The diplomatic furor that erupted this week in New York over the arrest of Indian deputy consul-general Devyani Khobragade brought back memories of the Jacqueline Liu (劉姍姍) case. Khobragade was arrested in New York City on Dec. 12, accused of submitting false documents for a housekeeper to work in the US and paying her well below the minimum wage. She was arrested by the US Marshals Service, reportedly after dropping her daughter off at school, strip-searched and detained. She pleaded not guilty and was released on bail several hours later. Her arrest has become a cause celebre in India, triggering official protests from New Delhi, street demonstrations, retaliatory measures against the US embassy and its diplomatic personnel and even calls for the housekeeper to be arrested.
Liu, the then-director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Kansas, was arrested on Nov. 11, 2010, accused of fraudulently entering into contracts with two Filipinas brought to the US to work for her, paying them significantly less than the contract stated and forcing them to work excessive hours. She was arrested by FBI agents when leaving a restroom in the building that housed the TECO office, read her rights and handcuffed. Her arrest and treatment was protested by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which demanded her immediate release. Officials from the American Institute in Taiwan were called in to receive a protest.
Liu and Khobragade were arrested on similar charges, but the difference in the fallout from their cases is interesting. While Khobragade was granted bail, Liu was kept behind bars because she was considered a flight risk. Khobragade’s arrest received international coverage. Liu’s did not. The US has been scrambling to protect its relationship with New Delhi, with a telephone call by US State Department No. 3 Wendy Sherman and US Secretary of State John Kerry expressing regret over the incident. Taiwan did not receive such messages. The focus in India has been defending Khobragade rather than the charges she is facing. There have even been calls in India for the housekeeper to be arrested. Liu ended up pleading guilty as part of a plea arrangement, ordered to pay restitution to the two housekeepers and was deported from the US. The Khobragade case is ongoing, yet Khobragade’s arrest shows that Liu’s treatment was not related to a lack of official diplomatic status in the US. Taiwan also ended up benefiting — in February this year, Taipei and Washington signed an agreement giving Taiwanese diplomats status “similar to” that given to envoys from countries with which Washington has diplomatic relations. However, so much attention has been focused on diplomatic privileges in both cases that the rights of migrant workers to be treated legally, fairly and with respect has been overshadowed.
Migrant workers are faced with abusive treatment worldwide. They often pay exorbitant amounts in fees to brokers and labor agencies to get a job. Many are forced to work in abysmal, even life-threatening conditions, have their passports confiscated by their employers and are threatened with deportation if they do not comply. Their home governments often do little to protect them from unscrupulous brokers. The world economy runs on migrant workers — from the countries that rely on remittances these workers send home, to the countries whose infrastructure they build, factories they run and households they look after. It is time they were accorded the rights, respect and salaries their hard work deserves, both at home and abroad.