A year since the row over the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, India-US bilateral ties have witnessed a turnaround, with President Barack Obama slated to be chief guest at this year’s Republic Day celebration. Lost in the din of hardline statements then and the bonhomie now is the reason that the situation arose in the first place. This is a good moment to return to the story of the other victim at the centre of the debate — Sangeeta Richards, a migrant domestic worker and an Indian citizen, like Khobragade.
India has taken note of the adverse circumstances and terms of employment that migrant workers in the Gulf countries face. The ministry of overseas Indian affairs has set up the Indian Community Welfare Fund for overseas Indian workers in distress, the Overseas Workers Resource Centre and the Dubai-based Indian Workers Resource Centre. These are welcome steps towards the protection and advancement of the contractual rights of Indian migrant workers abroad. But India’s record on securing the rights of migrant domestic workers, both at home and abroad, has been dismal. It has not ratified the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention, which came into effect in September 2013, and is yet to ratify the United Nation’s International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 1990. The bill on a national policy for domestic workers remains on the backburner.
Indian domestic workers, including caregivers, have no institutional support to guarantee their particular rights at work.
The Khobragade incident still serves as a grim reminder of the government’s apathy towards domestic workers abroad. The Indian government and diplomats across the board reacted sharply to Khobragade’s arrest, especially because of its alleged breach of the diplomatic immunity granted under the Vienna Convention. While the arrest and nature of treatment meted out to Khobragade may be termed “despicable” and “barbaric”, especially in the context of accepted diplomatic protocol, the allegations against her should not be swept under the rug.
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The abuse of the contractual labour rights of Indian migrant domestic workers abroad, particularly by diplomats, is well documented. For example, in the UK, approximately 3.8 per cent of all diplomatic domestic workers are trafficked, compared to 0.2 per cent of domestic workers in private households. The fear of breaching diplomatic immunity has led to most cases going uninvestigated. The Khobragade case is not the first of its kind in the US. In 2012, Indian diplomat Neena Malhotra was asked to pay $1.5 million in compensation to a domestic worker for forcing her to work without pay and seizing her passport. In the same year, Prabhu Dayal, consul general in New York, faced allegations of sexual harassment and forced labour from a domestic worker.
Though all of these cases did not escalate into a diplomatic row, the Indian government needs to examine the disparities in its treatment of different categories of Indian migrant workers abroad. While the mere proposal of a cash bond for a visitor visa, mooted by the UK last year, elicited prompt and severe criticism from the government, major changes to the overseas domestic worker visa, to the detriment of Indian migrant domestic workers in the UK, were ignored. Even as large-scale Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas celebrations are organised annually to attract NRI investments into the country, the regulation of fraudulent recruitment agencies and malpractices exploiting low-skilled migrant workers still await legislative action and monitoring. The Indian prime minister leads efforts to make travel and business by NRIs and PIOs easier, but it takes a serious diplomatic row for Delhi to rethink sending domestic workers to missions abroad.
As for protecting the rights of employees in the households of Indian diplomats, India can certainly institute appropriate monitoring and enforcement measures. There should be an established mechanism within the ministry of external affairs, an ombudsman who can probe contractual transgressions in diplomatic missions abroad. A standardised penalty system may also be built into the terms of employment. This could be regarded as an assurance of compensation, subject to review by the ombudsman.
The Indian emigration management bill languished through the term of the last Parliament, and there is no telling if it will see the light of day in this one. The manner in which the US authorities treated Khobragade deserves unequivocal condemnation, but the consequent scrutiny should not be limited to her alone. Both Richards and she are equals as citizens. Both demand equal empathy. The Khobragade incident was a tragic reminder of the UPA government’s lack of will to act in the interests of the “other” set of Indian citizens abroad. There is no better time than now for the NDA government to make up for this omission. Will Narendra Modi be able to address the plight of the “invisible” Indian migrant?
The writer has worked with various migrant rights’ advocacy groups in the UK, with a special focus on gender, labour and violence against women
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