There are no saints in the saga of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who was forced last week to leave America (and her American husband and kids) to escape a humiliating trial for allegedly underpaying her housekeeper, who is also an Indian.
But if there is a sinner here, it is not the diplomat or the housekeeper. It is the U.S. Prosecutor for Manhattan, Preet Bharara, an Obama appointee, whose crusade will hurt those in whose name he launched it: foreign domestic help.
It’s an understatement to say that the episode has soured relations between the two countries, who were just burying the hatchet after decades of Cold War animosity. Indians, whose national pride is disturbingly tied to how their government officials are treated abroad, took to the streets as news spread that Khobragade was arrested when dropping off her daughters to school, strip searched and held in a cell with “common” criminals in violation of her diplomatic immunity.
The Indian government, too, went into full retaliation mode, condemning America for its “despicable” and “barbaric” behavior; removing security barricades outside the American embassy; stripping consulate officers of their immunity; and — in a hilarious fit of peevishness — slapping duties on the wine and cheese imports of American diplomats (try staying sober for a few days, Yankees, and may be you’ll start thinking straight!).
But Bharara, himself born in India, was unbowed. “One wonders,” he asked, “why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim?”
It’s a good question. But the answer is not that the deeply class-conscious Indian society that reflexively treats the rich and powerful as more equal than the poor and powerless. That insinuation is true but irrelevant. It is that Indians see Bharara’s pompous insistence on enforcing a preposterous rule of law without regard to the human context as moral fanaticism.
And they are right.
The charge against Khobragade, ironically a women’s rights advocate herself, is that in the visa application for Sangeeta Richards, the housekeeper, she promised to pay $4,500 per month, as per New York’s “prevailing wage” requirement. However, she wrote a separate contract, in which she offered Richards only $600 a month — and room and board.
Human rights groups insist that this is “wage theft.” If so, half of India would want its wages stolen.
Under one-third of the country’s 1.3 billion people subsist on $1 a day. Average per capita annual income is about $3,600, half of what Richards was being paid. Median salaries of software engineers and family physicians are at par with hers.
The kicker is that the U.S. consulate in India pays many of its Indian employees half of Richards’ wages.
If Khobragade had actually given Richards the full legal amount, she would have handed over most of her paycheck. It is an open secret in New York that foreign diplomats, who get a special dispensation under U.S. immigration law to bring over domestic help, rarely pay full legal wages.
One could argue that if Khobragade couldn’t afford to pay Richards what the law demanded, she should have done without her. Fair enough. But would Richards — or the 600 million Indians who would gladly swap places with her — have been better off under that scenario? Far from it.
Had Richards remained in India, she’d have made a third of what she was being paid here. Her living conditions would have been far worse. And she would be consigned to a culture where the standards for the treatment of domestic help are much lower.
Given his India connection, Bharara couldn’t possibly be unaware of this. So why exactly did he do it? The speculation in India is that this was a naked attempt to manipulate American sensibilities to impress his progressive base and advance his political career.
That’s not a bad guess. If Bharara were genuinely motivated by the plight of housekeepers, there are better ways to help. He could lobby to scrap the requirement in America’s immigration law that suspends their visas if they change employers, trapping them in genuinely abusive situations.
He could petition to loosen the visa barriers against foreign domestic workers so that they could shop around for employers — a far better way of raising wages and improving working conditions. He could also campaign against prevailing wage laws that price these workers out of the marketplace, severely limiting their options.
But that would mean taking on protectionists on the right and left who don’t want competition by foreign workers. It’s far easier to collect trophy scalps of prominent people for minor infractions.
P.S. This column, originally published in the Washington Examiner, is dedicated to beloved Kailash, a New Delhi cook-cum-caterer par excellence, who has been pleading with me to bring him to America for the last 20 years.