At the heart of the fracas surrounding the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York who promised to pay her housekeeper $9.75 per hour, in compliance with United States labor rules, but instead paid her $3.31 per hour, is India’s dirty secret: One segment of the Indian population routinely exploits another, and the country’s labor laws allow gross mistreatment of domestic workers.
India is furious that the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was strip-searched and kept in a cell in New York with criminals. Retaliation from the newly assertive but otherwise bureaucracy-ridden nation was swift. American diplomats were stripped of identity cards granting them diplomatic benefits, and security barriers surrounding the American Embassy in New Delhi were hauled away. A former finance minister suggested that India respond by arresting same-sex partners of American diplomats, since the Indian Supreme Court recently upheld a section of a Colonial-era law that criminalizes homosexuality.
Notwithstanding legitimate Indian concerns about whether American marshals used correct protocol in the way they treated a diplomat, the truth is that India is party to an exploitative system that needs to be scrutinized.
I grew up in a middle-class household in India in the ’80s; my parents were schoolteachers, and our lifestyle was not lavish by any means. I received new clothes once a year; I don’t recall ever going to a restaurant; our family couldn’t afford a car, so we used a scooter. But we always had a live-in housekeeper who cooked and washed our clothes, while a man came by every other day to sweep and mop the floors.
This sort of arrangement is typical of middle-class life in India. (The wealthy have multiple servants: drivers, security guards, babysitters for their kids, cooks, and household maids who wash dishes and sweep floors.) My parents were not unkind people, and my mother paid our housekeeper above the market rate, but our family, too, was part of the unfair system that pays servants a fraction of living wages. Even liberal Indians who voice concern about human rights in other contexts often don’t see this exploitation for what it really is. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t come to the United States in my 20s, I, too, would have hired a maid whom I would have paid standard Indian wages, which by any objective standards are ridiculously low.
Perhaps it’s impossible for mind-sets to change without a long drawn-out series of events. In my case, moving to a country where labor laws exist and are enforced, combined with the perception that detachment facilitates, allowed me to recalibrate my attitude.
In urban India, revolution of any kind in favor of the rights of the underclass has been largely absent. The feudal mind-set of otherwise educated people and their lack of qualms about underpaying the poor and disadvantaged are alive and well.
It is often said that class has become the new caste in India, and this view is borne out in this case. If caste still ruled, Ms. Khobragade, the diplomat, would not have been considered fit to shake hands with her upper-caste colleagues, for she is from a dalit (traditionally considered untouchable) family. However, according to Indian public opinion now, her status as a middle-class person seems to afford her the right to pay her housekeeper wages that are below legal and living wage levels in America.
I can only hope that the Khobragade case will make Indians look inward and see that, feelings of patriotic fervor aside, India has a serious problem.
While the country took a step in the right direction and included domestic workers in a new law prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace in 2013, India’s national minimum-wage law does not cover domestic workers. On average, servants in cities earn only about $64 to $161 per month, which forces them to live hand-to-mouth, in illegally built shantytowns, often without electricity and running water.
Last week, I watched with bewilderment as India’s most vociferous talk show host, Arnab Goswami, repeatedly asked his guests if they expected an Indian diplomat who is paid $4,180 a month to pay her domestic servant $4,500 a month. Meanwhile an American guest, Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, tried to make a point: “If somebody cannot afford to have domestic help, then they don’t have domestic help.” Had the other guests not been seething with anger and shouting simultaneously, they would have perhaps heard a simple message: Having a servant you cannot pay a decent wage cannot be a birthright.
Ananya Bhattacharyya is a writer and editor in Washington.