India dispute shows how US immigration law triggers labor abuse

Updated 11 January 2014

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.


Filipino expats unite as home country battles volcano’s wrath

Updated 10 min 58 sec ago

Filipino expats unite as home country battles volcano’s wrath

  • Filipino groups in Dubai are coming together to collect goods for donation for the Taal eruption victims
  • The Philippines remained on high alert on Friday as authorities monitored Taal, which is the second most active volcano in the country

DUBAI: A vast grey stretched across empty villages – once verdant, now lifeless after volcanic ash wiped its colors. The thick charcoal-like substance cloaked cracked roads, tumbled trees, and dilapidated houses, as an angry volcano rumbled in the Philippines.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced earlier this week when Taal Volcano, a picturesque tourist spot about 70 kilometers south of Manila, spew huge plume of volcanic ash to the sky and triggered sporadic tremors around the province.

“When can we go back to our homes?” a hopeful man asked Filipino volunteer Jaya Bernardo, as she visited an evacuation site near where the Taal Volcano erupted on Sunday.

She couldn’t answer him straight, Bernardo said, because that meant telling him there might not be anything to go back to.

Bernardo, who lives in a mildly-hit town around Taal, has been going around evacuation centers to give out care packages, saying it’s “important for people to come together” in times like this.

Within hours of the volcanic eruption, the call for help reached the UAE, home to about a million Filipino expats. Many community groups have been organizing donation drives to collect goods to be sent back home.

Lance Japor, who leads a community group in Dubai, said inquiries were coming in about how to help volcano victims even before a campaign was announced.

“What I’ve noticed is that the desire to help others in need is innate to us,” he told Arab News, adding it was not the first time Filipino expats showed urgent concern and care for their countrymen when a calamity hit the Philippines.

There was a strong response for families displaced from a city in the south of the country after armed rebels captured the area. A community group from Dubai flew to the restive city to hand out gifts to families who had taken refuge in an abandoned building.

Japor’s volcano campaign has attracted the help of private companies such as hotels donating blankets and pillows, and cargo companies pledging to deliver the packages for free to the Philippines.

Filipino expats have also expressed a desire to volunteer, Japor added, and a volunteer event has been scheduled for Jan. 18 at the Philippines’ Overseas Workers Welfare Administration’s office in Dubai.

Groups in the UAE are working with organizations in the Philippines to facilitate the donations and determine what the affected communities need. The list includes special face masks and eye drops, said Japor.

The Philippines remained on high alert on Friday as authorities monitored Taal, which is the second most active volcano in the country.

Volcanic ash has blanketed the area and villages lie empty, with authorities warning of a “bigger eruption” as earthquakes were still being felt around the area. 

The region was at alert level four from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, meaning that “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days.” The highest alert level is five.

The institute strongly reiterated total evacuation of Taal Volcano Island and high-risk areas as identified in hazard maps.

“Residents around Taal Volcano are advised to guard against the effects of heavy and prolonged ashfall. Civil aviation authorities must advise pilots to avoid the airspace around Taal Volcano as airborne ash and ballistic fragments from the eruption column pose hazards to aircraft,” it added.

Police in the area have also warned residents against trying to go back to their houses without official clearance from authorities, but local media reports said people were sneaking back by boat to the island and nearby towns to check on their possessions.