Skip to main content

Strip-search uproar: What about the nanny?

By Jo Becker
updated 3:28 PM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
Indians shout anti-U.S. slogans in Kolkata. The uproar is drowning out the issue of domestic worker abuse, Jo Becker says.
Indians shout anti-U.S. slogans in Kolkata. The uproar is drowning out the issue of domestic worker abuse, Jo Becker says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jo Becker: Outcry over Indian diplomat's arrest overshadows issue of domestic worker abuse
  • Becker: Routine strip search in U.S. is humiliating, degrading, and it's rare in India
  • She says domestic workers face slavelike labor, physical abuse, excessive hours
  • Becker: Report found domestic worker abuse among diplomats who have immunity

Editor's note: Jo Becker is the children's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. She has investigated child domestic labor in Morocco and was an advocate for the Domestic Workers Convention, adopted by the International Labor Organization in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @jobeckerhrw.

(CNN) -- The uproar in India over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York is growing. Indians are protesting outside the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, the Indian government has revoked privileges for American diplomats, and Indian politicians have called for a review of their nation's ties with the United States.

E-mail and Facebook appeals are even calling on Indians to refuse to meet with any U.S. citizen.

Jo Becker
Jo Becker

But the outcry over Devyani Khobragade's treatment is drowning out the serious allegations of exploiting her employee, also an Indian national, and the pervasive violations against millions of other domestic workers around the world and in the homes of diplomats in America.

Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was arrested last week over allegations of falsifying visa application documents for a woman who worked as her housekeeper and nanny in New York. Khobragade reported she paid the woman $4,500 a month. In reality, federal prosecutors say, the domestic worker received less than $600 a month and was forced to work far more than 40 hours a week. Her effective hourly wage -- $3.13 -- was less than half of New York's minimum wage of $7.25.

Many Indians are outraged over allegations that Khobragade, after leaving her daughter at school, was handcuffed on the street -- although this has been disputed -- later strip-searched and kept in a holding cell before being released on $250,000 bail.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, in a written statement, said Khobragade was arrested discreetly, was not handcuffed and was given time to arrange personal matters including child care -- but she was searched in custody as is "standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not, in order to make sure that no prisoner keeps anything on his person that could harm anyone, including himself."

READ: Indian diplomat: Does she have immunity?

Anger grows over Indian diplomat's arrest
U.S. attorney: Diplomat not handcuffed

There's no doubt that strip searches, a routine part of U.S. felony arrests, are humiliating. Indians are understandably disturbed by a practice that is rare in India and seems particularly degrading.

But the treatment of domestic workers, who number more than 50 million worldwide and are one of every 13 female wage earners, is often even more degrading. They are typically grossly underpaid and often mistreated. In our investigations in the United States and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch has found that women who work as nannies and housekeepers, and often both, make far below the minimum wage and are often expected to work 14 to 18 hours a day.

Millions of women and girls travel across borders to earn money as domestic workers to send back to their families. They take care of elderly people in the homes where they work, cook, clean and take care of their employers' children. They generate billions of dollars in remittances for their countries of origin but are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

READ: Indian reaction to diplomat's arrest: Just politics?

Many are forced to pay huge sums to unscrupulous recruiters, or work without pay for several months to cover their debt. Cut off from their family and other sources of support, many feel they have little choice but to work under slavelike conditions. In some cases, they are locked in their workplaces. They are sometimes beaten. Unpaid wages, excessive working hours and physical, sexual and psychological abuse are the most common problems.

Domestic workers have even fewer options when their employers have diplomatic immunity and cannot be criminally prosecuted, regardless of how severe their crimes. The employers have control over their visas, which also leaves them with little recourse. The U.S. State Department has received dozens of allegations of abuse by foreign diplomats and by officials at the World Bank and other international financial institutions.

In one case that became public, a former domestic worker accused her employer, a Kuwaiti diplomat, of raping her repeatedly. In another, a domestic worker for a former Philippine ambassador said she was forced to work 126 hours a week without pay.

A 2008 Government Accountability Office report identified 42 cases of abuse by diplomats with immunity over an eight-year period, and said that the actual number was probably higher. Many cases are never reported because the victims are too frightened to complain or feel they can't afford to lose the job.

As a consular official, Khobragade has limited immunity, which the State Department says does not cover visa fraud, a felony. Too many diplomats have used their immunity to exploit their employees. By taking action in this case, the State Department is sending an important message -- no employer is above the law. It is not just singling out foreign diplomats.

The Khobragade case has raised good questions about the treatment of criminal suspects in the United States, including the use of routine strip searches. But that debate should not be at the expense of women exploited as domestic workers. Their treatment is just as important.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jo Becker.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT