THE BLOG

Regardless of Rank, Consular Officials Should Be Held Accountable for Domestic Worker Exploitation

Last Tuesday, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney announced the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, a prominent consular officer in the Consulate General of India in New York. Khobragade, like hundreds of other consular officers, Diplomats, and international officials, was granted the privilege of bringing over a domestic worker to care for her home and family under the US A-3 visa program. The Department of State, which oversees and monitors this visa program, requires employers and workers to have written contracts that detail wages, hours, working conditions, in addition to in-person interviews and education about human trafficking and worker rights in the U.S. Yet as this case shows, dishonest employers can find ways to undermine these protections.

While much of the media surrounding this case has focused on Khobragade, and the irony of her gender and job description, what's missing from the conversation is the context: exploitation of migrant domestic workers is not unusual.

There are more than 52 million domestic workers around the world, many of them are migrants coming from places like India, Nepal, the Philippines, and Indonesia and traveling all over the world to work in the homes of wealthy families and Diplomats.

Those who come to the United States enter a system where they'll face layers of adversity just going to work each day: as mostly women of color and immigrants they will contend with discrimination based on gender, race, and immigration status. As domestic workers, they will be excluded from several important labor protections like the right to organize. The fact that their work is performed behind closed doors, in a country that highly values privacy and vehemently resists government oversight, makes it even harder for exploitation to be recognized and reported by even the most active citizens.

Domestic workers on these special Diplomatic visas must contend with the additional risk of working for employers who have control over the visa, who can easily access and threaten the worker's family in the home country, and who frequently avert meaningful punishment when they violate rules -- whether through settlements, quiet exits, or no consequence at all.

It takes incredible bravery to break through these layers of adversity and come forward to get help. 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 crimes in retaliation.

In this case, much of the media is focused on the treatment of the consular officer rather than the exploitation of the domestic worker she employed. We've heard reports from allies in India that the Indian government and media are outraged at the State Department for this arrest.

This is unacceptable. Among its many functions, the State Department is tasked with protecting all workers who travel to the United States to work on these visas; which means they have to enforce our laws and arrest people who blatantly violate them, regardless of rank or gender. We are grateful that they initiated this investigation and followed it through because too often, it is the international norm to ignore domestic worker abuse.

Congress, media, activists, and workers should stand by this worker, and stand by the State Department for taking action against the employer.