The case of the diplomat and her maid: diplomacy, exploitation or media fodder

Aante daal ka bhav , something like the price of butcher’s meat, for the diplomat living a dream life and for the house help, later. I wonder if she thinks she will actually ever get a good job in the U.S.?

When I first heard about the case of Devyani Khobragade, one minute a “respected” diplomat to the leading world power ( Deputy consular general, no less to begin with, and now promoted for increasing her immunity to prosecution)  in one of the most popular cities of the world. The next an alleged criminal who broke the US law and committed fraud in the visa papers submitted, to hire an Indian maid: Sangeeta Richards, I thought (correctly) yet another silly attention grabbing, but hardly worthwhile story. She had apparently stated in a contract that she would pay her housekeeper/ nanny more than her own salary, in the legal documentation to help the housekeeper get a vis. The written amount, apparently : $4500.

None of those particular papers are online, so I cannot know for sure if this is just an alleged statement made by Sangeeta and the prosecutors or it in fact is true. Also, I am not going to try and determine whether or not a law was broken, because it probably was and I personally can merely indulge in what is heresy, in this regard. However just as background information, It is likely that Sangeeta has or had an A-3 visa, one afforded to all domestic helps of diplomats (A-1 or 2 visa holders)  and one that has to comply with the minimum wage of the “region” that her employer is situated.  Therefore, it is most likely, that indeed, her visa contract (required for A3 visas) states that she will be paid $4500 ( excluding the free living quarters, food clothing, air tickets from and to India).

She was very astute, going after her employer asking for a raise (or the amount promised), armed with an immigration lawyer, who clearly are so bored at their jobs, will take anything remotely interesting. Who wants to sit at their desk reading green card applications every day, taking three days to read one line ( yes, you know if you have applied for a green card via an immigration lawyer). Especially, since the employer is a diplomat, is paying less than she promised and overworking her maid.

A case for less respect than due, to the printed letters of a contract. Yes. A case for exploitation and violation of human rights? Where she was free to quit when she wanted, and knew she actually will not get paid even the amount she was, if she went to India? No.

Any graduate student, who makes about the same amount after subtracting rent and groceries and airfare to India, as Sangeeta did, can also quit if they are not happy. They don’t  because they are getting an education, it is one way to make your way upwards in society towards increased contribution to society. They just deal with the drudgery looking at the future or, hopefully doing what they (like me) liked to do. It is possible that Sangeeta did not like what she was doing.  She didn’t even have the “status” of being called a graduate student to fall back to. I don’t disregard that at all. She has a right to good life, just like every Chattisgarhi adivasi. But, they don’t have an immigration lawyer, nor the fall back option of causing havoc in diplomatic relationships between two, already sensitized, countries.

In the beginning, I had found the whole matter amusing. You arrest our diplomat, we take your special passes. You treat her as a criminal, we don’t let you park in special places in the airport, you humiliate a diplomat we do not wag our tails, like we- the Indians, usually do to you, Uncle Sam.  However, treating this case as a human rights case ( while several real human right cases are grossly overlooked, not just in India, but also in the U.S.) and a “Cause” for all the downtrodden, exploited employees, who are treated as servants, is really not commiserate to what has happened.

Before you go blue in the face screaming at my heartless body, I should say I don’t think Devyani is faultless, she really should know what is being written in a contract and stupidity in high places, ALWAYS has the proclivity of coming back to bite you in the ass. It also appears that Devyani had filed a case in the Indian High Court, some time in late summer, to avoid being potentially harassed by her maid, who at that time had already made a forceful request for a salary hike and already had an immigration lawyer and wanted a usual Indian passport (although changing a diplomatic passport to an individual one, while still under government employ is not that simple, especially placed overseas).

However, Sangeeta always had the option of going back to India, because it would have taken her 1 month to know that she cannot be paid as much as was said in the contract, because her employer cannot afford it. She would have known her chores, hours of work and everything else she needed to know about making the decision, in two weeks. But she chose not to quit (her airfare back would also be provided by Devyani, who clearly wouldn’t want to hold on to someone who doesn’t want to work), apparently such an obvious option doesn’t bear a minute of thought. She does want to hold her country and its’ diplomats to ransom, for “allowing” such a deplorable thing, as being paid less than what she is due ( and is stated in her contract, yes yes I know). Of course, why should she care for a country that has done nothing for her or the other “exploited” housekeepers.

I also have nothing against Sangeeta, even though that might surprise you. I do believe in the argument that every individual can take an opportunity to better their situation, especially if it is something that the law actually favors (surprisingly). She is doing just that. I am all for it, more power to her. So she wants a real passport  and $10,000 per month. She can ask for rooms in the White house and some unicorns for her children to fly around in, while she is at it, for all I care. She is empowered, clever and has an excellent sense of timing, all of which definitely deserve recognition and a reward, if she can get that. What it doesn’t warrant is pity and sympathy. That is what I am against here.

