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 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT