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US-India row sheds light on diplomats' 'help'

NEW YORK--A dispute between Washington and New Delhi over charges that an Indian diplomat overworked and underpaid a housekeeper she brought with her to New York has shone a light on U.S. efforts to investigate and prosecute allegations of abuse of foreign employees.

Even just a decade ago such a prosecution would have been impossible, according to advocates who work with victims of labor abuse and trafficking.

The strengthening in 2008 of the law that protects foreign employees brought to the United States by diplomats and consular workers have made the difference. So have the U.S. State Department's warnings to the diplomatic corps and their attempts to educate foreign employees of their rights.

Before those changes, diplomatic immunity seemed to protect employers facing allegations of abuse. But now domestic workers who sue their diplomatic employers in federal court or bring cases to the attention of authorities are less likely to see their cases dismissed, according to advocates.

“We have taken unprecedented steps both to advise domestic workers of their rights in this country, and to impress upon diplomats that they are obligated to abide by our laws,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

In the case of New York deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade, federal prosecutors in Manhattan on Dec. 12 filed criminal charges against her of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard.

Khobragade's lawyer says she denies the charges. The diplomat was freed on US$250,000 bail.

Khobragade's arrest and strip search — like many defendants processed in the federal court system — angered India and led to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressing regret to New Delhi.

In the last few years, federal prosecutors have been able to bring criminal charges against a handful of diplomats over allegations they abused their staff, three of which resulted in convictions, according to advocates who track such cases.

Avaloy Lanning, the senior director of the anti-trafficking program at a New York-based organization called Safe Horizon, said that in the early 2000s, “the response to the victim was always ... 'just forget it. Just move on. We're not going to be able to get justice for you. '”

Safe Horizon is giving legal and other assistance to Richard.

Criminal Charges

In the criminal complaint, Khobragade is accused of submitting a fake contract as part of Richard's visa application saying she would pay Richard US$4,500 a month for a 40-hour work week.

Before leaving India, Khobragade secretly signed a second contract with Richard agreeing to pay her the equivalent of about US$570 a month, an illegally low amount under U.S. minimum-wage laws, the charging document said. Khobragade paid Richard even less than that after they arrived in November 2012, the complaint said.

Richard's accusation is far from unprecedented.

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