Sangeeta Richard, the housekeeper whose accusations of employer mistreatment led to the arrest of India’s deputy consul general in New York and an international furor, is not the first domestic worker to take issue with a diplomat who hired her.
About 20 domestic-worker trafficking lawsuits have been filed against diplomats and other foreign officials in the United States in the past decade in federal courts in New York, Virginia, the District of Columbia and elsewhere, a legal advocacy group says.
The employers have been accused of forcing their maids to work long hours at little or no pay, making them sleep on floors, shouting at them or threatening violence and other mistreatment, court records show. The diplomats were from Kuwait, the Philippines, Tanzania and other countries. Indian diplomats were accused in two suits in New York.
There have also been several criminal cases.
The lawsuits and criminal cases highlight an issue of growing concern:how foreign diplomats abuse their household help in the United States and flout this country’s labor laws, said Martina E. Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, an advocacy group that arranges free legal help. “These cases are the tip of the iceberg,” Ms. Vandenberg said.In 2012, for example, Somduth Soborun, the ambassador to the United States from Mauritius, pleaded guilty in Newark to failing to pay the minimum wage to a Filipino housekeeper for whom he had obtained a visa, according to federal prosecutors in New Jersey. Mr. Soborun was fined $5,000 and ordered to pay $24,000 in restitution.
Such cases are probably underreported, she and other experts said. Some workers may only rarely be allowed to leave the home or make contact with outsiders, or may have little knowledge of their rights. Employers may threaten to have a worker deported or to harm an employee’s relatives in their home country.
“Threatening the lives of loved ones overseas is a huge problem,” said Ivy Suriyopas, the director of the antitrafficking initiative at the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Dana Sussman, the lawyer with the victim services agency Safe Horizon who represents Ms. Richard, the housekeeper of the Indian diplomat, said: “We’ve seen the tendency to blame the victim in these cases, rather than focus attention on the individual accused of violating the law. This makes it all that much harder for victims to come forward.”
The charges in New York against Ms. Richard’s employer, Devyani Khobragade, caused public anger in India, where the news media focused on reports that she had been arrested outside her daughter’s school, and later strip-searched. On Thursday a grand jury indicted Ms. Khobragade on charges of visa fraud and making false statements, but she earlier had received diplomatic immunity and left the country Thursday night for India, her lawyer said.
Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, whose office had been prosecuting Ms. Khobragade, said in a recent statement, “One wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse.”
Reaction in India has been harsh not only toward the United States but also toward Ms. Richard. Some of that response may stem from the perception that even if she was underpaid, what she received far exceeded the amount most domestic workers make in India.
Elizabeth Keyes, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, who has represented domestic workers, offered another perspective: Even where diplomats agree to pay their workers according to United States labor laws, “the diplomats sometimes aren’t paid enough to uphold those contracts.”
“These are elite folk getting prestigious and public-oriented jobs where they’re being expected to entertain and live a certain kind of lifestyle, and the domestic worker is a key part of making that happen,” she added.
It has been reported that Ms. Khobragade earned roughly $50,000 a year in her diplomatic position.
The two domestic workers who sued other Indian diplomats in New York claimed they had been forced to work extremely long hours for meager wages and subjected to threats and psychological coercion. Both said they were lured from India into their jobs in the United States through “false promises” of fair pay.
One plaintiff, Santosh Bhardwaj, said she signed a contract in 2009 to work for Prabhu Dayal, then the consul general, for $10 an hour. She was to work 40 hours a week and receive days off and overtime. “Mr. Dayal told Ms. Bhardwaj she would have a good life,” the lawsuit said.
But Ms. Bhardwaj said she was subjected to nearly a year of “forced labor and psychological coercion.” She was paid an average of $300 a month, the suit said, and often required to work longer than 12-hour days.
Mr. Dayal denied Ms. Bhardwaj’s claims, saying in court papers that Ms. Bhardwaj had her own apartment with a private bathroom, that she moved around freely and that she was fully paid for her work.
The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount, with no admission of wrongdoing.
The other plaintiff, Shanti Gurung, said she had been told to tell the United States Embassy that she would be paid $7 an hour, but received only about $120 during the more than three years she worked for a consulate officer, Neena Malhotra, and her husband at their residence on East 43rd Street.
Ms. Gurung said in the lawsuit that she was forced to work 16-hour days, to sleep on the living room floor and to give daily massages to Ms. Malhotra. She was often yelled at and was once even berated for eating a slice of bread without permission. She was allowed to leave the apartment alone only for chores, and one day in 2009, while the family was out, she fled to the home of a woman she had met while shopping for the defendants, her lawsuit said.
Ms. Malhotra and her husband, who had both left the United States, did not respond to the lawsuit, and in 2012 a judge entered a $1.46 million default judgment in favor of Ms. Gurung — an award that has never been paid, said Ms. Gurung’s lawyer, Amy Tai, of the Urban Justice Center.
Ms. Tai said her client was gratified that there was “a victory in her case,” even if it was just “a paper victory.”
Mr. Dayal, the former consul general who settled the lawsuit brought against him, raised questions in a recent article in The Mail Online about the motives of the Indian housekeepers who had accused their employers, including himself.
“The U.S. is a highly litigious country where suing people is sort of a favorite pastime,” Mr. Dayal wrote.
In the case that has spurred anger in India, prosecutors said Ms. Khobragade gave Ms. Richard a written contract in 2012 stating that she would be paid $9.75 an hour and work 40 hours a week.
But Ms. Khobragade later had her sign a second contract stating that she would be paid about $3.30 an hour, the complaint says. Ultimately, Ms. Richard said, she worked far more than 40 hours a week and was paid less than she had been promised.
Ms. Khobragade’s lawyer, Daniel N. Arshack, said that his client denied the charges and that a review of the facts “will reveal that Dr. Khobragade’s domestic worker received all of the pay to which she was entitled.”
In Jackson Heights, Queens, where Indian takeout shops and sari stores compete for space with other South Asian businesses, shopkeepers and passers-by acknowledged recently that if Ms. Khobragade had broken any law, she should face punishment. Nevertheless, they sympathized with her.
“She shouldn’t have done that,” said Sukhdev Bawa, the owner of Maharaja Quality Sweets and Snacks, but added: “She’s a diplomat — she’s not a regular person. What the police did to her — totally wrong.”
Several people seemed dismissive of Ms. Richard’s claims of having been underpaid and mistreated. Compared with maids in India, where competition for jobs is fierce and wages are minuscule, they noted, she was fortunate.
“These people are happy to have a job,” said Pulkit, the manager of Dosa Delight on 73rd Street, who would give only his first name. “They’re doing well compared to how they’re doing in their home country. Be thankful for what you have.”