Monday, December 23, 2013

Diplomatic Slavery of the Middle classes

Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat, hired Sangeeta Richards as domestic help and took her to the US. There, she was arrested, handcuffed, strip searched for paying her servant less than the US minimum wage, while clearly paying more than the Indian minimum wage. This issue has raised a major conflict between the US and India, and between Indians on what the primary focus of the incident should be.

The hue and cry is on three issues: one on diplomatic immunity and the US treatment of individuals who are detained. This is the power of the State issue! Can absolute power be abused and to what extent? On this first issue, we have no comment to make for it concerns not only the middle classes, but also the poor and even the fallen mighty like our own French Dominique Strauss-Kahn with his brilliant mind, extraordinary virility and incompetence of the former to control the latter. Perhaps, the US laws and procedures are meant as deterrents; perhaps they are part of the perquisites of being a police person: to be able to discover intimate details of others' cavities and insides. With today's radar and scanning technologies, where is the need for such search procedures, Obviously, this is the sex and peeping tom angle which is raising passions in one part of media readership. However, for those who have been following the rape cases in India, there is more: any insertion into a woman's orifices now amounts to rape in India. So, by an Indian defintion, the American police are indulging in rape. Moreover, another Indian news complicates things further. Homosexuality is against the Indian constitution: at least anal sex (so male only?). Which means that same sex searches with sexual penetration may be considered more undignified than heterosexual searches. Therefore, deep interrogations in public and private international law are at stake.

The second issue is whether anyone who pays someone less than the minimum wage in US, is a criminal. And whether international law would and should decide the application of Indian laws or American laws for diplomats on State service in the USA with regard to their use of domestic help hired in India. Conversely, should US diplomats abroad, pay their domestic workers according to Indian minimum wage rates or American minimum wage rates? This is the business angle because it reminds you of Nike and other US companies who used child labour abroad and were punished not by the US legislator but by public opinion.

The third issue is whether anyone should hire full-time help. It is the use of full-time, which is creating the most problems. How full is full-time? If it is 24 hours, it is clearly slavery and may lead to murder. But what about 16 hours? Duly allowing a person to sleep a minimum and take time to do the essentials? How long can people work on such a regime: three days a week or seven? What if we reduce this to 12 hours or 9 hours? How many days a week is acceptable? How many hours a week? 9*7=63? Or 35 as in France? Indeed, why can't life be sorted out so that no one needs to work more than 35 hours a week, or, as I have often maintained, 28 hours (32 could be a compromise). This would allow unemployed people the world over to get employment. This diplomatic incident only brings us back to the point.

But, matters are sometimes more complicated. At the time when a similar slavery issue took place in Paris a few years ago (maybe 10), I talked to a couple of diplomats. What they told me is that the amount of entertainment they are required to do, means that they are virtually using their spouses as the first full time domestic worker. The maids are in turn helping their spouses.

The entertainment which I mentioned above includes looking after all the VVIPs who decide to come to Paris and as VVIPs feel they deserve to either reside at our friends' places after finding appropriate connections or being at least invited for dinner, lunch and other meals. And of course, they need to be taken out to cultural events at State expense (Indian taxpayer). As a result, the social and cultural agenda of these diplomats is full, leaving them little time for their own kids and families. Of course, it's a two way street: the connections to these VVIPs can pay off later when they are back in India...

Diplomatic services' payscales are such that wives do not get paid for their labour and that the maids are not hired on a diplomatic contract. Perhaps having the Indian Foreign Service employ their own maids and butlers would be a solution, but then the taxpayer must ante up... basically the middle classes. But tax being a dirty burdensome word, the middle classes and the rich prefer to focus on the first two issues than the main issue of who pays for the social system.

To this slavery of underpaid domestic workers, we are now raising the question of slavery of unpaid spouses. They must be getting rewarded is some other way… oh! What a Sweet surrender. Certainly, a lot remains to be done.

The middle class party, as I have said, is on. It’s a party to discussing what are the rights and obligations of middle class people to each other. It’s a party to understand the examples we need to sort out the diverse claims. Certainly, no one person is expected to be perfect in all respects, but having standards, at least lets one know when one's performance is going haywire. A few rich people are outliers and the millions of poor people cannot possibly be expected to perform according to the same standards.

This discussion needs to include the elite. In France, elite women have come out in favor of prostitution. While reading Indian history (after Gandhi), I discover that already 65 years ago, elite Indian women were against reservations and quotas for women. Evidently, there are people who are able to go beyond the obvious and look deeper at social issues. People who discuss with their neighbours and get deeper understanding of why people do what they do.  

Arvind Ashta


  1. teh servant issue leads to the deaths of people like Rakhi Bhadra, the servant of a MP. it's good if US diplomatic pressure may get India and Indians to enforce laws and modify their behabiour

  2. Also Devyani entered two contracts with the maid. First one was submitted to obtain visa for maid and another one for executing in india. Used full advantage of maid ignorance. The issue is that law is always considered an ass by these people, to be used and misused always in their favour. Indian middle class is hypocrite and fork tongued. While it votes for Kejriwal, gets angry with corruption, but when it comes to hiding income from authorities or paying black money to buy the fancied apartment in Gurgaon, it appears sanguine that it's circumstances that are forcing their hands. Sanjay


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