Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general, has been accused of underpaying a domestic worker she brought to the US from India.

Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general, has been accused of underpaying a domestic worker she brought to the US from India. Photo: Reuters

The prosecution of a diplomat in New York for visa fraud has not only caused an ugly spat between India and America, but prompted a new focus in the United States on allegations of assault, human trafficking and even enslavement committed by foreign diplomats serving in America against domestic staff.

Devyani Khobragade, 39, India’s deputy consul general in New York, was arrested on December 12, and accused of forcing her house keeper to work 16 hour days for $US3 per hour, and of fraudulently obtaining the staff member’s visa.

It is alleged she lied to American officials about how much she intended to pay her maid when she brought the maid from India on a special visa designed to allow diplomats to bring local domestic staff with them during their postings. She said she would be paying her maid $US4,500 per month.

Ms Khobragade’s arrest – and her strip search and jailing - have prompted outrage in India where it has become an issue in the current election campaign. In retaliation India has revoked a variety of privileges held by American diplomats and State Department staff working India, launched tax investigations against some and removed security from some American diplomatic facilities in India.

India’s Minister of External Affairs insists the true victim in this case is the accused diplomat.  "No courtesies were provided in the treatment that was meted out to the diplomat. We have seen the statement issued by the Manhattan US attorney, and we need to keep in mind that there is only one victim in this case, Devyani Khobragade."

But according to lawyer Martina Vandenberg, founder of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center in Washington, DC, the only remarkable thing about this case has been the determination of American authorities to prosecute it rather than turn a blind eye.

Ms Vandenberg says in the past federal and state agencies have been reluctant to pursue charges against consular or diplomatic staff, even those who like Ms Khobragade, do not enjoy full diplomatic immunity.

“We had a number of cases where the FBI or other agencies would walk away at the first whisper of [diplomatic] immunity,” said Ms Vandenberg. “Immunity seems to have this talismanic effect.”

Though the State Department is required to record all charges against foreign service staff the database is kept secret.  Nonetheless Ms Vandenberg is aware of at least 21 civil cases and five criminal cases against such staff and officials over the past 10 years.

These include the case of a of Dominican Republic diplomat who was trafficking children he brought into the US claiming they were his own, that of a Taiwanese envoy who was arrested, charged and then deported for trafficking maids from the Philippines and the case of an Italian official in San Francisco charged with abusing a servant in 2011.

Ms Vandenberg says the US appears to have begun to take such prosecutions more seriously after laws were changed in 2008 and after the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, established a group within its security services branch dedicated to the investigation of abuse and trafficking by diplomats and foreign service staff. Just last month America’s ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, held meeting with UN diplomats, warning them that the US would take these cases seriously, said Ms Vandenberg.

Meanwhile international bodies have begun focusing on the issue. Ms Vandenberg has recently returned from a meeting in the Hague where members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe gathered to address the issue.

“It has been a wonderful change,” she said. “The entire community of anti-trafficking advocates is celebrating.”

According to Ms Vandenberg the abuse appears to be the unintended consequence of two international treaties, one which grants senior diplomats the immunity from prosecution they need to do their work, and a second which allows diplomats and foreign service staff to bring local domestic staff with them on special visas.

The problem is that those visas often leave the domestic staff totally dependent on their employers.

“There is no more powerful tool to keep someone who has been underpaid and abused than to tell them that if they lose their job they will suddenly become an illegal alien,” said Ms Vandenberg.

List of abuse cases by diplomats stationed in the US

  • In December 2013 India's deputy consul general in New York Devyani Khobragade was arrested and charged with lying on her visa application about paying a good wage to her domestic servant, another Indian national named Sangeeta Richard. The arrest has set off a diplomatic row with India over her alleged treatment by US authorities during the arrest. 

  • In June 2011, Santosh Bharadwaj, a former housekeeper had sued India's then Consul General in New York Prabhu Dayal accusing him of intimidating her into a year of forced labour. A year later he reportedly settled the case on undisclosed terms.

  • In 2011 Lui Hsien Hsien, director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Kansas City, Missouri was deported from the US after pleading guilty to enslaving two Filipina housekeepers. The two were made to work 16-18 hours a day, including weekends and holidays and paid only a quarter of their agreed wages. The victims received restitution of over $US80,000 and were allowed to stay in the US.

  • In February 2012, a New York City Magistrate Judge fined Neena Malhotra, a former press counsellor for the Indian consulate, $US1.5 million for allegedly forcing an under-aged Indian girl, Shanti Gurung, to work without pay and meting out "barbaric treatment" to her. She has appealed against the verdict but has not returned to the US.

  • In November 2012, Mauritius ambassador Somduth Soborun pled guilty to a misdemeanour charge of failing to pay his housekeeper the minimum wage while representing Mauritius at the United Nations in 2009. Mr Soborun did not invoke his diplomatic immunity and was ordered to pay a $US5,000 fine and nearly $25,000 in back wages to the woman, whom he brought from the Philippines to take care of his home in New Jersey.

  • In May 2012 US officials rescued two Filipinas from a gated compound in northern Virginia owned by the government of Saudi Arabia. The compound had three gates and guards and one woman was reportedly trying to slip through the gates when she was rescued. US Congressman Frank Wolf said Saudi Arabia has been faulted in the past for abuse of a special visa program that allows foreign diplomats to bring household workers into the United States. "They bring them in; they work them seven days a week; they take their passports away," Mr Wolf said.

  • The Minister of Consular affairs in the embassy of Tanzania and his wife were found guilty in January 2008 in a US court of forcing a 20-year-old African woman into domestic slavery after bringing her to the country in 2000. The woman was beaten, denied medical care and forced to shovel snow barefoot before she finally escaped. 

  • In January 2007 three Indian women sued an attache at the Kuwaiti embassy for paying them a fraction of  their wages and submitting them to physical abuse and death threats after he brought them to the US in the summer of 2005 to work as domestic servants.