When an Italian consular official in San Francisco was arrested on charges of abusing his Brazilian servant, he reached a deal to escape prison with barely a whimper from Rome.
That same year, 2011, US authorities arrested Jacqueline Liu (劉姍姍), Taiwan’s envoy in Kansas City, on charges of trafficking Filipina maids. The Taipei government at first demanded her release, but soon relented, and the chastened diplomat spent three months in jail before being deported.
The US is now embroiled in an intense row with India over the Dec. 12 arrest of its deputy consul-general in New York on allegations she paid her servant below minimum wage and lied on her visa form.
While the dispute is unusually public and bitter, the case marks part of a growing, and often quiet, effort by the US to curb what activists see as widespread abuse of servants by diplomats.
In a case that led outraged US lawmakers to tighten rules, a Tanzanian diplomat in Washington was accused of enslaving a woman who allegedly worked nonstop at his home without pay. A court in 2008 ordered the diplomat, Alan Mzengi, to pay more than US$1 million.
However, the woman received no payment until earlier this year, when the Tanzanian government paid her a smaller amount to settle the row ahead of a visit by US President Barack Obama to the East African country, said Martina Vandenberg, a lawyer who represented the woman for free.
“Getting that took five years, but the reality is that lawyers in these cases are working pro bono and we have all the time in the world and we will never stop fighting to get and enforce judgements,” she said.
Vandenberg praised the arrest of the Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, as proof that the US would not let diplomatic “immunity mean impunity.”
“This case shows in a much more public way than usual that the US government’s rhetorical statements that it will not tolerate exploitation and abuse of domestic workers will actually be backed by efforts to prosecute,” she said.
India’s government has insisted that Khobragade was the real victim and voiced fury that the 39-year-old was strip-searched by US Marshals, treatment that, while routine for new US inmates, would be unthinkable by Indian law enforcement toward a prominent woman.
US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced regret over Khobragade’s treatment as India retaliated with moves including removing barricades near the US embassy.
After appeals by activists, the US Congress in 2008 barred visas for domestic servants unless consular officials interviewed them out of earshot from their employers, informed them of their rights and verified that they had written contracts.
Lawmakers took action after a government report said that at least 42 household workers employed by US-based foreign diplomats or officials at international organizations had alleged abuse in the eight previous years.
“These protections are now showing that they are really working,” said Tiffany Williams, advocacy director for the Break the Chain Campaign which assists domestic workers.
“Now it’s just a matter of making sure that they are fully enforced and implemented every time.”
Williams said it was impossible to know how many servants have alleged mistreatment, but said that her group was aware of “dozens and dozens” of cases. In 2010, more than 900 domestic servants received visas to work for foreign diplomats in the US.
In an extreme case, a US judge last year ordered that a New York-based Indian diplomat and her husband, Neena and Jogesh Malhotra, pay nearly US$1.5 million to a maid.
Prarthana Gurung of Adhikaar, a New York-based group that supports Nepali-speaking workers, said many workers are unaware of their rights in the US and have little recourse as their employers take away their personal documents.
“We want to make sure everybody understands that when you bring someone over, you should be treating them in a way that is humane and in line with the labor laws here,” she said.