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Dignitary’s Maid Reveals Indignities of Domestic Work

8:05 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

National Domestic Workers Alliance, Anannya Bhattacharjee — via Facebook

Originally published at In These Times

A certain romance colors our image of the house servant of yore. In fare from Downton Abbeyto Hollywood’s The Butler, they’re depicted as spectacles of starched traditionalism, deference and obsessive manners, even as they navigate unspoken class and racial faultlines. Though household labor has evolved from its rigid historical forms, a new chapter of the period drama for the era of globalization has emerged in New York’s rarefied diplomatic scene, with curious case of Sangeeta Richard, the domestic worker of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.

Richard unleashed a diplomatic firestorm last month with her accusations of labor abuse: She claims that when she entered the United States on a special A-3 visa for diplomatic personal employees, her contract stated she would earn $4,500 per month as a live-in domestic worker beginning in November 2012. She ended up with less than $600 monthly, just over $3 per hour, a fraction of the federal minimum wage. A petition circulated in support of Richard states that she was kept in “slave-like conditions.” Her husband reportedly filed a petition in a New Delhi court complaining that his wife was being forced to work each day from 6a.m. to 11p.m.

Her employer, Khobragade, was subsequently charged with labor violations and visa fraud, and suddenly became the center of the story. Indian officials and elites protested the arrest as a political affront as well as a cultural misunderstanding. In a country strafed by class divides, the nationalist logic goes, the tradition of keeping a maid is a sign of status and integral to a middle-class lifestyle.

But the Richard affair is not simply a diplomatic spat. Rather, it underscores deep issues of labor, gender and class that cut across hemispheres.

Domestic work is not a cultural peculiarity of India’s, but an expanding globalized sector of more than 50 million people, flowing between regions and across borders, generally from poor to rich areas. Sometimes these people are placed in systems that meet the legal definition of indenture, enslavement or human trafficking. More typically, these workers, mostly women—and in urban areas like New York, overwhelmingly immigrants and women of color—are employed individually or through an agency, and work in a system with virtually no oversight that lacks even basic worker protections.

Many household servants are “imported” to accompany wealthy expatriate households. For specialized employees of diplomats, like Richard, their right to work is linked to their employer’s sponsorship, which in turn opens the door for coercion. This may mean outright abuse or more insidious oppressions, such as holding workers hostage by confiscating their papers and confining them to the house. Read the rest of this entry →

In All-India General Strike, Workers Go All Out Against Neoliberalism

2:58 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo: World Federation of Trade Unions,

Cross-posted from In These Times

India’s economic ascent seems like it should be the envy of the world’s richest nations; with rocketing growth rates and gargantuan consumer and labor markets, India’s destiny as Asia’s next superstar looks beyond a doubt. Except Indian workers just gave the boosters of global capitalism a few million second thoughts.

The all-India general strike of February 28 brought together workers of various sectors and political stripes, civil servants along with rickshaw drivers, united under a banner of opposition to neoliberal policies of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government. The labor movement of the world’s largest democracy issued a stark challenge to the idea of deregulation as an economic cure.

AFP quoted All India Trade Union Congress general secretary Gurudas Dasgupta: “We are fighting for our rights against a government that is anti-people.”

The core grievances center around government corruption, rising costs of living, labor violations, privatization, and the general rush to hand the economy over to the talons of free enterprise and shred the welfare state.

Public Services International, a global union that works with public employees in India, articulated a broad agenda of social and economic protection:

The common demands are (a) gaining the same rights and protection for temporary and contract workers as that of permanent workers, (b) raising and extending the minimum wage, (c) resisting the attacks on trade unions, (d) stopping price rise, (e) the creation of a national social security fund, (f) increase in pensions, (g) combating corruption.

In addition, public sector advocates oppose the “downsizing, outsourcing, contractualisation, corporatisation and privatisation of government function.” They demand protection for the right to strike, regulation of the use of “casual” labor, and measures to “Keep the public utilities in public hand.”

Other rallying points of the strike include pressing the government to ratify key international labor accords and to provide social security for all workers, including the irregular laborers often subjected to exploitation, discrimination and outright slavery. Read the rest of this entry →

Wal-Mart Circles Indian Markets, and Indians Push Back

7:29 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Shop in Pushkar, India (photo: Felipe Skroski/wikimedia)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The marketplace has always been at the heart of India–exuberant bazaars brimming with local hawkers and traditional wares and foods. But the country’s old-fashioned markets may soon be eclipsed by the towering “free market” of globalization, as multinational superstores push the government to open the gates.

The India Cabinet wants to enable businesses with 51-percent foreign direct investment to enter India’s retail sector–basically inviting in big box behemoths like Wal-Mart under the banner of efficiency and consumer choice. But many Indians aren’t buying it. This week, UNI Global Union reports that shops went on strike:

Over 50 million small traders across India have put down their shutters as part of strike action aimed at getting the India government to review its decision.

In Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, over 6000 traders have closed their shops. Over 100,000 wholesalers, retailers and small traders in Mumbai joined in the All-India strike action. Elsewhere in Maharashtra retailers did not open their shops and it was a similar story in Thane, Pune, Nagpur and other major cities and towns

Karthik Shekhar, who is coordinating UNI’s activities in India on FDI and multi-brand retail said, “Here in Delhi all the markets are closed and thousands are on the streets. They are strongly opposed to the Cabinet’s decision and are making feelings known, especially their distrust of Walmart.” Read the rest of this entry →

To Stop Corruption, Fight the Power, Not the People

7:30 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Protestors rally against corruption in Bangalore, India. (CC/akshaydavis)


Cross-posted from

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in a world where the gap between the powerful and powerless grows wider each day, corruption in political and economic institutions spreads much faster than shame.

Political power is abused wherever it exists—with scandals ranging from political graft in India to white collar crime on Wall Street to bribery of government regulators in China. Nonetheless, some communities seem especially vulnerable to the cycle of corruption, repression and impunity. And lately, we’ve seen many of them getting fed up with living under regimes that have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Corruption has been one of the major issues driving the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa, and it has catalyzed a Gandhi-esque movement in the streets of New Delhi.

Indian activist Anna Hazare has inspired huge demonstrations in support of his hunger strike to promote a strict, controversial anti-corruption measure known as the Jan Lokpal bill. The government’s recent crackdown on Hazare only steeled protesters’ resolve under the slogan “India is Anna, Anna is India.”

Yet not all have been swept up in Hazare fever. Author and activist Arundhati Roy boldly challenged the public framing of the corruption issue, arguing it has been whitewashed by a bourgeois, nationalistic political class.In a commentary in The Hindu, she describes the obsession with the Lokpal bill, which would institute a “draconian” bureaucracy to monitor officials, as a well-managed charade, designed to absorb popular grievances into a more palatable but no less hierarchical concept of “accountability”:

Read the rest of this entry →