External Affairs

The Dignity of Labour Should Be As Important for India As the Dignity of its Diplomats

Women in Deogarh, Orissa,. Photo by Simon Williams / Ekta Parishad - Ekta Parishad. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Women in Deogarh, Orissa,. Photo by Simon Williams / Ekta Parishad – Ekta Parishad. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

With the Indian High Commissioner to New Zealand being recalled by the Ministry of External Affairs following accusations by his cook of slavery and assault, the Indian government faces a familiar dilemma over where its duty lies: in defending an official against whom a serious charge has been levelled, or in ensuring that the cook, who is also a citizen, gets justice.

In the past, the government has repeatedly shown that it would rather stand with its “own”, equating the protection of its diplomats with nationalism. Never mind what this tells us about who counts as India’s first citizens. The domestic worker is usually portrayed as a lying, manipulative person out to get refuge in the host country and thus unworthy of the government’s protection.

In Thapar’s case, the Indian government promptly brought its diplomat back to Delhi, presumably to avoid the debacle that followed the arrest in New York of India’s Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade on December 12, 2013 for visa fraud and for lying about payments to her domestic worker, Sangeeta Richards.  If convicted, Khobragade would have faced a maximum of 15 years in prison. Luckily for her, the diplomatic machinery kicked in and she was able to return to India, legally unscathed.

The Khobragade affair

The debacle around Khobragade is however instructive in a number of ways. Her arrest triggered a collision between imperialism, nationalism, feudalism, patriarchy and even homophobia, on the one hand, and democracy on the other. What resulted was an array of confusing and contradictory political responses. Parties that otherwise differ politically, remained united in their belief that Khobragade’s treatment was an indication of America’s lack of respect for Indian diplomats.  The Shiv Sena in Mumbai and CPI-M in Kolkata marched and demonstrated; and united with the Congress party in power to release statements supporting the diplomat. The Indian government stripped American diplomats of certain benefits they had been enjoying, and security barriers around the US Embassy in New Delhi were taken away. A former finance minister suggested that India respond by arresting same-sex partners of American diplomats, since the Indian Supreme Court had recently upheld the Colonial-era statute that criminalised homosexuality.

Devyani Khobragade had taken a domestic worker, Sangeeta Richards, to the US under an A-3 visa. According to US law, diplomats are required to provide a contract to the worker and the wage is required to be at least the prevailing minimum wage in the host country. Khobragade signed a contract that stated she would follow these laws. However, she was accused of lying to the US government and 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, which is a fraction of US minimum wage). Richards escaped as she could not tolerate the working conditions involving long hours, no off days, and isolation. She left with the clothes on her back, and lived with help from strangers from the Indian American community, including from a gurdwara – till she was rescued by a refugee help centre.

File photo of Sangeeta Richard with her husband Philip Richard. PTI

File photo of Sangeeta Richard with her husband Philip Richard. PTI

In India, Richards was portrayed by the diplomatic community, the government, and sometimes by the media as a manoeuvring domestic worker who had cooked up a story in order to get refuge in the United States. Khobragade obtained an arrest warrant for Richards, accusing her of theft. The Richards family in Gurgaon was threatened and intimidated by agents of the Khobragade family, who urged them to get Sangeeta to drop all plans for filing complaint against her employer. Tactics not unlike those used by employers in India when confronted by domestic workers who try to fight injustice.

The Richards family faced constant harassment by the police.  After the family was given refuge by the US government, Jennifer Richards, Sangeeta Richards’ daughter, responded to media accusations about her mother being “a CIA agent” and having hatched a conspiracy to “defame India”:

“Please tell them that we were compelled to leave our country just to escape the mental harassment that we were going through. I never wanted to leave my studies when my graduation was about to get done… Please do not accuse us [of[ what we have not done instead of understanding what kind of circumstances we have faced there…My mother’s fight is not for the money, but she stood [up] just to make [Devyani Khobragade] accept that she was miserable with us”.

Lessons to be learned

Rather than retreating into a nationalist shell, Indian labour practices and discriminatory patterns that lead to domestic worker exploitation need to be scrutinised.  Feudalism and the caste system in India continue to de-humanise labour, especially manual labour and most heinously, the work of cleaning – be it domestic work, garbage collection or horrific manual scavenging.  Such workers are seen and treated as less than human. While the actions Khobragade is accused of are common practice among diplomats and government officials, they are difficult to expose since vulnerable and isolated domestic workers are unable to bring such employers to justice. Khobragade argued that she was not paid enough to pay the domestic worker a decent wage but that cannot be an excuse for exploitation.  She 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 spite of 30 years of struggle by domestic workers, the Indian government has failed to pass a law that provides protection for domestic workers.  Currently, domestic workers are not covered by labour laws – and are essentially not even properly recognised as workers.

After the Khobragade incident, the government made certain proposals such as creating a special status for domestic workers of diplomats that would give them protection. However, this would be a short-term and limited solution. Well-to-do NRIs -among whom diplomats are a sub-category – who take domestic workers from India to foreign countries often profit from the exploitation of a cheaper labour market in India. The government needs to develop a broad framework to address the dismal state of Indian domestic workers in India and in foreign countries, regardless of whether their employers are diplomats or not.

Towards this end, the government needs to pass comprehensive legislation regarding minimum wages, benefits and working conditions in India; respect the rights of Indian domestic workers in foreign countries under the host countries’ laws; and protect Indian domestic workers in countries where there may be no laws.  The government needs to show its commitment to the numerous domestic workers – 50 lakhs by some estimates – in India and Indian domestic workers who migrate to other countries.  It needs to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention, and the United Nation’s International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 1990.

India will never be able to build an egalitarian and democratic country unless domestic workers are protected by robust labour standards that uphold human rights and end inhuman caste-based indignities, discrimination, oppression and violence.

Anannya Bhattacharjee is a trade unionist in garment, auto parts and domestic work. She is an executive council member of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), a national platform of democratic unions; and is the International Coordinator of Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a global supply chain campaign to demand living wages for garment workers in Asia who produce most of the world’s clothing