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'This is not the case of one Sangeeta alone'

By George Joseph
Last updated on: December 21, 2013 04:23 IST

"Diplomats should recognise the work of the domestic helps..."

"... media is focused on the treatment of the employer rather than the exploitation of the domestic worker she employed."

"Is Sangeeta not an Indian citizen, who deserves equal treatment?"

Workers' outfits staged a rally outside the Indian Consulate in New York to show support for Sangeeta Richard, whose allegations of low wages and exploitation led to the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade. George Joseph reports

Dismayed that Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade is getting more sympathy than the supposed victim, Sangeeta Richard, about 60 people, including representatives of worker's organisations, held an hour-long rally in support of the latter in front of the Indian consulate in New York on Thursday.

At the event, sponsored by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the United Workers Congress, protestors demanded action against Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York who was arrested on suspicion of visa fraud after being accused of underpaying her Indian maid.

The organisers, in a statement, said that the protest was put together because 'the Indian government has decided to focus their energy on protecting the unscrupulous employer’.

‘Khobragade was mistreated while being arrested and while we do not condone the excessive treatment she endured, we want to make sure the exploitation of the worker and her case are not forgotten,' the organisers said.

“The treatment of Khobragade during her arrest raises serious concerns for us, and our international allies, but it is our belief this cannot be used as an excuse to ignore the deeper questions raised by the case,” said Tiffany Williams, an NDWA spokesperson.

The protestors held up billboards saying, 'I stand with Sangeeta;' 'Overworked, underpaid,' 'Does immunity protect human rights violation,' 'Hold diplomats accountable, justice for domestic workers.'

"It is a shame that the government of India is supporting the powerful only. Is not Sangeeta an Indian citizen, who deserves equal treatment," asked Nilolpal Das, a restaurant worker and a native of West Bengal who was one of the two Indians in the rally.

Subashis Barua from Kolkata, another restaurant worker, said it is a disgrace that India supports someone flouting the laws of another country.

"This is not the case of one Sangeeta only. Many people are brought here on promises like green card and exploited. It should end," he said.

A few other South Asians were among the protestors; the rest were Latin or mainstream Americans.

Nahar Alam, founder and executive director of Andolan Organizing South Asians, said domestic workers were ill-treated all over America, especially in the diplomatic community.

She recounted an incident 15 years ago that had also brought her before the Indian consulate. A domestic help named Jameela called her up, crying and asking for help.

Alam said she waited outside the consulate for five hours, waiting for Jameela to come out. But the consulate people were clever enough to send her back to India before
she could take action, she said, adding that Jameela looked emaciated in her photos.

Alam, of Bangladeshi origin, was also a domestic help in the 1990s. She described living in a basement without heat, body shaking from the cold. 

"We are not against India or diplomatic immunity," she said, while stressing that she believed no immunity should be offered to anyone committing a crime. "Diplomats should recognise the work of the domestic helps," she said.

Organiser Yomara Velez said the main problem is that people do not consider domestic work real work. "It is not acceptable. Any type of work is respectable," she said.

Another speaker said she is proud to be a domestic worker. "I can do any work. But I cannot take disrespect. The domestic helps are also somebody's mother and sister," she said. 

Speakers said the A-3 visa issued for domestic helps of diplomats is used widely to exploit the workers.

'Shame on the diplomat who ill-treated her domestic help. Shame on every diplomat who brings domestic workers and push them to modern day slavery,' they shouted, demanding protection for all workers, and accountability from the diplomats.

Prarthana Gurung, an organiser from Adhikar, an organisation helping mostly people of Nepali origin, said she had no doubt Richard was exploited and ill treated. 

"Her voice is not heard in the media hype about Dr Khobagade and the strip search," but added, "We, too, disagree with the way Dr Khobragade was treated."

She said Shanti Gurung, (no relation) who worked for Consul Neena Malhotra a few years ago, wanted to come to the protest, but did not turn up because there is still a case filed against her in India.

(Shanti Gurung filed a civil case against Malhotra for ill-treatment, a year after the diplomat went back to India in 2010. A federal court in New York, gave an ex-parte verdict in favour of Gurung and awarded $1.5 million as compensation. Malhotra and the government of India got a verdict against this from the Delhi high court. But the US system does not recognise that verdict).

Brendan Griffith, from the powerful workers organization AFL-CIO, said he is proud to join the protest.

"We have to fight back against ill treatment of workers. The domestic workers deserve more respect and a million workers in the city stand with them," he said.

Kazi Fouzia from Desis Rising Up and Moving said her group regularly get calls for help from domestic workers employed by diplomats.

The protestors also demanded Khobragade be prosecuted and action be taken against other unscrupulous employers. They sought that the rights of domestic workers be publicly recognised; that the ILO Convention 189 be ratified; and Richard and her family in India be compensated.

According to Williams of the NDWA, "Much of the media surrounding this case has focused on the unfair treatment of Khobragade and the Indian government's outrage. But what's missing from the conversation is the context -- exploitation of migrant domestic workers is not unusual.”

"Those who come to the United States enter a system where they'll face layers of adversity just going to work each day. It takes incredible bravery to break through these layers of adversity and come forward to get help," she said.

"Yet rather than being hailed as heroes or even uplifted as survivors worthy of empathy - migrant domestic workers are too often vilified, especially in the media of their home countries. Sometimes the workers are even sued or accused of a crime. In this case, media is focused on the treatment of the employer rather than the exploitation of the domestic worker she employed."

"Accusations against the workers often have an undercurrent of cultural relativism, whereby people can justify mistreatment as 'better than how it would be at home.' This is unacceptable. Our laws can and should apply to every worker regardless of her status or country of origin," she said.

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi

George Joseph