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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT