The arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York for lying on a visa form and underpaying a household nanny comes at a time when the United States examines its own growing inequality. And India’s vehement defense has put a spotlight on cultural differences for treatment of domestic workers.
The Indian consulate officer, Devyani Khobragade, was removed from New York Thursday without prosecution despite a criminal indictment by the US attorney’s office. Khobragade is to be transferred to the Ministry of External Affairs Office in New Delhi. The US State Department acknowledged that the woman has full diplomatic immunity .
On one side, families in many undeveloped countries rely heavily on live-in household staff to cook, clean, watch children and tend the elderly. Families in the United States and much of the developed world typically do without live-in domestic servants, relying on dishwashers and other modern conveniences as well as government-regulated institutions for the care of children or the elderly.
New York is especially sensitive to rights of domestic workers, enacting a bill of rights for this class of workers in 2010, the first law of its kind in the nation. The law requires overtime for live-in employees, one day of rest per week and three paid days of rest per year, as well as written policies agreed to by both parties.
Lifting standards of domestic workers to those of other workers is the aim of the Domestic Workers Convention, a global treaty in force since September that covers minimum wage, access to courts, regular payments, annual leaves and rest periods. The convention also aims to abolish child labor, harassment and abuse, and unsafe working conditions. “Without legal protection, domestic workers are at the mercy of their employers,” notes Human Rights Watch.
As of the first week of January, 11 countries have ratified the treaty. Many more, including the United States and India, have enacted legislation that partially satisfies treaty terms.
Reports suggest that at least 50 million domestic workers toil in every country of the globe, though the true number could be double that.
The domestic-help sector has grown steadily over the past decade, yet developed nations generally rely less on such workers, according to a 2013 report by the International Labour Office, “Domestic Workers Across the World: Global and Regional Statistics and the Extent of Legal Protection.” Less developed nations of Asia and the Pacific region account for about 40 percent of all domestic workers while developed nations – including Japan, South Korea and Singapore – account for 7 percent. About 80 percent of the globe’s domestic workers are women.
Among the regions, less developed nations of Asia stand out for a lack of legislation on treatment of domestic workers: As of 2010, more than 75 percent of developed countries had minimum wage coverage and limits on work hours for domestic help. In Asia – excluding Japan, South Korea and Singapore, which were included with the developed nations – less than 3 percent of the countries had legislation on such protections. In Latin America and Africa, more than 70 percent of the nations have legislation on work limits and more than 80 percent have statutory minimum wages for domestic workers that are the same or better than for other workers.
The ILO report singled out Nordic countries for the minuscule rates of private domestic help. “This is partly due to the public provision of childcare and elderly care, tasks that are often undertaken by domestic workers in other countries.” India was singled out in the report for sketchy data, with estimates on total domestic workers ranging from 2.5 million to 90 million domestic workers.
Hidden and informal arrangements, room and board deductions, lack of employment contracts, cross-border migration, and inability to file complaints or seek redress in courts are cited in the report for encouraging abuse.
Travel abroad and awareness of cultural differences can prompt new understanding and behaviors. “An invitation to an American home will give you a chance to see American family life,” suggests the International Services Office of the University of Rochester. “Most American households do not have domestic help, so it is courteous to offer your help to your hosts.”
Before heading abroad, diplomats should be schooled on such basic cultural differences. Many in India have argued that low wages for Indian diplomats justify low wages for domestic help and the United States could have handled the matter with more sensitivity. Critics in the developed world counter that the diplomat who cannot afford basic fair wages for a live-in domestic help should do without.
The United States and the diplomat’s attorney may settle this case. But in a highly interconnected world through travel and communications, a single high-profile arrest unleashed globalization’s force to expose troubling cultural differences, ensuring that cross-border work arrangements and visas will receive more scrutiny – at least for a while.
(Susan Froetschel, author of the novel Fear of Beauty, writes and edits for YaleGlobal Online.)