U.S.-India Dispute Puts Spotlight on Diplomats' Domestic Workers

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December 24, 2013 2:41 PM EST

A dispute between Washington and New Delhi over charges that an Indian diplomat overworked and underpaid a housekeeper she brought with her to New York has shone a light on U.S. efforts to investigate and prosecute allegations of abuse of foreign employees.

Even just a decade ago such a prosecution would have been impossible, according to advocates who work with victims of labor abuse and trafficking.

The strengthening in 2008 of the law that protects foreign employees brought to the United States by diplomats and consular workers have made the difference. So have the U.S. State Department's warnings to the diplomatic corps and their attempts to educate foreign employees of their rights.

Before those changes, diplomatic immunity seemed to protect employers facing allegations of abuse. But now domestic workers who sue their diplomatic employers in federal court or bring cases to the attention of authorities are less likely to see their cases dismissed, according to advocates.

"We have taken unprecedented steps both to advise domestic workers of their rights in this country, and to impress upon diplomats that they are obligated to abide by our laws," Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

In the case of New York deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade, federal prosecutors in Manhattan on December 12 filed criminal charges against her of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard.

Khobragade's lawyer says she denies the charges. The diplomat was freed on $250,000 bail.

Khobragade's arrest and strip search - like many defendants processed in the federal court system - angered India and led to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing regret to New Delhi.

In the last few years, federal prosecutors have been able to bring criminal charges against a handful of diplomats over allegations they abused their staff, three of which resulted in convictions, according to advocates who track such cases.

Avaloy Lanning, the senior director of the anti-trafficking program at a New York-based organization called Safe Horizon, said that in the early 2000s, "the response to the victim was always ... 'just forget it. Just move on. We're not going to be able to get justice for you'."

Safe Horizon is giving legal and other assistance to Richard.

CRIMINAL CHARGES

In the criminal complaint, Khobragade is accused of submitting a fake contract as part of Richard's visa application saying she would pay Richard $4,500 a month for a 40-hour work week.

Before leaving India, Khobragade secretly signed a second contract with Richard agreeing to pay her the equivalent of about $570 a month, an illegally low amount under U.S. minimum-wage laws, the charging document said. Khobragade paid Richard even less than that after they arrived in November 2012, the complaint said.

Richard's accusation is far from unprecedented.

In 2008, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report which identified 42 instances of diplomats in the United States accused of abusing foreign employees they had brought to the country between 2000 and 2008.

The GAO report conceded that this almost certainly underestimated the problem. Nearly a third of the accused diplomats were from Africa while 15 percent were from Asia and 2.5 percent from Europe.

Also in 2008, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act strengthened protections offered to employees of diplomats and consular officials employees and made it possible to censure employers.

One of the most effective changes, campaigners and others say, is that the U.S. government now spends more time informing diplomatic employers of their obligations under the law and their employees of their rights.

Advocates like Lanning say there is anecdotal evidence of an increase in the number of victims coming forward, although precise numbers are hard to come by.

Among the cases which have been criminally prosecuted was against Hsien Hsien Liu, an envoy at Taiwan's mission in Kansas City, who pleaded guilty in November 2011 to human trafficking charges over the treatment of two foreign employees. She was ordered to pay $80,044 to the employees in restitution and a fine of $11,040 before being deported in 2012.

And in November 2012, Somduth Soburun, then the Mauritius ambassador to the United States, pleaded guilty in federal court to paying his Philippine housekeeper less than the minimum wage after Mauritius agreed to U.S. government's request to partially waive his immunity. He was ordered to pay $24,153 in restitution to the housekeeper and $5,000 in fines.

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