India dispute shows how US immigration law triggers labor abuse

India dispute shows how US immigration law triggers labor abuse
Updated 11 January 2014

India dispute shows how US immigration law triggers labor abuse

India dispute shows how US immigration law triggers labor abuse

WASHINGTON: The recent arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade has unleashed two kinds of outrage: Protests by Indians upset over her treatment by New York police, and, mostly outside of India, anger over Khobragade’s alleged crime of forcing a domestic employee to work long hours for a fraction of the prevailing wage after having pledged in a visa application to follow US labor and wage laws.
Less attention has been paid, however, to a more insidious problem: How international diplomatic practice, and US immigration law, enable the abuse of domestic workers.
Many diplomats, whether foreign or US, consider it a right to employ domestic help while on assignment overseas, bringing servants with them as part of their household. US law has two specific visa categories to allow this: One for representatives of foreign governments and another for those working for international organizations. For the 2012 fiscal year, US consular officers issued visas to 1,871 domestic employees accompanying foreign diplomats on assignment to the United States. Many other countries have similar provisions.
US law requires the employer to pay the greater of minimum or prevailing wage and limit regular scheduled time to 40 hours a week. Let’s be realistic, however: If the employer really intended to respect normal US wage and working conditions, wouldn’t they be more likely to hire locally rather than importing domestic help? (A common Indian reaction to the charges against Khobragade was to scoff that the wages required by US law were impossibly high.)
Cultural sensitivities or the need for foreign language skills may sometimes make local hiring a challenge, yet most areas where embassies or consulates are located have significant pockets of nationals from the country in question. Moreover, many domestic employees are third-country nationals themselves, often hired shortly before their employers’ overseas assignment.
Beyond occasional news reports and hearsay, documenting the extent of the abuse of such domestic workers is difficult. The deck is heavily stacked against complaints by poor foreign workers whose livelihood and visa status — and occasionally the safety of their families back home — depend on the good will of an employer protected from prosecution by diplomatic immunity.
In 2008, the US Government Accountability Office reported 42 documented cases of abuse of domestic employees by foreign diplomats in the US since 2001. The actual number of incidents was “likely higher,” it said, and would probably increase as more scrutiny drove the problem further underground.
Even more problematic are the temporary US visitor visas issued to domestic employees accompanying their foreign employers on temporary visits, which have fewer conditions. There is no formal way to count or track such cases; ascertaining the treatment of such workers is even more difficult.
In a final twist, US citizens who reside abroad but are temporarily returning to the US (even for several years) may also bring home foreign domestics on a regular visitor visa. Normally, only US diplomats and high-level employees of multinational companies will meet the conditions to sponsor a domestic.