When I heard the story about Sangeeta Richard, the remarkably courageous domestic worker demanding her just due from a system set up to fail her, I couldn’t help thinking of “Mary.” Mary, too, worked for a diplomat, and she was one of my first clients when I graduated from law school a decade ago. Among the other horrifying details I learned about Mary’s story, I learned that the diplomat’s wife told Mary, while beating her with a shoe, “go ahead and call the police. I am a diplomat.”
The system truly is set up to fail workers like Mary and Sangeeta. What I saw from handling many, many such cases between 2004 and 2011 were failures at every level. Diplomats entered into contracts that they had no intention of honoring, contracts that almost uniformly promised 40 hour workweeks and compensation at or above the U.S. federal minimum wage. The U.S. consulates overseas approved the visas during interviews when sometimes only the diplomat talked, or where the diplomat acted as the interpreter for the worker. With only one exception, the foreign embassies in the United States sided with the diplomat, not the worker, and did not even attempt to broker solutions to resolve the conflicts. And for far too long, the State Department sat idly by as complaints were filed by the relatively small portion of workers who found their way out (an even smaller section of whom found legal counsel).
I have heard every excuse in the book about why exploiting them is “justified”–they are better off in America, they are treated “like family,” their wages are worth a lot back home, or the diplomat does not earn enough to pay the contractual wage. None of these excuses in any way justifies what happens to the people, who come here hoping to work hard and earn money to help improve their lives and the lives of their families. And none of these excuses in any way changes the way the diplomats are committing fraud in issuing these contracts and securing these visas.
- Are workers “better off” in America? Hardly. My clients were paid anywhere from 35 cents an hour to zero cents an hour, while working all hours of the day, and sometimes well into the night. For example, on top of providing childcare, cooking and cleaning during the day, Mary had to sleep with the family’s baby in the living room of the small Greenbelt apartment, so she could tend to the baby at night when the child awoke. In return, the diplomats threatened them with deportation if they complained, beat them, sometimes sexually assaulted them, and/or threatened the lives of family members back home. That is not what I call being “better off.”
- Are workers “like family?” Maybe, but only because family, too, can be exploited. In some of the countries where my clients came from, elite families–the very kinds of families that might join the diplomatic corps at some point–had traditions of bringing distant relatives in from the countryside to work in the family home. Technically, yes, this was family. But the purpose was to obtain cheap, compliant labor and exploit it for the family’s comfort and prestige. The visa system for bringing workers here merely mirrors that practice from the home country–but with the stamp of approval of our government.
- Are the paltry wages in the U.S. worth a lot back home? Yes, but utterly beside the point. If they wanted to earn those wages, they could have stayed home, closer to family and friends who would have been a source of support for them if the employment turned abusive. Workers incur a huge cost leaving home to do what will likely be long, hard, difficult and possibly abusive labor. Earning the promised wages would have made that cost worthwhile. Every single client of mine expressed her feeling that if she had known what it would be like here, she would have stayed home to earn the same wage without losing their safety net.
- Diplomats do not earn enough to pay the contractual wage? The entitlement demonstrated by this “excuse” is not so much buried as shining brightly in tall neon letters. I, too, do not earn enough to pay a full-time domestic worker the minimum wage. But somewhere along the way, probably well before I was ten years old, I learned that if you can’t afford something, you don’t get to have it. The diplomats talk themselves into believing that they cannot do their jobs without these workers taking care of the home front, sitting for the children while they attend evening functions, cooking for lavish parties diplomats are expected to host, and so forth. And I know these workers do make the diplomats’ jobs and lives easier. Of course they do. But there is simply no way to justify leaping from that truth to the morally bankrupt proposition that “therefore” workers do not deserve the full pay promised. My wanting an easier life does not let me rob a worker of her wages—it really is just that simple.
Mary, like Sangeeta, knew what was happening to her was wrong, and she fled. She fled without her belongings but with her sense of justice and worth so fully intact that one of the first places she went was a court; with only an outraged clerk to steer her to the right forms, she sued to get her passport. She won, at which point the diplomat informed the court that he was immune to suit. Judgment dismissed.
But let us not dismiss our own judgment of these diplomats who exploit their workers. Groups like Mujeres Activas y Unidas, Adhikaar, CASA de Maryland, the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, Domestic Workers United, and the National Domestic Worker Alliance are holding diplomats’ feet to the fire in a variety of ways: publicly shaming them, privately seeking restitution, working with the government to find better ways to prevent abuses. And occasionally finding a brave ally like the prosecutor in Ms. Richard’s case, Preet Bharara, who (like Ms. Richard herself) is withstanding strident criticism from many, including some of Ms. Richard’s compatriots in India and from the Indian disapora. Happily, groups like SAALT, and the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations, are standing firmly in support of Ms. Richard and Mr. Bharara.
Mr. Bharara sees through all these excuses at least as clearly as I do, and had the courage to do something about it. May we all be moved to see things as clearly.