Standing With Sangeeta

With Chaumtoli Huq*

You might not have heard of Sangeeta Richard, but you've certainly heard the numerous opinions and reactions that her case has sparked. Ms. Richard's experiences as a domestic worker in the home of her employer, Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat living in New York City, are at the heart of charges brought by US Attorney Preet Bharara. Ms. Khobragade has been accused of committing immigration fraud to bring Ms. Richard into the United States. Ms. Richard was allegedly paid $3.31 an hour for her work in Ms. Khobragade's home, far below the required minimum wage or what she was apparently promised. Most media coverage about the case has been singularly focused on the Indian government's response, which includes concerns over the alleged mistreatment of Ms. Khobragade during her arrest and interpretations of diplomatic immunity.

But, while we are waiting for additional details to emerge, let's not forget who is at the heart of this case and what it represents more broadly. It's about the rights of Sangeeta Richard, about the experiences of many domestic workers in similar situations in the United States, about the need for stronger immigration and labor laws, and about the responsibility that we have in standing with those in our own community who face workplace exploitation.

Many people in the United States, including South Asians, employ domestic workers to care for our children, elderly parents and disabled family members. In fact, there are between 1.8 and 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States, who are mostly immigrant women. In New York State alone, over 200,000 domestic workers are nannies, companions, and housekeepers, much like Ms. Richard. Many domestic workers come into the United States through various forms of employment visas, including the A-3 visa that Ms. Richard received, while others may be recruited or trafficked from countries such as India, Bangladesh, and Nepal with false promises of employment and immigration benefits.

Despite the growing numbers of domestic workers in the United States, our laws do not provide them with the same worker protections that many others already receive in the workplace. South Asian organizations such as Andolan and Adhikaar have documented stories of domestic workers who do not receive basic employment benefits such as fair wages, benefits, time off, or paid sick days. Some domestic workers report facing isolation and physical, sexual or emotional abuse. When or if domestic workers report or leave their employers, they fear retaliatory actions as well as the loss of their immigration status, which could render them undocumented. Watch "Claiming Our Voice" by Fine Grain Films about the experiences of domestic workers organized by Andolan.

For these reasons and many more, workers and advocates have long been pressing for improved labor and immigration policies. Indeed, the State Department regulations that are pertinent to the Khobragade case are the result of over a decade of organizing by workers and advocates to ensure that migrant domestic workers using A-3 visas have the rights to structure their employment fairly. Yet, as the Khobragade case also shows, these rights must be vigilantly enforced and protected for them to be meaningful.

The need to protect and enforce the rights of domestic workers and immigrant laborers has also taken centerstage during the ongoing debates about immigration reform this year. Organizations such as the National Domestic Worker's Alliance and We Belong Together have advocated for provisions that would support domestic workers. For example, in the case of domestic workers who are undocumented and eligible to be on the path towards citizenship, there should be options to show proof of employment in ways that reflect the realities of working in informal employment settings. There should also be protections for those who report labor violations and abuse and the expansion of visa options for victims of crimes so that more people facing workplace exploitation can come forward. And, for the many domestic workers, guestworkers, and other migrant laborers who are recruited on false promises and trafficked into this country, there must be specific requirements for labor recruiters and penalties for violating them.

Beyond the legal and policy angles in the Khobragade case, this is also an important moment for community-centered conversations and actions. As South Asians living in America, we know full well that tremendous economic disparities exist within our communities, from the streets of Jackson Heights and Edison to Chicago's Devon Avenue to Fremont. We also know that many South Asians benefit from the support of domestic workers and caregivers in our homes. We have a responsibility then to stand with Sangeeta and others like her, to raise awareness about the need for improved laws with our policymakers, to initiate often difficult conversations with family members and friends to clarify and disrupt the prevailing narratives of this story, and to support efforts of workers' rights organizations.

We all deserve to engage in our jobs with dignity, whether we work in the corner office of a high-rise, the inside of a cab, or behind closed doors in a home. Standing with Sangeeta means that we stand for the rights of those who experience workplace abuse, for the rules and laws that could prevent it from happening, and for equality and justice.

Deepa Iyer is the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT); follow her @dviyer. Chaumtoli Huq is Editor of Law at the Margins and Associate Professor of Law at New York Law School; follow her @lawatmargins.