Diplomat’s Servant Exposes Modern Day Slavery in the U.S.

A rally to support the rights of domestic workers. (Photo: Bobo Yip/flickr)

On February 22, New York Magistrate Judge Frank Maas recommended that Indian national Shanti Gurung be awarded nearly $1.5 million by her former employer, Neena Malhotra, a diplomat in the Indian Mission to the United Nations for enslaving Gurung.

Maas wrote that Malhotra and her husband compelled Gurung to “work without pay by seizing her passport and visa, restricting her ability to leave their apartment, and constantly warning her that if she traveled on her own without their permission, she would be arrested, beaten, raped and sent back to India as ‘cargo.’”

Adhikaar, an advocacy group for the Nepalese community that successfully lobbied for the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, reports that the diplomat and her husband brought Gurung to New York in 2006 with the promise of paying her $100 a month to do light cooking and a few chores. The 17 year old ended up working 16 hour days, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, grocery shopping and giving massages.

Gurung was paid once, less than $120 over a period of more than three years. She felt trapped and helpless, paralyzed with fear over the Malhotras’ threats.

Eventually the young woman mustered the courage to leave in 2009 and sought the aid of Adhikaar, which facilitated her her lawsuit.

Advocates for women like Shanti Gurung consider the judge’s ruling a victory for all domestic workers.

“This is a validation of Shanti’s story and her struggle – and that of many more sisters who are trafficked and face inhumane forms of labor exploitation,” said Adhikaar’s Senior Community Organizer Narbada Chhetri.

Unfortunately Gurung’s case is not unique, and for most victims of human trafficking, justice usually does not come swiftly enough. As Adhikaar states on their website:

This modern day slavery continues in our midst. Trafficked workers, particularly women domestic workers, are forced to toil for slave wages with extremely long hours, no days off, fraudulent and false promises, and coercion, including passport theft and threats of deportation. The lack of fair labor standards and regulations, society’s low regard for women’s work, and the isolation of these women workers in the privacy of employers’ homes all contribute to the extreme exploitation of trafficked domestic workers.

Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, estimates 2.5 million domestic workers are caring for families in this country. “Thousands of them, like Shanti,” she said “have survived trafficking.”

Adhikaar, in tandem with DAMAYAN Migrant Workers Association, is advocating for the protection of workers trafficked by diplomats and consular officers, and for holding traffickers accountable.

Leah Obias, Campaigns Coordinator and Case Manager of DAMAYAN, said that both organizations have called upon Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department to take a more principled stand on the human rights of domestic workers, by waiving diplomatic immunity in cases of trafficking and by enforcing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

They would also like to see the countries of trafficked workers held accountable and diplomats barred from bringing domestic workers into the U.S.

“Diplomats are protected under the law, but workers are not protected by law in the U.S. and their home countries,” explained Obias.

A 2010 State Department brief reports that it has made progress ensuring “that foreign diplomatic mission personnel act in a manner consistent with the principles of the Palermo Protocol and the TVPA in the United States.  Improved safeguards for domestic workers who are employed by foreign mission personnel include transparent payment mechanisms, and education on their rights while in the United States, as well as protections from exploitation.”

The Palermo Protocol is the United Nations’ protocol to “Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.”

The Malhotras clearly did not abide by the Palermo Protocol and the TVPA failed to protect Gurung. Obias suspects that there are other diplomats who flout the UN treaty and treat domestic workers inhumanely.

Gurung may have won her case, but it’s highly unlikely she will ever see a cent. The Malhotras returned to India last year before they could be served the lawsuit and it is doubtful that the Indian government will intervene. The State Department has yet to act on Adhikaar and DAMAYAN’s call for action.

Secretary Clinton has been a fierce advocate of human rights and the equal and fair treatment of women. Actively supporting the rights of trafficked domestic workers in our own backyard would send a strong message to foreign diplomats and the world that we remain committed to the dignity and equality of all individuals.

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Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.