NEW DELHI, India — She is only a footnote in one of the biggest diplomatic rows between India and the US in recent memory.
But for Agnes Samuel, the high-profile dispute between her daughter-in-law and diplomat Devyani Khobragade had terrifying consequences.
The dispute involves Khobragade, a 39-year-old consular official in New York, who was recently arrested on charges of falsifying visa documents to get her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, into the country. Khobragade said she paid Richard $4,500 a month, while being accused of actually paying her around $3 an hour.
It was Richard who, with the help of an NGO, went to the State Department with the allegations. Khobragade’s subsequent arrest sparked outrage in India. There were protests in both countries this week.
Agnes Samuel, a domestic servant herself, was Richard’s only known relative in India. As such, the media targeted her as someone well placed to comment on the case.
It may have been a long shot to expect Samuel to stand up to the establishment, which has backed Khobragade all along. But Samuel was more worried about her employer, a US embassy official in Delhi.
What would he think when a stream of journalists arrived at his large, gated house, asking for the servants’ quarters?
“I am worried I lose my job,” she said, in tears. “This is all so much trouble. My master will not like this, I lose my job. … Can you please tell them I don’t know anything?”
Samuel need not have worried — the US embassy sent four burly security guards to disperse the press pack — but Samuel’s fear is a common one among Indian domestic workers.
They believe, often rightly, that they will be sacked if they cause a problem for their employers, even if it isn’t their fault.
Sangeeta Richard’s decision to exercise her rights and demand better pay from her employer is rare in a country where domestic servants are regularly exploited and abused.
Middle-class India runs on servants
Government estimates put the total number of domestic workers in India around 90 million, and growing.
Few professional families in Indian cities are prepared to live without a cook, cleaner and nanny or ‘ayah’ to look after the children.
Maids typically earn 6,000 rupees per month (about $100). Some ask for as little as 2,500 rupees when they advertise their services on DomesticHelpInIndia.com.
Some servants have their own homes, but many live in “quarters” — tiny rooms in an annex, often with a single shared toilet.
Many Indian professionals believe they treat their staff well. Khobragade’s comment that she treated Richard “like a member of the family” is a common refrain. Khobragade’s family cited a letter she wrote to her family in December 2012, saying she would soon be able to talk on Facebook “when master gives me a new SIM.
Some families pay for servants to take cooking or computing courses. Others encourage their young children to mix and even pay for servants’ children to attend private school.
Domestic workers often ask sympathetic employers for a loan to help pay for a wedding, or to build a house in their home village. Others ask advice about pensions or problems dealing with authorities.
But there is an unspoken reason for these perks — families are nervous their servants will leave, creating the headache of finding a replacement.
While the personal affection between families and staff may in many cases be real, there are implicit boundaries.
Bangladeshi photographer Jannatul Mawa studied housewives and housemaids in Dakar for an exhibition called “Close Distance.”
“Every day, maidservants take care of the bed and sofa with their hand but they are neither allowed to sit nor to sleep on them,” she said. “With their domestic roles, they are ‘close’ to the housewives and ‘distant’ at the same time.”
Some maids even take on servants in their own homes. In a 2011 interview, Santhona Das said she planned to find someone to help after she gave birth to her first child.
Santhona survived on the 3,000 rupees her husband Pulin earned as a cleaner in Gurgaon, and after labor she struggled to make the 10-minute walk to the village pump several times a day.
“We may take someone in and give them food and clothes in return for fetching water,” she said.
Not all employers are high-minded
There are plenty of employers who abuse the relationship.
When a 19-year-old university student allegedly killed two people in a hit-and-run car crash in 2012, including a pregnant woman, the family’s driver was sent to make a “confession” to police.
Unfortunately for Delhi student Suraj Sehrawat, the driver’s statement was so implausible that police rejected it and he was arrested.
Cases of abuse are a regular feature in Indian media. In October 2013, the communications director for French engineering firm Alstom was arrested for allegedly torturing her 15-year-old maid.
Vandana Dhir was accused of keeping the girl naked so she could not run away, and police reportedly discovered multiple cuts and bruises on the girl’s body.
In a case the previous year, doctors Sanjay and Sumita Verma allegedly locked their 13-year-old maid in their apartment while they went on holiday to Thailand. Gangotri Kumari was rescued after neighbors heard her crying for food on the balcony of the apartment block.
These are extreme cases but young girls are often trafficked from rural areas to be exploited by rich or middle-class families in the cities, according to National Domestic Workers Movement co-ordinator Christin Mary.
“Sometimes their own parents are sending their own children to be domestic workers in the cities,” she said. “This is a problem in the tribal and rural areas.”
Rural families are often lured into “selling” their daughters because salaries for domestic workers — although low by Western standards — are still a hard-to-find source of income.
Delhi has around 20,000 placement agencies — less than a sixth of these are thought to be legitimate — and many tour the Indian villages promising enormous salaries that never come.
Labor laws are meant to cap working time at eight hours per day but often domestic workers are told to work up to 17 hours a day for seven days a week.
The Indian government has been considering legislation that would introduce specific rights for domestic workers. It would set a minimum wage in each state, regulate the hours they work, ensure employers provide them with social security such as health insurance and create a mechanism for them to make complaints about their bosses.
A decent minimum wage for a domestic worker in a large city like Delhi or Mumbai should be around 6,000 to 7,000 rupees ($100-$155), Mary of the National Domestic Workers Movement said. Those in rural areas should get a minimum of 5,000 rupees.
In the case of Sangeeta Richard, she said the wage should be much higher as she was traveling overseas to a country where goods and services are much more expensive than India.
“Our organization’s view is that contract between the diplomat and domestic worker was not a fair and just wage, of 25,000 rupees and 5,000 rupees overtime,” Mary said.
“The high-level authorities in India are taking the side of the diplomat because they are the employer class. They don’t understand the pressures and stress of the domestic workers.
“Often domestic workers do not have proper papers to cross borders and sometimes their papers are taken away. Sangeeta Richard was lucky to get the support of a NGO in America. Most domestic workers do not get that support.
“They often have to stay inside the house, they do not have any money, they do not have any papers — their problems are invisible.”