Overworked Worker is the Victim, Not the Diplomat Who Underpaid Her

The Indian government is furious that a junior diplomat, Devyani Khobragade — the deputy consul general for political, economic, social and women’s affairs in New York –was arrested last week. Indian officials have been quoted as saying that Khobragade was arrested while dropping off her daughter at school and that she was handcuffed, strip-searched and held with drug addicts before being released on $250,000 bail. Angry that she had been treated as a “common criminal,” the Indian government has removed security barriers outside the U.S. embassy in Delhi and withdrawn some privileges for American diplomats. In a suburb of Mumbai, protesters have ransacked a Dominos pizza outlet and demanded a ban on goods imported from the U.S.

Khobragade was arrested because she submitted false visa documentation for a domestic worker, Sangeeta Richard. According to the criminal complaint, from November 2012 until about this past June, Richard worked for Khobragade “far more than 40 hours a week” and was paid about $3.30 an hour, despite a contract that stated a higher rate.

Diplomat Said To Be the “Victim” But What About Her Underpaid Maid?

As Richard’s lawyer, Dana Sussman of Safe Horizon, a victim services agency, says in the New York Times, her client has been “frustrated with how the media has portrayed this story and the response from the Indian government.” Khobragade has been portrayed as the victim when she is the criminal defendant but it is Richard, “who worked incredibly long hours and was severely underpaid,” who is the victim.

The arrest of Khobragade was “just,” as writer  says in the Guardian, observing that the response of the Indian government and others in India is symptomatic of class tensions in Indian society. Noting that “it takes a lot to get Indian politicians united,” Deo writes that many from the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and from the ruling Congress party have condemned the U.S. over Khobragade’s treatment.

Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, has stuck by his decision to arrest Khobrogade on the grounds that “she clearly tried to evade U.S. law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers.”  She is not the first Indian diplomat in New York but the third to face criminal charges over the treatment of domestic workers. In 2011, a maid accused Prabhu Daval ”of forcing her to work like a slave and sleep in a storage cupboard, and of confiscating her passport.” Neena Malhotra and her husband, Jogesh, were ordered by a judge to pay nearly $1.5 million in 2011, on the grounds that they had forced an Indian girl to work without pay and that she had been subjected to “barbaric treatment.”

Khobragade belongs to the upper class; her parents are, says Deo, “powerful government officials.” The rage in India about her receiving the same treatment “as any human trafficker would have got in the US” is itself a “classic case of privilege if there ever was one.” The upper classes in India demand “VVIP treatment; no security checkpoints for them, chauffeured cars with flashing lights and diverted traffic in rush hour are mandatory,” writes Deo. For this reason, Khobragade’s arrest was the “best possible advertisement” about the intense dilemmas for a democratic nation with a centuries-old caste system.

A Case That Reinforces One Thing: Domestic Workers’ Rights Must Be Protected

For Americans, the controversy over Khobrogade’s arrest and treatment is another reminder that, in the U.S., domestic workers have rights and these must be predicted. Khobrogade is hardly the first to find herself in the midst of a very public  controversy about underpaying domestic workers. In 1993, corporate lawyer Zoe Baird had to withdraw her nomination as U.S. Attorney General after it was discovered that she and her husband had employed an undocumented immigrant couple from Peru as a nanny and chauffeur but has not paid Social Security taxes on them.

On Thursday, India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid of India called for the charges against Khobragade to be dropped immediately. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is considering whether to discourage diplomats from taking nannies, cooks and other domestic workers from India to America.

The arrest of Khobrogade has led to her family in India facing intimidation and put their safety at risk to the point that, as Bhahara said, it was necessary to “evacuate” them to the U.S. One thing is likely: After the controversy subsides — with Khobrogade possibly gaining popularity and influence despite the controversy; many in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh have been calling for her to run for parliament – it is very likely that Richards and her family will be the ones to face long-term and adverse consequences.



Marc P.
Marc Pabout a year ago

Regardless of weather o not a crime was committed EVERYONE should be outraged that a human being was subjected to strip search. And though many of the citizens of this country currently seem to lack the moral capacity, we should be questioning why this woman was locked up for a non violent crime that should be a civil matter. The article mentions no physical abuse, only wage deprivation. The fact the other victim mentioned won 1.5 million dollars in a civil suit shows there is recourse for compensation and punitive damages.

Charmaine M.
Charmaine Mabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing

Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Gary Lee
Gary Lee4 years ago

If anyone should be evacuated to the US, it should be the family of the worker, not the family of the diplomat. The diplomat should either face prosecution in the US, as would anyone else, or if exepted by reason of diplomatic immunity, she should have her credentials refused by the US, and be "evacuated" back to India.

Then again, is the US government willing to enforce the laws of the US and the state of New York against a diplomat from a country in which literally thousands of US companies are operating subsidiaries or contracts, and from which US high tech companies import thousands of low-paid tech workers under H1-B, with very lax enforcement of the requirements that US companies pay H1-B workers prevailing wages? Publicity on this incident should help to bring the answer to that question to the public eye. Tech industry lobbyists spend great effort, with great success in Congress, to effectively allow tech giants like Microsoft and HP to do this same sort of thing every day.


My head spins with crazy and unfair cases like this! The world seems to be full of such crazy inequality and it is amazing that in so much of the world people are STILL allowed to be exploited in this way. I know that there have been tiny advances in fairness towards women, even in India, but it is SO SLOW and the polticians in countries such as India still seem to be dominated by males who's minds still function as if they are in the 1800s! All people deserve a proper wage for the work they do FULL STOP. We need to stop feeling sorry for the wrong people and get on with trying DESPERATELY to make justice the norm around the world!

Kay m
Kay M4 years ago

Thank you Kristina, for a very informative article about a system that has gone on for far too long. I bet when the republicans here in America read this, They said " THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT WE NEED TO DO HERE IN AMERICA." ...have 2 class systems, not a 2 party system. WE WILL BE THE RICH ENTITLED 1% and the other 99% will be our slaves......This s not going to happen,, WE THE PEOPLE WILL NOT ALLOW IT, No matter what the republicans do to make it hard for us to vote ....WE WILL PREVAIL, and we will vote them out of office and get some politicians with hearts along with brains....and thanks to the over 153 care 2 members that commented on this subject, I am going to enjoy reading every one of them.

PJ Chartrand
PJ C4 years ago

While I think the diplomat more than deserves exactly what has happened to her I think that in a country where the banks are too big to fail (?) or be charged for the messes they've made and a kid can get away with 4 (count 'em) counts of vehicular homicide because he was the product of a wealthy upbringing it behooves us to be less shocked that there's still a rather repugnant class system in India too.

Lesson number one in this life should be that "do as we say and not as we do" is the very pinnacle of hypocrisy.

Dytayja Cohen
Dytayja Cohen4 years ago

thank you

Jennifer Hebert
Jennifer Brown4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Rhonda Bird
Rhonda B4 years ago