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'Diplomats taking advantage of domestic helps is nothing new'

December 21, 2013 12:48 IST

Protestors outside the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, California, tell Rediff.com’s Ritu Jha that they are outraged because nobody is speaking for the rights of Sangeeta Richard, the former domestic help of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade

A couple of dozen people, mainly women, protested outside the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, California on Friday for the alleged mistreatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s domestic help Sangeeta Richard.

The protest called by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, California chapter and supported by various organisations demanded justice for Sangeeta Richard.

Rosana Reyes, communications director and member NDWA told rediff.com that the protesters were asked to move by the security personal at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco.

"He said we are blocking the traffic," Reyes said.

Similar demonstrations were also held in Atlanta, Washington DC, New York and Hong Kong. The protest globally was called by International Domestic Workers' Network that is made up of domestic workers' organisations and other trade unions around the world.

Sangeeta Richard came to the US on an A-3 visa and has alleged that she was exploited by her employer Devyani Khobragade. It is alleged that Khobragade who claimed to the government to pay Richard $4,500 a month paid her only $3.31 an hour.

"Unfortunately, this is nothing new. People as well as diplomats take advantage of domestic workers. There are other cases of diplomats and in some cases it's even more extreme. Passports are confiscated and they are threatened by their employers. In this case too her passport was taken away," said Reyes.

"It doesn't matter if a worker is documented or not, if you abuse a worker, we cannot tolerate it. They need protection and should be free of harassment," said Reyes.

"So we think it is important to highlight, no matter whether they are American national or not. Diplomats should respect domestic workers and pay them decent wages. The fact is that Sangeeta Richard worked as domestic live in. These workers don't get rest and proper sleep or off-days. It's very hard," said Reyes.

"Our organisation is committed to make sure that workers brought to the US are treated fairly," she said.

Jill Shenker, field director at NDWA, Calfornia said, "We have taken this action because fundamentally we believe in the demand that all people should be treated with dignity and respect. We also agree that law enforcement officers should treat people with dignity. If the law enforcement mistreated Khobragade it is also unacceptable. In the same manner the mistreatment of a domestic worker is unacceptable. But we see here that the outreach is just for the employer."

She said her organisation condemned the law enforcement strip searching Khobragade, but believes the crime committed against the worker led to the outrage.

"We are outraged because the attention on this issue has sided with the employer and nobody has spoken out for the rights of the worker who is also an Indian. Domestic work is a work like any other and deserves basic labour protection. We want every workplace to have the minimum standard for labour protection of domestic workers," said Shenker.

NDWA which is a part of Global Union Federation said, "We have groups in India who are members of International Domestic Workers Federation. Our sisters in India are working to improve domestic workers in India and are pushing the government to rectify."

Lack of protection of domestic workers is a world-wide problem. In this case, it has been alleged that the diplomat lied to the US government and abused her A-3 visa. It carries certain requirements to protect domestic workers  travelling to the US.

Hina Shah, attorney for Domestic Workers Coalition attorney said, "The Khobragade case is nothing new in the domestic worker industry."

She said employers routinely violate basic labour protections. She has represented many domestic workers who are not paid minimum wage, work long hours and sometimes suffer abuse and harassment. 

However, in California, she said is excited that starting 2014, domestic workers who care for children or elderly or disabled people will now be entitled to overtime. "In order for any law to be effective, it must be vigorously enforced," said Shah, who is an Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director, Women's Employment Rights Clinic, Golden Gate University School of Law, California.

The protesters also submitted a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry US Department of State that asks for justice in the case between US vs Khobragade.

"We respectfully request that all the protective measures included in the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act for A-3 and G-5 domestic workers be fully implemented and enforced," says the letter.

Ritu Jha in San Francisco