Devyani Vs. Sangeeta: Domestic Workers’ Rights

The recent strip search, including cavity search, of a female Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in New York, raised a hue and cry in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, including much of the administration and the public, denounced the U.S. act as demeaning, primarily because a body search of a female is considered dishonorable by Indians for it brings shame upon the woman, her family and the country, and secondly the Indian court would not consider a salary issue between an employer and her maid tantamount to a crime that necessitated a strip search.

But we need to look at some underlying blind spots this issue glaringly reveals:

1. While Devyani’s experience of undergoing a strip search is demeaning, I believe that such a treatment of any woman in the U.S. who is in police custody or in customs/immigration, whether the crime is unremarkable or severe, as unacceptable. We have not protested enough about strip searches of women especially since such searches are now placed within the umbrella of security and anti-terrorism jurisdiction.

2. While there is now a history of protest to raise minimum wage in the U.S. and the pay discrepancy between men and women is a hot button issue, brought to light by the Lilly Ledbetter bill signed by President Obama in 2009, enforcing this in reality has been tough. But many grassroots movements, such as Working Families and Occupy, are making their mark in trying to make employers conscious of pay gaps and inequities. While Devyani’s lawyer may argue that she has done everything legal under the contract with the maid, Sangeeta Richard, nevertheless, the reaction of the Indian government and a mortified public brings up the fact that Indians have internalized the notion that since most of middle class has maids and there are no unions to protect their wages or their treatment, that there is nothing shocking in the continuation of this practice when domestic workers work in Indian households locally or abroad. The protest about wages and treatment of domestic workers both local and migrant is heard loudest only among feminist organizations. Governments have not taken it seriously; there is no proper jurisdiction regarding wages for domestic work, therefore the issue prevails in the shadows.

3. The irony of the Devyani case is that Devyani is Dalit herself—the oppressed class in India’s caste system. The Dalit movement began during the time of India’s nationalist movement for Independence from British rule. Although the reservation system (similar to Affirmative Action) was put in place to address the rights of the underprivileged castes in the caste hierarchy, nevertheless the oppression of Dalits continues. Devyani’s family is Dalit, but well to do, and she is a diplomat employed by the Indian government. It is indeed a lesson in the nature of oppression to see one who has risen to a privileged position in terms of economic class and status to pay a low wage to a woman she hired to work in her household. Of course, since this act is an allegation until proven, and Devyani may after all be innocent, nevertheless this case brings to light two questions: Should foreign diplomats be allowed to get away with anything because they have diplomatic immunity? Should the U.S. use cavity search and strip search on women in immigration violation cases? How can we separate wage issues from labor trafficking cases, since labor trafficking is another charge brought against Devyani? How can we take personal responsibility to make sure someone we know is not being paid below minimum wage?