If people have concluded that I am biased, classist, and have no feelings for poor exploited women or human rights. I do not claim I am not. In fact, I am afraid, the only type of real exploited women I know to exist are the ones that are most unlikely to have an immigration lawyer.

I also believe in the human right of resigning from a job AND for the employer: taking on someone with better qualifications or simply someone who is cheaper and more willing to work, otherwise, there is stagnation and people who actually work hard, are not recognized for it. Apple, Google and other manufacturers are not apologizing for out sourcing. Are they?

I certainly, do not think that in our world just because someone expects to be making more money, they will be able to. The world economy is as it is, most valuable jobs are not well paid, while the well paid jobs are for financial sorcerers, who literally make money out of thin air. That is the truth. No one appears to be still going after the financial institutions that robbed people off their hard earned money, so really, this moral high ground on Sangeeta’s rights sounds hilarious. She is already doing what she can.

It does not however, warrant the degradation of Devyani, who for all intents and purposes, did not really think she was doing anything immoral. Which is what it is beginning to sound like in the western media ( read Washington Post and NYT). Morality is highly highly specific to the society it belongs to, and Devyani is Indian, she paid her housekeeper what she could afford and thought it was better than what the housekeeper would be getting in India (which is entirely true). She was acting just like any other Indian employer, not as an inhuman and insensitive slave driver she has been portrayed here.  A housekeeper is not usually paid by the hour, not in India anyway, and most Indian women, just take as long as it takes to get the job done, with or without the help of a housekeeper. There are evil, exploitative employers, everywhere. She, however, doesn’t appear to be such an extreme case.

Yes, it is strange in America to have a live in housekeeper, for a lower or higher middle class family. However, other than becoming daily-wage laborers in construction sites ( something, no doubt Sangeeta would never want to do, and Americans have no real comprehension of), there is little else in terms of employment, for the unskilled, uneducated people leaving their rural life behind. Indians don’t have house maids and cooks or chauffeurs because they are just lazy and exploitative. In India, jobs in cities are very demanding, there is little personal space, most families have two working parents, who work long hours every day, live hours if nor days away from close family.  Most of them are also not paid by the hour. And no, they are not lazying around at work. It is the same for them, in principle, as it is for the housemaids, there are scores of people willing and available to take on their job, and often even be paid less, if they don’t want to work hard to please the boss and the bottom-line.That’s human resource. And we have it. So, if guzzling oil in SUVs and frozen food carrying semis is something the Americans do, because it is available and cheap and don’t apologize for it. We are not about to be apologetic for using our resource. Work is work. I am not saying poor treatment and classist behavior is not seen in India. I am saying employing housemaids is the obvious economic choice and is not merely a luxury. As things improve, housekeepers with increasing experience will begin to get a choice of employers and pay and that has also started to happen.

My mother always had a maid (however erratic in making an appearance) for everyday cleaning and washing dishes ( yes, Indians don’t have dish washers and also, our cooking is a tide complicated, fresh, and requires several steps of preparation). I should add that we don’t get ready-to-eat salads, or frozen food: despite the attempt of some supermarkets to capture that market – the market is not willing to give up better tasting and after all- healthier food. We really don’t have the dollars to spend on food supplements and health problems associated with – over-processed, nutrition lacking and simply disgusting  excuse for food. Plus perhaps, as was pointed out in an economic times article, the people cutting and preparing those “dishes” may prefer to work for better employers than super markets. I cannot think of any reason to actually propound or advance unhealthy habits ( we already have plenty of those).

I remember playing with the children of our maids. I also remember teaching them, whenever they were disciplined enough to pay attention. Most of them were older women, but at one time there was a young, very bright girl, Valli. My dad once told her, oh you are my daughters age and you work so hard! She replied, ” Why, she works hard too, she goes to school and does her homework, takes exams. That is not easy.” I had never thought of it like that, I was surprised she had!! She had a child when she was about 14 I think. Who she was able to send to school to.

India is a country full of dust and activity, so, vacuuming twice a week is not an option. Even with  house maids, my mom worked all day. Fresh food, laundry, dusting, sweeping and doing dishes (yeah, while it is changing a lot, many Indians still don’t have washing machines and sometimes have maids wash their clothes as well). I suppose it can be called decadence. But I call high school drop outs a shame, college drop outs a decadence and being willfully ignorant a privilege. So there. At least in India a high school drop out can be a chauffeur and earn a living, while his children learn calculus in a city school.

So seriously, leave the human rights violation out of a clever woman seeking her rights in a foreign country prepared to give them to her, so much so they give sudden visas to her entire family and transport them to the US. And another woman’s stupidity in forgetting she is no longer in her country. Please.

P.S. I didn’t ignore Indian media because it is doing something right, it is doing what it always does. Just like the politicians, who are now leaping at the biggest possible non issue that can get them attention and still cost nothing. I assumed the Indian readers already know that. The endless humiliation of women in India every day, in the meanwhile, has taken a backseat. The anniversary for a real tragedy was a few days ago, but this case has nothing to do with it.  At all.

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