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 →