WASHINGTON – When an Italian consular official in San Francisco was arrested on charges of abusing his Brazilian servant, he reached a deal to escape prison with barely a whimper from Rome.
That same year, 2011, U.S. authorities arrested Taiwan’s envoy in Kansas City on charges of trafficking Filipino maids. The Taipei government at first demanded her release but soon relented, and the chastened diplomat spent three months in jail before being deported.
The United States is now embroiled in an intense row with India over the arrest by authorities on Dec. 12 of its deputy consul general in New York on allegations that she paid her servant below minimum wages and lied on her visa form.
But while the dispute is unusually public and bitter, the case marks part of a growing, and often quiet, effort by the United States to curb what activists see as widespread abuse of servants by diplomats.
In a case that led outraged U.S. lawmakers to tighten rules, a Tanzanian diplomat in Washington was accused of enslaving a woman who allegedly worked nonstop at his home without pay. A court in 2008 ordered the diplomat, Alan Mzengi, to pay more than $1 million.
But the woman received no payment until earlier this year, when the Tanzanian government paid her a smaller amount to settle the case ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama to the East African country, said Martina Vandenberg, a lawyer who represented the woman for free.
“Getting that took five years, but the reality is that lawyers in these cases are working pro bono and we have all the time in the world and we will never stop fighting to get and enforce judgments,” she said.
Vandenberg praised the arrest of the Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, as proof that the United States will not let diplomatic “immunity mean impunity.”
“This case shows, in a much more public way than usual, that the U.S. government’s rhetorical statements that it will not tolerate exploitation and abuse of domestic workers will actually be backed by efforts to prosecute,” she said.
India has insisted that Khobragade was the real victim and voiced fury that the 39-year-old was strip-searched by U.S. Marshals — treatment that, while routine for new U.S. inmates, would be unthinkable by Indian law enforcement officials toward a prominent woman.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced regret over Khobragade’s treatment, and India retaliated with moves that included removing barricades near the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
After appeals by activists, the U.S. Congress in 2008 barred visas for domestic servants unless consular officials interviewed them out of earshot from their employers, informed them of their rights and verified that they had written contracts.
Lawmakers took action after a government report that said that at least 42 household workers employed by U.S.-based foreign diplomats or officials at international organizations had alleged abuse in the eight previous years.
“These protections are now showing that they are really working,” said Tiffany Williams, advocacy director for the Break the Chain Campaign, which assists domestic workers. “Now it’s just a matter of making sure that they are fully enforced and implemented every time.”
Williams said it is impossible to know how many servants have alleged mistreatment but said that her group is aware of “dozens and dozens” of cases. In 2010, more than 900 domestic servants received visas to work for foreign diplomats in the United States.
In an extreme case, a U.S. judge in 2012 ordered that a New York-based Indian diplomat and her husband, Neena and Jogesh Malhotra, pay nearly $1.5 million to a maid.
The worker was forced to survive on leftovers from meals she prepared and was only allowed outside to run errands, according to court documents.
The weight of the maid, Shanti Gurung, dropped from 67 to 38 kg during the 40 months she was employed by the Malhotras, who allegedly told her that U.S. authorities would beat, rape and deport her if she tried to escape.
However, she has not received payment due to a counteraction in a New Delhi court that said the diplomat and her servant were both employed by the Indian government and hence subject to its laws.
Gurung remains in New York, doing domestic work as she studies to complete a high school equivalency degree, said Prarthana Gurung of Adhikaar, a New York-based group that supports Nepali-speaking workers.
Many workers are unaware of their rights in the United States and have little recourse as their employers took away their personal documents, Prarthana Gurung said. “We want to make sure everybody understands that when you bring someone over, you should be treating them in a way that is humane and in line with the labor laws here.”