This column appeared in Arab News on December 22, 2013:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The outrage in India over the arrest last week of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul-general in New York after her runaway maid Sangeeta Richard filed a complaint against her claiming she was overworked and paid less than half the minimum wage, while understandable, is misplaced. In the entire hullabaloo of removing the barricades around the US Embassy in New Delhi and the refusal of Indian politicians to meet a visiting US congressional delegation, the plight of the maid seems to have been forgotten.
Wounded national pride is the explanation for the Indian outrage and demand that the US government apologizes publicly for the harsh treatment that Khobragade allegedly was subjected to. According to the diplomat, she was arrested in front of her children’s school and handcuffed. Thrown into a cell with drug addicts she further claims she was strip-searched several times was also subjected to a cavity search. Preet Bharara, the US prosecutor handling the diplomat’s case, insists that she was just given the same treatment as everyone else, and that she was treated with respect. This indeed is humiliating treatment for any person, and especially more so for someone who is supposed to enjoy the diplomatic immunity provided by the 1961 Vienna Convention. The US State Department is now claiming that Khobragade enjoys only partial diplomatic immunity due to her rank, which seems like willful misinterpretation of the convention. If you are a diplomat, whether you are a third secretary or the ambassador, the diplomatic immunity you are entitled to is one and the same.
Richard claims that she had to work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, taking care of the two children of the deputy consul- general. Khobragade claims that her maid was given every Sunday off to go to church and meet her friends. To me this sounds like the cases of hundreds of foreign maids in the Middle East who are overworked, shouted at and underpaid by the employers from Beirut to Riyadh and Dubai. Yet abuse of domestic servants is not something unique to the Middle East, as this happens all over the world, from Africa to Asia to Latin America.
According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report released earlier this year there are 52 million domestic workers worldwide, with 83 percent of them women. Brazil is the country with the most domestic workers, 6.7 million; India is second with 4.2 million and Indonesia third with 2.4 million domestic workers. According to the study, 29.9 percent of domestic workers are not covered by national labor laws and more worryingly a full 45 percent do not get a weekly day off or paid annual leave. The Gulf countries have the highest percentage of women domestic servants as compared to their overall female populations, with Oman at 59.3 percent, Kuwait 53.3 percent, Saudi Arabia 47.1 percent and the UAE at 42.4 percent.
The problem that all maids face is that they work in the private homes of their employers, making it very difficult for government inspectors to check their work conditions. In Saudi Arabia, domestic workers are still not fully covered by the labor law, which gives abusive employers a huge loophole through which they can abuse the rights of their maids. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff this year pushed through legislation that gives maids full labor law protections, including higher salaries and a limit to how many hours they can be made to work. If a maid or nanny needs to work overtime or through the night, they are now entitled to mandatory 1.5 times overtime pay.
According to simple calculations, Richard should have been paid $1,392 a month if she were paid the $7.25 per hour minimum wage and worked for 48 hours a week. Instead Richard claims she was paid only $633.60 a month, or $3.30 an hour. For comparison, Filipino maids in the Kingdom are now paid a minimum of $400 a month, and HK$4,010 in Hong Kong, or $517 (SR1,939) a month. In Brazil fulltime maids must be paid the minimum salary of R$678, which is the equivalent of $248 or SR1,066 a month. But the employer must also pay their monthly retirement and social security contributions, which can be an additional one-third on top of their salary.
Khobragade should be made by a US court to compensate her servant by paying her all of the back pay that she is owed. Handcuffing and strip-searching her went way beyond the diplomatic niceties that all diplomats are entitled to. The US should apologize for this behavior, but also make clear that anyone, be they a diplomat or not, must abide by US labor laws and pay their domestic workers decent pay that reaches the legal minimum-wage level.
-- The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.