Dispatches: A look at human rights in the news today
All Dispatches »

Dispatches: India-US Row Ignores Short-Changed Domestic Worker
December 17, 2013

The arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York for paying her full-time nanny less than $600 per month – a meager US$3.31 an hour – instead of the US$4,500 stipulated on her visa application has created a diplomatic storm between the United States and India.

Despite wide coverage of the case in India, there has been little public outrage or shame that Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, who has championed women’s rights in other settings, allegedly paid her domestic worker a fraction of New York’s legal minimum wage.

Instead, many commentators have leapt to Khobragade’s defense, saying she could not be expected to pay her nanny US$4,500 per month, more than her Indian government salary. But no one has a right to a domestic worker. Yes, child care options in the US need to be expanded. But if you cannot afford to pay your nanny, you shouldn’t hire one.

In India the outrage has been over how New York City authorities treated Khobragade upon arrest for alleged visa fraud, handcuffing her outside her children’s school and reportedly strip-searching her. Indians across the political spectrum have expressed anger, viewing this as an insult to national pride. The Indian foreign secretary met with the US ambassador in Delhi to complain, and top officials have canceled meetings with a visiting US congressional delegation.

The common practice in the US of strip-searching people who the police take into custody raises important human rights questions about treating individuals with dignity and respecting their privacy.

But other human rights issues at hand – the allegations that Khobragade took advantage of her domestic worker – remain.

Human Rights Watch has documented exploitation of domestic workers around the world. They often face underpayment and long working hours with little hope of redress. Diplomats from many countries who abuse their workers have often used their status to skirt the law.

It’s a good sign that authorities are showing they can take mistreatment of domestic workers seriously – it sends the message that no employer is above the law.