone to join Ms. Richards under this visa.
However legitimate may be Indian concerns about Ms. Khobragade, the truth is that India’s practices and discriminations that lead to domestic worker exploitation need to be scrutinised. Feudalism and the distasteful caste system in India continue to de-humanise labour, especially manual labour and most heinously, the work of cleaning – be it domestic worker, garbage collection or horrific manual scavenging. Such workers are seen and treated as less than human.
Domestic workers’ organisations in India and the US became in turn outraged at the utter silence of the Indian establishment about the domestic workers’ condition, also an Indian citizen. The exclusive focus on Ms. Khobragade began to be noticed for its one-sided treatment of an incident involving two Indian citizens, an employer and a worker. Was the government discriminately nationalist?
December 20, 2013 was observed as a global day of coordinated action in support of the rights of domestic workers. The protests expressing solidarity for Sangeeta Richards erupted in New Delhi, Hong Kong and the United States (in Washington DC, Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco). Mahila Sanghatan in Bangalore released a statement of solidarity. In New Delhi, the protest was called for by Gharelu Kaamgar Sangathan, Haryana, and joined in by several domestic workers’ organisations and trade unions across the country – such as National Domestic Workers Movement and the New Trade Union Initiative. The organisations expressed strong outrage at the manner in which the Indian government downplayed the underlying issue for which Ms. Khobragade was arrested- that she grossly underpaid her domestic help, made her work for long hours, and committed visa fraud. The labour activists and trade unionists argued that Ms. Khobragade’s actions are indicative of a rampant and common practice among diplomats and government officials, and that it is difficult to expose such crimes, as domestic workers in their vulnerable and terrified state, are unable to bring such employers to justice. Responding to the argument that Ms. Khobragade was not paid enough to pay the domestic worker a decent wage, protesters noted that Ms. Khobragade and employers like her can either ask for a salary raise or not hire a domestic worker if they cannot afford to pay for one.
In the United States, the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) issued a call for protest, stressing on the need to hold diplomats accountable, and demanding dignity, respect and justice for domestic workers. The NDWA, along with the United Workers’ Congress (UWC), and other US based labour and social justice organisations, in solidarity with their comrades in India, held protest demonstrations outside the Indian consulates in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco and Atlanta.
NDWA is the national body of domestic workers in the USA composed almost completely of migrant workers and economic refugees from the Global South who have gone to the US in search of livelihood. NDWA is multi-racial representing primarily women of colour and is composed of workers from the Carribean, Asia, Latin America, Africa and also African Americans. The UWC is a national platform of many workers’ organsations outside the mainstream labour federations – these are workers primarily from the Global South as well as Black workers, the most exploited in the USA and part of the informal sector. One could say that NDWA and UWC represent the new labour movement in the USA – all those who have never been organized by mainstream trade unions. The struggles of NDWA and other UWC affiliates (including NGA mentioned above that won T-visas for trafficked workers) have exposed the terrible exploitation of migrant workers, workers of colour, and informal sector workers in the USA. They represent workers that are lured by the myth and the lie of the “American Dream” to go to the US for livelihood; and they end up living the “American Nightmare” as is Sangeeta Richards, as did the 600 workers from India mentioned above. Their struggles are writing the new chapters for the new US labour movement.
In their statement dated December 19, 2013, the NDWA argued- “We are going to the consulate tomorrow because the Indian government has decided to focus their energy on protecting the unscrupulous employer. Ms Khobragade was mistreated while being arrested and while we do not condone the excessive treatment she endured, we want to make sure the exploitation of the worker and her case are not forgotten. “
The International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF) in Hong Kong expressed its solidarity by staging a protest demonstration outside the Indian Consulate in Hong Kong. In a petition to the Prime Minister of India, the IDWF, along with 22 Hong Kong domestic workers, migrant and labour groups in Hong Kong, urged the Indian government to uphold justice for the domestic worker in question, ratify ILO convention 189, and implement legislations to protect the rights of all domestic workers working at home and abroad.
The global day of action was substantial in bringing attention back to the rights of domestic workers’, and forwarding the case that diplomatic immunity cannot camouflage the deeper underlying question which was at stake in this case. In a situation where the mainstream media chose to focus only on Devyani Khobragade, the protests sought to highlight the case of the domestic worker who is also an Indian citizen and deserves to be heard.
The Indian government, in spite of 30 years of struggle by domestic workers, has failed to pass a bill that provides protection for domestic workers. Currently domestic workers are not covered by labour laws – and essentially not recognized as workers.
India ranks at 136 out of 186 as per global Human Development Index. Indian society and government will never be able to build an egalitarian and democratic country unless domestic workers are recognised as workers with rights and inhuman caste-based indignities, discriminations, oppression and violence are ended by legislation and by implementation of such legislation.