Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of legal complaints filed about children trafficked for domestic labor. There were more than 400,000 complaints filed from 2008 to 2012, not more than 4 million. This version has been corrected.
NEW DELHI — The diplomatic row over the Indian deputy consul in New York who was accused of underpaying her nanny may have been resolved, with her leaving the United States. But many Indians say the episode has laid bare the callous attitude toward domestic workers in the world’s most populous democracy.
According to a U.S. indictment, Devyani Khobragade paid her Indian nanny $573 per month, a “legally insufficient” wage, and made her work more than 100 hours a week. Khobragade, who was charged with lying on visa documents about the babysitter’s salary, has maintained her innocence. Her arrest prompted widespread outrage among the Indian government and public.
“The fact that the domestic worker’s rights were violated was completely eclipsed by the shrill outcry by the government over the treatment of its diplomat,” said Ananya Bhattacharjee, who heads a domestic workers’ group called Gharelu Kaamgar Sangathan, based in the affluent New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon. The group had counseled the family of the nanny, Sangeeta Richard, after she filed a legal complaint.
“We had to try very hard to remind everybody that there are two Indian citizens involved in this case, not just one,” Bhattacharjee said.
Domestic workers have few legal protections in India. Activist groups say they are paid extremely low wages, have no fixed hours and no right to a weekly day off. About 40 percent of the world’s 53 million domestic workers are employed in Asia, but most countries in the region have not enacted laws to regulate their labor, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. The report says domestic workers in Asia frequently experience physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
Even though exploitation of domestic workers in India is rampant, researchers say, it is only when things turn truly gruesome that the issue makes the headlines. In November, the wife of a federal lawmaker was arrested on charges of torturing a domestic worker to death in a New Delhi suburb. In October, another woman was arrested for severely beating her 15-year-old maid in the Indian capital. That month, police arrested an Indian airline stewardess for locking up her underage maid in her home every time she went to work.
In 2010, the children’s rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement) filed a petition in the New Delhi high court asking for protection of domestic workers’ rights and regulation of placement agencies for the workers. The court ordered the city to formulate a policy, but the government still has not done so.
When news of Khobragade’s arrest, strip-search and brief incarceration broke last month, Indians were appalled. India’s national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, called the actions “despicable and barbaric.” The government launched retaliatory measures, including removing security barricades at the U.S. Embassy and shutting down all “commercial activities” at the popular embassy club.
Khobragade was formally indicted Thursday. But her government had already transferred her to a post at its mission to the United Nations, giving her a higher level of diplomatic immunity. On Friday, hours after Khobragade left the United States, India expelled an American diplomat.
“India has once again proved that the government is only for the big people, not for poor people like me,” said Paru Varui, 30, a domestic worker who cooks in four homes in Gurgaon and earns about $180 a month. She has been a domestic worker since she was 8 and took part in a demonstration here last month seeking justice for Richard.
“The government protects its own officer with all its power, but what about people like me who have been fighting for our rights for years?” she demanded. “My country has not found the time or the will to even pass a law, let alone enforce it.”
An unknown number of domestic workers in India are victims of human trafficking. According to India’s Labor Ministry, more than 400,000 legal complaints about children trafficked for domestic labor have been filed from 2008 to 2012. However, only 25,006 cases have been prosecuted, yielding 3,394 convictions.
Activists say Richard did not have the option of returning to India to recover unpaid wages through its court system.
“There is a legislative and policy vacuum here,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, national secretary of Bachpan Bachao Andolan. “I have never heard of anybody being arrested and going to jail in India for not paying minimum wages to a worker.”
The majority of Indians, he said, “do get away with such things and with impunity.”
On Sunday, the Indian television news channel NDTV 24x7 reported that the Foreign Ministry wants the government to designate the Indian maids accompanying diplomats abroad as government workers, so that they are not subject to the laws of a foreign country.
U.S. officials flew Richard’s husband and children to the United States last month because a legal case was initiated in India to “silence her and attempts were made to compel her to return to India,” according to Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Khobragade’s attorney offered a different version of events: He said Richard had tried to blackmail the diplomat. At Khobragade’s request, the Indian government brought charges against Richard and her husband for breach of contract and illegally obtaining a passport with the intention of immigrating to the United States.
In an e-mail in December, Richard’s daughter Jennifer asked Bhattacharjee to clear her mother’s name in India.
“Please tell them that we were compelled to leave our country just to escape the mental harassment that we were going through,” Jennifer Richard wrote.