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Several maids have fled homes of Indian diplomats in US

December 23, 2013 16:59 IST

A day before Ambassador Meera Shankar was to return home after completing her tenure in the US in the summer of 2011, her maid, without informing anyone, left her official residence on the outskirts of the city never to return.

The highly-secretive Indian Embassy hushed up the matter from the media and is believed to have registered a formal complaint with police and the State Department, in addition to cancelling the maid's official passport.

The woman domestic worker, who served the Ambassador quite well during her tenure of more than two years in Washington, is still untraceable and believed to be living illegally in the US.

And she is not the only Indian maid -- officially called "India-Based Domestic Assistant" -- to have fled from the homes of senior Indian diplomats in the past few years.

Sources familiar with such incidents told PTI, strictly on condition of anonymity, that the number of such maids or India-Based Domestic Assistants from the Indian Embassy in Washington -- one of the largest Indian diplomatic missions -- could be at least a dozen in the past decade.

Not only maids, but security guards brought from India too are believed to have fled, mostly towards the end of their tenure.

The Indian Embassy did not respond to PTI's questions on the number of IBDAs currently with staff at its diplomatic posts in the US, including the embassy in Washington and consulates in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta and Chicago.

In 2012, the US issued a total of 54 A-3 visas, which are the ones for IBDAs or maids, to Indian diplomats. In all, as many as 1,141 A-3 visas were issued last year, while 749 applications were rejected.

A-3 visas are for the domestic help of diplomats and foreign officials who are in the US on A-1 and A-2 visas.

According to official figures made available to PTI by the State Department, the US issued A-3 visas for 32 Indian domestic workers in 2011, 50 in 2010, 60 in 2009, 38 in 2008, 35 in 2007, 40 in 2006, 60 in 2005, 55 in 2004 and 47 in 2003.

Over the past 10 years, the US issued more than 470 A-3 visas to Indian domestic workers.

Sources familiar with the working of Indian missions in the US said while three cases of Indian domestic workers have come to light -- all three at the Consulate in New York, including the latest one involving deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade -- there were several cases in the past decade that Indian officials were successful in keeping away from the media.

At least one of those cases related to the mistreatment of domestic workers, while in several others, the maids exploited US laws to continue living in the US, legally or illegally.

"This (a maid making allegations of torture and low wages) is a big racket," a source said. As a result, the number of diplomats coming to the US with IBDAs, which they are entitled to, has decreased in the past few years.

While the Indian Embassy did not respond to questions in this regard, another source, requesting anonymity, estimated that as many as 40 per cent of diplomats posted at the embassy have opted not to avail of the IBDA facility.

While the Indian embassy and consulates have been subject to embarrassing moments several times in the past after officials were accused of domestic violence, paying low wages, and even harassing domestic workers, no effort was made to address the issue.

"There is neither a policy on hiring domestic workers nor is there a mechanism to ensure that IBDAs who hold official Indian passports are paid wages as per mandatory US standards. There is also no mechanism to address the grievances of domestic workers," a source said.

There has also been no effort to ensure that the US policy on domestic maids, including the minimum wage -- which the State Department notifies every year - is adhered to by senior officials.

The Indian embassy also did not respond to questions related to its policy on maids and domestic workers.

A source, who opted not to avail of the facility of domestic workers, noted that the "racket" begins in New Delhi, when agencies approach diplomats on their way to foreign postings to offer the services of maids.

When someone agrees, the agencies charge several lakhs of rupees from domestic workers to be sent with the diplomat to a foreign country, particularly the US and European countries, sources said.

"Naturally, when they pay lakhs of rupees by selling their property and land, it is with the sole objective of realising the American dream and never to return. As a result, they resort to tactics to stay in (the US), which includes levelling allegations of inhuman treatment and low wages," a source said. 

Lalit K Jha in Washington
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